Sources: The Library of Congress Country Studies; CIA World Factbook
After independence in 1947, the government's first step toward building an agricultural extension system was expansion of the World War II Grow More Food Campaign. Administrators and extension workers were exhorted to convince cultivators of the gains in yields that could be obtained through the use of improved seeds, compost, farmyard manure, and better cultivation practices. Rural agents, often inundated with other assignments, had little or no training for extension work, however. Gains in yields were minimal, and India's leaders came to realize that converting millions of poor farmers to the use of new technologies was a colossal task.
The Community Development Programme was inaugurated in 1952 to implement a systematic, integrated approach to rural development. The nation was divided into development blocks, each consisting of about 100 villages having populations of 60,000 to 70,000 people. By 1962 the entire country was covered by more than 5,000 such blocks. The key person in the program was the village-level worker, who was responsible for transmitting to about ten villages not only farming technology, but also village uplift programs such as cooperation, adult literacy, health, and sanitation. Although each block was staffed with extension workers, the villagers themselves were expected to provide the initiative and much of the needed financial and labor resources, which they were not in a position to do or inclined to do. Although progress had been made by the early 1960s, it was apparent that the program was spread too thin to bring about the hoped-for increase in agricultural production. Criticism of the program led to more specialized development projects, and some of the functions were taken up by local village bodies. There was only a negligible allocation for community development in the sixth plan, however, and the program was phased out in the early 1980s.
The Intensive Agricultural District Programme, launched in five districts in 1960 by the central government in cooperation with the United States-based Ford Foundation, used a distinctly different approach to boosting farm yields. The program operated under the premise that concentrating scarce inputs in the potentially most productive districts would increase farm-crop yield faster than would a wider but less concentrated distribution of resources in less productive districts. Among these inputs were technical staff, fertilizers, improved seeds, and credit. Under the technical guidance of American cooperative specialists, the program placed unusual emphasis on organizational structures and administrative arrangements. For the first time, modern technology was systematically introduced to Indian farmers. Within a decade, the program covered fifteen districts, 28,000 villages, and 1 million inhabitants. The Intensive Agricultural District Programme was thus a significant influence on the forthcoming Green Revolution.
Except in southeastern India, which receives most of its rain from the northeast monsoon in October and November, dryland cultivators place their hopes for a harvest on the southwest monsoon, which usually reaches India in early June and by mid-July has extended to the entire country. There are great variations in the average amount of rainfall received by the various regions--from too much for most crops in the eastern Himalayas to never enough in Rajasthan. Season-to-season variations in rainfall are also great. The consequence is bumper harvests in some seasons, crop-searing drought in others. Therefore, the importance of irrigation cannot be overemphasized.
Irrigation has been a high priority in economic development since 1951; more than 50 percent of all public expenditures on agriculture have been spent on irrigation alone. The land area under irrigation expanded from 22.6 million hectares in FY 1950 to 59 million hectares in FY 1990, an increase of 161 percent in four decades (see table 28, Appendix). This increase was about 33 percent of the estimated potential. The overall strategy has been to concentrate public investments in surface systems, such as large dams, long canals, and other large-scale works requiring huge outlays of capital over a period of years, and in deep-well projects that also involve large capital outlays. Shallow-well schemes and small surface-water projects, mainly ponds (called tanks in India), have been supported by government credit but were otherwise installed and operated by private entrepreneurs. Roughly 42 percent of the net irrigated area in FY 1990 was from surface water sources. Tanks, step wells, and tube wells provided another 51 percent; the rest came from other sources.
Between 1951 and 1990, nearly 1,350 large- and medium-sized irrigation works were started, and about 850 were completed. The most ambitious of these projects was the Indira Gandhi Canal, with an anticipated completion date of close to 1999. When completed, the Indira Gandhi Canal will be the world's longest irrigation canal. Beginning at the Hairke Barrage, a few kilometers below the confluence of the Sutlej and Beas rivers in western Punjab, it will run south-southwest for 650 kilometers, terminating deep in Rajasthan near Jaisalmer, close to the border with Pakistan. A dramatic change already had taken place in this hot and inhospitable wasteland by the late 1980s. As a result, desert dwellers switched from raising goats and sheep to raising wheat, and outsiders flocked in to purchase six-hectare plots for the equivalent of US$3,000.
Progress in irrigation has not been without problems. Large dams and long canals are costly and also highly visible indicators of progress; the political pressure to launch such projects was frequently irresistible. But because funds and technical expertise were in short supply, many projects moved forward at a slow pace. The Indira Gandhi Canal project is a leading example. And the central government's transfer of huge amounts of water from Punjab to Haryana and Rajasthan, frequently cited as a source of grievance by Sikhs in Punjab, contributed to the civil unrest in Punjab during the 1980s and early 1990s (see Political Issues, ch. 8; Insurgent Movements and External Subversion, ch. 10).
Problems also have arisen as ground water supplies used for irrigation face depletion. Drawing water off from one area to irrigate another often leads to increased salinity in the supply area with resultant effects on crop production there. Some areas receiving water through irrigation are poorly managed or inadequately designed; the result often is too much water and water-logged fields incapable of production. To alleviate this problem, more emphasis is being placed on using irrigation water to spray fields rather than allowing it to flow through ditches. Furthermore, charges of corruption and mismanagement have been levied against government-operated facilities. Cases of bribery, maldistribution of water, and carelessness are frequently raised in the media.
Another major problem has been the displacement of thousands of people, usually poor people, by large hydroelectric projects. Critics also claim that the projects are damaging to the ecology. Smaller projects and such traditional methods for irrigation as tanks and wells are seen as having less serious impact. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the debate between large-scale versus small-scale projects came to the fore because of the US$3 billion Sardar Sarovar project on the Narmada River. Sardar Sarovar, as conceived, was one of the world's largest hydroelectric and irrigation projects. Some 37,000 hectares of land in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, and Maharashtra were slated to be submerged following the construction of some 3,000 dams, 75,000 kilometers of canals, and an electric power generating capacity of 1,450 megawatts of power per year. Included among the 3,000 dams was the proposed 160-meter-high Sardar Sarovar Dam. In 1985 the World Bank (see Glossary) agreed to loan US$450 million for the project. Environmentalists in India and abroad, however, argued that the project was ecologically undesirable. In the face of this strong protest, the World Bank appointed a two-member team in 1991 to review the project. Despite a negative review of the environmental impact by the team, World Bank funding and the project continued. By 1993, however, in the face of continued international protest as well as opposition and a call for a satyagraha (passive resistance--see Glossary) by villages in the affected areas, the central government cancelled the dam project loan. Work on the Sardar Sarovar project continues, however, with funds provided by the central government and the governments of the three states involved.
Although India had the second largest irrigated area in the world, the area under assured irrigation or with at least minimal drainage is inadequate. The irrigation potential estimated to have been created by the early 1990s was about 82.8 million hectares. This amount includes the gross irrigated area plus the potential for double cropping provided by irrigation. There was a cumulative gap in irrigated land use of about 8.6 million hectares until FY 1990, by which time the gap had decreased through improved land management.
Data as of September 1995
NOTE: The information regarding India on this page is re-published from The Library of Congress Country Studies and the CIA World Factbook. No claims are made regarding the accuracy of India Irrigation information contained here. All suggestions for corrections of any errors about India Irrigation should be addressed to the Library of Congress and the CIA.