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Making local sense of food, urban growth, population and energy

Barefoot water scientists in Andhra Pradesh, India

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An interesting short video from FAO on water management and cultivating responses to indeterminate (or insufficient) water stocks. In southern India, the climate is becoming unpredictable and drought more common , says FAO – and this indeed is the case for peninsular India in general. Indiscriminate pumping from shallow aquifers shared by many farmers has caused abnormal drops in water levels, most notably in northern and north-west India, in the states of Punjab and Haryana which were the Green Revolution model states. When a well goes dry, a farmer loses his crop. In Andhra Pradesh, said FAO, 6,000 farmers have been trained in groundwater management by a project run by Indian NGOs and guided by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. They have learned to monitor how much water is available underground at the start of the growing season. Then they only plant crops that need that much water.

Image: From FAO video, 'India's barefoot water scientists'

Here is some background on the legacy of irrigation in India, and the administrative functions that large irrigation projects provided the state, whether that state was colonial (as a dominion of Great Britain) or independent (Republic of India). “At the beginning of the eighteenth century, India  was the ‘irrigation champion’ of the world. While the colonial government initially neglected the maintenance and upkeep of the numerous but mostly small irrigation structures, it soon spotted the potential for large-scale canal irrigation as an economic enterprise and took to canal building as a business on a massive scale. In those days, there was much dissatisfaction with irrigation management among observers and investors who expected much higher financial return on irrigation investments.”

Image: From FAO video, 'India's barefoot water scientists'

This is written by By Tushaar Shah in the chapter, ‘Past, Present, and the Future of Canal Irrigation in India’, found in ‘India Infrastructure Report 2011 – Water: Policy and Performance for Sustainable Development’, (Oxford University Press 2011).

“Yet, in retrospect, around 1900, canal irrigation systems in India were arguably in a far better state than today in terms of their operation and maintenance (O&M), productivity impacts, and financial returns. If we look at the situation ten years ago, around 2000, while the new welfare state had kept alive the colonial tradition of big time canal construction, the management of canal irrigation had become pathetic in terms of all the criteria on which it excelled a century ago.”

Image: From FAO video, 'India's barefoot water scientists'

“The dominant view about the way out is that farmer management through water user associations can restore canal irrigation to its old glory. However, this may not be the correct thinking. Shah has argued that the larger socio-technical fundamentals in which canal irrigation can thrive in a smallholder agrarian setting were all mostly present around 1900 and are all mostly absent today.”

The colonial irrigation management was a high input-high output affair, said Shah. A vast authoritarian bureaucracy reaching down to the village level used forced labour to maintain canal network, managed water distribution, and undertook ruthless water fee recovery on all lands deemed to be irrigated.

Image: From FAO video, 'India's barefoot water scientists'

In the canal commands, the canal water ‘tax had to be paid regardless of whether or not use was made of the canal in a particular year or whether or not there was a reliable supply from the canal’ (Hardiman 2002: 114). This, according to Hardiman, encouraged, even forced, farmers to grow valuable commercial crops to generate cash. It also resulted in much litigation from dissatisfied zamindars who put pressure on canal managers to ensure water delivery and maintain canals. The amounts provided for O&M were substantial so that deferred maintenance was minimal.

As a commercial venture, the performance of canal irrigation has decidedly declined over the past 100 years. D.R. Gadgil, the pioneer of Indian economic planning, had argued that, in a poor agrarian economy like India, public irrigation investments should be judged on their social and economic returns rather than their financial returns. Soon after Independence, irrigation charges were drastically reduced; and even these declined to a small fraction. Have public irrigation investments in free India delivered the irrigation—and the socio-economic returns they were designed for as Gadgil had hoped?  Unfortunately, the answer to the question is ‘No’; and there lies the heart of the problem. The financial rot was the harbinger of a much deeper crisis of stagnation and decline in public irrigation systems whose social and economic returns turned out to be far smaller than imagined.

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  1. […] la Wall StreetFood for thought: When it comes to food, scarcity is the new normal – Junxion StrategyBarefoot water scientists in Andhra Pradesh, India […]


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