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Irrigation: Importance, Sources, Development and Limitations



Increase in agricultural production and productivity depends, to a large extent, on the availability of water.

Hence, the importance of irrigation is, however, the availability of irrigation facilities which is highly inadequate in India.


For example, in 1950- 51, gross irrigated area as percentage of gross cropped area was only 17%. Even now 60% of gross cropped area depends on rain. That is why Indian agriculture is called a gamble in the monsoon.

Importance of Irrigation:

1. Insufficient, uncertain and irregular rain causes uncertainty in agriculture. The period of rain is restricted to only four months in a year, June to September, when monsoon arrives. The remaining eight months are dry. There is some rainfall during the months of December and January in some parts of the country.

Even during monsoon, the rainfall is scanty and undependable in many parts of the country. Sometimes the monsoon delayed considerably while sometimes they cease prematurely. This pushes large areas of the country into drought conditions. With the help of irrigation, droughts and famines can be effectively controlled.


2. Higher productivity on irrigated land:

Productivity on irrigated land is considerably more than the productivity on un-irrigated land.

3. Multiple cropping possible:

Since India has a tropical and sub-tropical climate, it has potentialities to grow crops on a year-round basis. However, since 80% of the annual rainfall is received in less than four months, multiple cropping is generally not possible. Provision of irrigation facilities can make possible the growing of two or three crops in a year in most areas of the country. This will considerably enhance agricultural production and productivity.


4. Role in new agricultural strategy:

The successful implementation of the High Yielding Programme enhances agricultural production to a great entent.

5. Bringing more land under cultivation:

Total reporting area for land utilization statistics was 306.05 million hectares in 1999-2000. Of this 19.44 million hectares was current fallow land. Current fallows include lands which are lying fallow for less than one year other than current fallows includes land lying un-ploughed for one to five years.

Cultivable waste land comprises another 13.83 million hectares. Cultivation On all such lands is impossible in some cases while in others it requires substantial capital investment to make land fit for cultivation. Provision of irrigation facilities can make some portion of this land cultivable.

6. Reduces instability in output levels:

Irrigation helps in stabilising the output and yield levels. It also plays a protective role during drought years. Since both income and employment are positively and closely related to output, prevention of fall in output during drought is an important instrument for achieving stability of income and employment in the countryside. Irrigation has enabled many states to acquire ‘partial immunity’ from drought.

7. Indirect benefits of irrigation:

Irrigation confers indirect benefits through increased agricultural production. Employment potential of irrigated lands, increased production, helps in developing allied activities, means of water transport etc. are improved income of government from agriculture. Availability of regular water supply will increase the income of farmers imparting a sense of security and stability in agriculture.

Irrigation Potential and Sources of Irrigation:


The principal sources of irrigation in India can be divided into the following:

(i) canals

(ii), wells

(iii) tanks and


(iv) others.

Approximately 31% of the irrigated areas in India is watered by canals. This includes large areas of land in Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and parts of southern states. Wells are now spread over large areas of Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu. Tanks are constructed for storing water in rainy season which is subsequently used for irrigation] purposes.

Development of irrigation and Government Policy during the Plan Period:

At the beginning of planning in India in 1950-51 irrigation schemes were divided into three categories – Major, costing more than Rs 5 crore each; medium costing individually between Rs. 10 lakh Rs. 5 crore each; and minor, costing less than Rs 10 lakh each. A new classification was adopted in April 1978.1 According to this classification, major schemes as those) having CCA (Culturable Command Area) between 2,000 hectares and 10,000 hectares, and minor schemes as those having CCA of less than 200 hectares.

Massive investment was made on irrigation during the planning period. From Rs 455 crore in the First] Plan, the expenditure on irrigation rose to Rs 36,649 crore in the Eighth Plan. The outlay for irrigation an (flood control in Nineth Plan was Rs 63,682 crore. Of this, Rs. 48,259 crore (76%) was for major and medium irrigation projects and the balance Rs. 15,423 crore (24%) for minor irrigation.


Common Area Development (CAD) programme and flood control. The outlay on irrigation and flood control in the Tenth Plan (2002- 07) had been kept at Rs. 1, 03,315 crore. Substantial expenditure has gone in for developing the major and medium irrigation potential specially the major river valley project like the Bhakra Nangal Project (Punjab), Beas Projects (Punjab and Haryana), Hirakund Dan Project (Orissa), Damodar Valley Corporation (Bihar and West Bengal), Nagarjuna Sagar Project (Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka), etc. However, minor irrigation continues to occupy an important place as its share in the total irrigation potential.

Introduction of the new agricultural strategy an (high yielding varieties programme required substantial irrigation facilities. Consequently in the Fourth Five Year Plan new schemes were introduced. Fifth Five Year Plan also introduced a comprehensive programme and 38 command area development authorities were set up covering 50 irrigation projects.

Rural Infrastructure Development Fund (RIDF) was launched to provide loans to the State Government for financing rural infrastructure projects including soil conservation and watershed management etc. In 1996-97, programme called “Accelerated Irrigation Benefit Programme” (AIBP) was launched by the Government of India.

Under this programme, The Centre provides additional assistance by way of loans to the states on matching basis for early completion of selected large irrigation and multi-purpose projects. The Ninth Plan noted that irrigated area, which constitutes only about 40 per cent of the total cultivated area, contributes almost 60 per cent of the food-grain production in the country. This shows the contribution of irrigation to agricultural output.

Limitations of Irrigation on Account of Certain Problems Related to Irrigation:

Despite large-scale investment and expansion of irrigation facilities, it is a matter of serious concern that about 60 per cent of the total cropped area is still dependent on rain. There are a number of problems related to irrigation and they have to be solved.

(1) Delays in completion of projects:


The biggest problem in our major and medium irrigation sectors right from the First Five Year Plan has been the tendency to start more and more new projects resulting in wanton proliferation of projects. There is also delay in utilisation of potentials already present. In most of the projects, there have been delays in construction of field channels and water courses, land leveling and land shaping.

(2) Inter-state water disputes:

Irrigation is a state subject in India. Development of water resource is, therefore, being planned by states individually taking into account their own needs and requirement. However, all major rivers are inter-state in character. As a result, differences with regard to storage, priorities and use of water arise between different states. Narrow regional out­look brings inter-state rivalries over distribution of water supply.

(3) Regional disparities in irrigation development:

The Ninth Five Year Plan Document estimated that the water resource development in North Eastern region through major, medium and minor schemes is only at the level of 28.6 per cent whereas in the Northern region it has reached about 95.3 per cent. This indicates a wide regional variation in the development of irrigation facilities.

(4) Waterlogging and salinity:


Introduction of irrigation has led to the problem of waterlogging and salinity in some of the states. The working group constituted by the Ministry of Water Resources in 1991 estimated that about 2.46 million hectares in irrigated commands suffered from water logging. The working group also estimated that 3.30 million hectares had been affected by salinity/alkalinity in the irrigated commands.

(5) Increasing cost of irrigation:

The cost of providing irrigation has been increasing over the years from the First Five Year Plan to Tenth First Five Year Plan.

(6) Losses in operating irrigation projects:

While just prior to Independence (1945-46) public irrigation schemes showed a surplus after meeting working expenses and other charges. The position deteriorated considerably in the post-Independence period.

(7) Decline in water table:


There has been a steady decline in water table in the recent period in several parts of the country, especially in the western dry region, on account over exploitation of ground water and insufficient recharge from rain water.

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