Irrigation in rural India and the decentralisation test

“In India, 69% of people in non-irrigated areas are poor;in irrigated areas this figure falls to 2%.”
Water for People, Water for Life.
The United Nations World Water Development Report, unesco 2003

The Green Revolution launched in India in the 1960s freely promoted irrigation as being in the national interest. Overexploitation of water resources and the ensuing exhaustion of water tables have prompted the authorities to respond in order to avoid social and environmental ravages. With help from leading international sponsors, India has set up development programmes based on participative management by the population. By Frédéric Landy and Emmanuel Bon

Wells: The vicious circle
The village of Bhairkhanpalle is in the state of Andhra Pradesh, in the heart of the Indian peninsula. Geography has given this underdeveloped area around Bhairkhanpalle, in the Telangana, a semi-arid climate; history has given it an non-egalitarian social structure typical of many rural areas. Geology has bequeathed a granite substratum, making water tables hard to access and well-drilling extremely costly and haphazard. Yet there are plenty of wells in Bhairkhanpalle. The open wells used until the 1980s have given way to about 100 drilled wells equipped with submersible motor pumps, which draw water from as deep as 60 metres (compared to 15 metres with open wells). But too many wells have led to competition: as a result, two-thirds of them are already dry and have had to be abandoned. There are now 575,000 wells in the state of Andhra Pradesh, nine times more than in 1975. But how many actually work? In Bhairkhanpalle, one farmer drilled no fewer than 30 wells over four hectares, and only three yielded water. Some wells are only 1.5 metres apart. In many villages the irrigated area is shrinking, whereas the number of wells is paradoxically growing: the less water there is, the more wells are drilled, which makes water even scarcer. This vicious circle ultimately amounts to social and environmental ravage – not to mention that only the better-off farmers have any chance of maintaining their livelihoods, given that a well costs about 50,000 rupees1. Indian peasants have apparently decided not to face facts. A few months ago, a farmer from Bhairkhanpalle, unable to pay back the loan he took out for a well, took his own life. The same phenomenon can be observed in the alluvial plain of the Ganges, where in some places water-table levels are dropping by more than one metre a year. “Without water, the village will become a desert and we’ll have to leave,” said a despairing villager

Both a cash and a food crop, rice runs counter to nature in semi-arid environments. Widespread protests are now building against the high level of its floor price and the federal
government’s purchase of part of production, which is intended to support prices and agricultural income artificially. These measures, which are environmentally harmful because they involve drawing from water tables, can hardly be justified in social terms because small rice farmers typically have no saleable surplus. Rice is, though, a profitable cash crop for larger-scale farmers. It still provides most of the daily food intake for most rural households, making it all the harder to replace with less water-thirsty crops. And in the country that is home to 40% of the world’s “malnourished”, there is another economic paradox: India is reduced to selling its surpluses by subsidising the price of rice for export, and is now one of the world’s leading exporters.

Market failures
Water is also overused and wasted because it costs nothing. The electricity needed to run pumps is free in some states and heavily subsidised elsewhere, although the public agencies in charge of generating and distributing electricity are structurally loss-making. The power comes on for a few hours a day at most, so the pumps operate whenever possible to maximise the extraction of water; there is huge wastage. Farmers ultimately fall victim to the subsidies designed to help them. In areas where canals can provide irrigation, the price of water does not cover the cost of operating and maintaining the network. And the old village ponds – which the colonial government had taken over running because the farmers were supposedly incapable of rational utilisation – are generally no longer maintained for want of financial and human resources. The government, unable to strike the right balance between rights and duties, completely disempowered the farmers, who have lost all interest in the common good and now prefer to run their own wells when they can afford to.

In a situation dominated by collective schemes (alternative water distribution and payment of dues to maintain infrastructures) and an organisation designed to share a scanty resource, irrigation using private wells seems to offer a form of independence from surface water. But it is illusory. There is a de facto interdependence between surface water and groundwater; moreover, farmers whose wells draw from the same source create fierce competition – the origin of the water shortage – realising in the end that to survive their only option is to share more fairly. Yet individual choices nearly always prevail: access to water is privatised, and experience shows that this is a far from lasting solution to the problem of its rarity.

What are the solutions, if any? Extract
more water? The Indian government recently relaunched a plan to create a dense network of canals to link the large rivers. The main dam over the Narmada will soon be complete, as will the river Tehri dam in the Himalayas. But what then? Supply-side policies alone have reached their limits. Major reservoir-dam construction projects, the butt of criticism in India and internationally, are being abandoned owing to their environmental, economic and human costs. So the solution is not to find more water but to waste less and use it better. A proper joint-system of management must be set up, instilling in everyone a sense of communal solidarity and responsibility for the resource.

Villagers find it very hard to envisage operational collective-regulation. A farmer explains: “The farmers think the water and land belong to them, and can’t do anything if their neighbour wants to drill a well. The principle is that everyone can do as they wish on their land, and live as they please.” When the need to introduce a minimum distance between wells is raised, the reply is invariably, “Only the state can impose rules.” But can the state bring in and enforce collective rules without minimal consent and the villagers’ active participation?

Participative management of irrigation
The 1990s marked a change in the government’s attitude to local participation. It had observed two things: the failure of nature conservation policies, and the slow recognition of traditional know-how and social practices in resource management. Andhra Pradesh became a pioneer state in the participative management of irrigation3. A 1997 law transferred the management of all the surface irrigation systems to the farmers, who automatically found themselves convened into water users’ associations.

This policy only applies to surface water. The fast rise in the number of associations is due primarily to financial incentives. The World Bank funded most of the project with a $142m loan in 1998. The associations, which each received 700,000 rupees, enjoyed undeniable success, but there is every reason to fear that they will collapse when the money dries up.

Officially pricing policy is supposed to comply with the French principle that water must pay for itself. Although the price has stayed fairly low, it tripled in 1997. Most farmers no longer view this contribution as a tax but as fair payment for a service, acknowledging that the associations need to work properly. But the state still owns and controls the irrigation infrastructure, and the associations are not yet in charge of collecting contributions. Despite extensive media coverage of the scheme’s success, some farmers still do not know about it. And when elections are held, the turn-out is often very low (less than 10%). A lot of local businessmen who used to work hand-in-hand with the government, have managed to have themselves voted in as chairmen of the associations. “We’ve got no choice,” a peasant acknowledges, “and in any case a chairman from a lower class or caste would have no clout in his dealings with the authorities and the private sector. It’s better to elect a notable.” The state pays 50,000 rupees to associations that elect their chairman unanimously – an incentive that severely diminishes the democratic nature of such elections.

“Watershed management schemes”, which have also become participative, are encountering similar difficulties. They try to reconcile agricultural development and environmental protection, with the primary objective of maintaining the quality of the soil and farming land; but the conservation measures mainly favour landowning farmers and traditional beneficiaries. The only advantage for farm labourers, stock farmers and craftsmen is paid work to build small sloping dams designed by technicians and replanting of trees. For the government, participation is mainly a chance to reaffirm that citizens have duties first and rights second

The limits of small-step development
Launched in 2001 by the uk’s international development ministry, the Andhra Pradesh Rural Livelihoods Programme (4) is the most recent participative development programme to operate at the micro-catchment area level. The areas’ natural boundaries are the watersheds, but for easier management these have been redrawn along local administrative boundaries, with a maximum area of 500 hectares. The programme’s main innovation is to decentralise the design of the development projects. Each year, the village council decides democratically which projects to implement, according to local needs: a hill dam, forest nursery or cattle enclosure. The programme’s primary focus is on local resources and existing possibilities. The population must became the prime mover of its development, with the government only offering assistance. One slogan applies: Think local, act local. This is the framework within which Bhairkhanpalle voted to build a communal watering.

Yet there are no plans to eliminate or even reduce the economic and social constraints that affect the sustainable use of resources, in particular the lack of equality in the farming community with respect to land ownership, class, caste and gender. The pond-reservoirs once used to irrigate low-lying fields are now often used to percolate surface water down to refill the water tables. Farmers who previously used pond water to irrigate their fields have no real choice but to comply with the new practices. Wealthy drilled-well owners are proving to be the sole beneficiaries of this conservation measure: it gives them exclusive access to well water, which they could sell to their less affluent neighbours. These inequalities in power and representation in collective decision-making are a major obstacle to a truly participative approach, and there is no doubt that decentralisation could aggravate most of these inequalities if the counterweight of the public authorities disappeared. The village councils are still dominated by notables and political factions. Granted, the chairperson on each municipal council is now elected using quotas that favour women, untouchable castes and tribes. For instance, a woman chairs the Bhairkhanpalle council. But in a neighbouring village, the chairperson is the wife of the biggest local landowner.

The new participation-based development initiatives, which appear to be progressive and democratic, hide a dark reality. The state primarily views participation as an instrument, a convenient way of boosting the efficiency of its actions by transferring certain management costs to local actors without fundamentally calling into question the usual operating standards. Like other programmes currently being implemented in India, notably in the forestry sector, an overly egalitarian conception of society prevents projects from giving priority to helping those most in need. It is crucial to target the most underprivileged; otherwise, the free workings of social forces will above all benefit the groups best placed socially and politically to gain from decentralisation and deregulation.

Frédéric Landy is lecturer in geography at the University of Paris X-Nanterre (Géotropiques research laboratory) and a member of the Centre d’Etudes de l’Inde et d’Asie du Sud. He is the author of L’Union indienne, Editions du Temps, 2002, and (with B. Dorin) of Agriculture et alimentation de l’Inde, inra Editions, 2002. Emmanuel Bon is an economics PhD student at cered-forum, University of Paris X. Our thanks to O. Aubriot, A. Chappuis, N. Druesne, L. de Golbéry, Sanjay Gupta, J.C. Maréchal, D. Mohan Rao, V. Ratna Reddy and Chandra Shekar.

Translated by Paul Jones.
1. One rupee is only worth about 0.02 euros but its local value, in terms of purchasing power, is much greater. In the Telangana region, a day’s work during the rice harvest pays around 30 rupees, and a kilo of rice costs about 10 rupees
2. See in particular J. Weber and J-P. Reveret, Ressour-ces renouvelables: les leurres de la privatisation, Le Monde Diplomatique, October 1993.
3. R. Hooja et al. (dired.), Users in Water Management. The Andhra Model and its Replicability in India, Rawat, New Delhi, 2002. L.K. Joshi, R. Hooja (ed.), Participatory Irrigation Management. Paradigm for the 21st century, Rawat, New Delhi, 2000, 2 vol.
4. See

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