Sabarmati River Front
Water is one crucial factor that sustains life on earth. The great Tamil saint pithily captured the importance of water as only he can. Roughly translated his couplet reads: “Rain produces food for all beings in the world and rain itself serves as food indeed.”
India is estimated to have a mere 4 per cent of global water resources, while it has to support one-sixth of the world’s population. Merely by that equation India is water stressed if not water starved. It is pertinent to note that three-fourth of its requirement gets precipitated during the monsoon season [June to September].
Importantly, of the annual estimates of 4000 billion cubic meters [BCM] of rainfall, it is estimated that approximately 1120 BCM are only utilisable. That in turn adds to the stress.
Of course when monsoon fails, this situation gets compounded. For instance, the rainfall in 2009 in India was a mere 78 percent of the long-term average rainfall. A 22 per cent shortfall is disastrous in such a situation, given our population and resultant water need. Similarly in 2012 we faced “drought like” situations in several parts of India as rainfall was 92 per cent of the long-term average.
But there is another dimension to this issue. When it rains, it pours in certain places. For instance in 2012 nearly 58 per cent districts recorded excess rain causing flood [the balance 42 per cent face moderate to severe shortfall]. And that can be within the same state.
For instance, Tamil Nadu gets copious rains and lets approximately four-fifth of the water into the sea. And for that reason it is seen as water starved state when in fact it is not.
Moreover, precipitation is confined to only about three or four months in a year and varies from 100 mm in the western parts of Rajasthan to over 10,000 mm at Cherrapunji in Meghalaya. In short, India as a country alternates between excess rainfall in some places and drought in others.
The challenge before the NDA government is to find mechanism to balance between the two.
The UPA Disaster
That takes me to the Budget of 2004-05 when the then Finance Minister [FM] P Chidambaram said, “I now turn to one of my big dreams. Water is the lifeline of civilisation. We have been warned that the biggest crisis that the world will face in the 21st century will be the crisis of water.”
And his response to this “crisis?” “I therefore propose an ambitious scheme. Through the ages, Indian agriculture has been sustained by natural and man-made water bodies such as lakes, tanks, ponds and similar structures. It has been estimated that there are more than a million such structures and about 500,000 are used for irrigation. Many of them have fallen into disuse. Many of them have accumulated silt. Many require urgent repairs.”
Consequently he proposed to launch “a massive scheme to repair, renovate and restore all the water bodies that are directly linked to agriculture” the FM sought to begin “with pilot projects in at least five districts” – one district in each of the five regions of the country.
And once the pilot projects were completed and validated, the government was to “launch the National Water Resources Development Project and complete it over a period of 7 to 10 years.”
In conclusion, the FM added “It is my hope that by the beginning of the next decade all water bodies in India will be restored to their original glory and that the storage capacity of these water bodies will be augmented by at least 100 per cent.”
Once again in his Budget speech of 2005-06 in February 2005 the FM visited the subject albeit briefly. The zest that was palpable the previous year was missing. The grand announcement of July 2004 for a pilot project when the Budget was presented was still on the drawing board and expected to be “launched in the month of March 2005.”
That was the last time I heard of the UPA Government speak of his “big dream.” The promise made almost a decade ago on the floor of the Parliament on augmenting the storage capacity of water bodies “by at-least 100 per cent” remains unfulfilled even to this day. So much for UPA government’s concern for farmers, agriculture and creating basic rural infrastructure!
What about Irrigation Facility?
Even here the then FM was spot on irrigation with his diagnosis. “The Accelerated Irrigation Benefit Programme [AIBP] was introduced in 1996-97 and was allotted large funds year after year. Yet, out of 178 large and medium irrigation projects that were identified, only 28 have been completed.”
Therefore the UPA government came with a practical proposal to “restructure” AIBP by ensuring “truly last mile projects that can be completed by March 2005 will be given overriding priority, and other projects that can be completed by March 2006 will also be taken up in the current year.”
Well did the government re-structure AIBP? The answer lies in the Budget speech of Mr Pranab Mukherjee of 2012 where he adds, “To maximise the flow of benefits from investments in irrigation projects, structural changes in AIBP are being made.”
Readers may note the change in semantics: “restructure AIBP” of 2005 had become “structural changes in AIBP” by 2012! Either way nothing happened between 2005 and 2012 and since then.
Despite all the bluster of the UPA and their care for poor, farmers and landless, the fact remains that the irrigated land as a percentage to total agricultural land in India improved marginally between 31.6 per cent in 2004 to approximately 37 per cent in 2011. This eloquently captures the neglect of irrigation in India by UPA.
It is in this connection the Economic Survey for 2013-14 tell us “Currently 63 million ha or 45 per cent of bet cropped area is irrigated. Under the accelerated Benefit Programme [AIBP] Rs. 64, 228 crore of central loan assistance [CLA]/ grant had been released up to 31 December 2013. An irrigation potential of 8054.61 thousand ha is estimated to have been created by states from major/ medium / minor irrigation projects under AIBP till March 2012 [ Refer Para 8.31 of the Economic Survey]
Needless to emphasise, while the sums do indeed look massive the fact remains the overall accretion to agriculture lands under irrigation has not improved significantly. One reason for the same is that such irrigation schemes with little or no outcome reports lend themselves to corruption.
It is in this connection the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) in its Report No. 15 of 2004 (Civil) commented among other things, it noted that over 35 of the expenditures under AIBP were “diverted, parked or mis-utilised.”
That explains why states like Maharashtra despite having several such irrigation schemes, funded both by the state and central government, is perennially water starved. And that would include Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Orissa amongst others.
This in turn leads to farm stress and resultant suicides which in turn trigger another round of committees, reports, schemes, programs and once again loot.
Need for a Master Water Program
Changing weather pattern [alternating between drought and floods] make India [with large sections of poor] extremely vulnerable. We need huge quantities of food to feed our population. For that we require water. So would our industry which is expected to grow exponentially.
Weather patterns show remarkable departure from the past – if it is drought in one part of the country we will have floods. Either way it is a disaster.
Ideally we need a master plan to increase our water storage capacity, improve irrigation facilities and create water networks across the country that links the draught prone with those experiencing floods.
AIBP and other government sponsored programmes have exceeded their shelf life. No one is impressed with mere budgetary allocations to such outdated ideas. The NDA Government must come out with a clear strategy of first having a water storage mission.
We should have water bodies aggregating to 1 Sq KM as a target in every district of the country. As noted in the 2004 Budget there are a million such water bodies across the country of which most are in state of disuse and repair.
Ideally, it would not cost much to identify these, repair and rejuvenate them. Crucially, the MNREGA program should be solely linked to effectuate this plan.
Sounds simple but it would be out of favour of our ruling elite in Delhi. To them what is attractive, for obvious reasons, is a proposal to bring water from the Moon or Mars.
Notwithstanding such pulls and pressures will Budget 2015 bring about a simple plan for water storage by identifying, repairing and rejuvenating existing water bodies? Remember simplicity is a complex affair. It would not cost much and would provide ocular demonstration of job opportunities to our poor.
Will the FM do the needful? Or will he like his predecessor take a flight of fancy?