Experts favour hiking charges to halt irrigation water waste

Disciplined use of irrigation water can be encouraged by efficient supply at higher rates.

Published: Monday 31 August 1992

Villagers near Tanjore in Tami (Credit: FAO)BECAUSE irrigation water costs so little in India, it is frequently misused and wasted. Some water management experts now recommend that its disciplined consumption can be ensured by increasing the rates paid by farmers.

There is evidence to suggest that Indian farmers are willing to pay much higher water rates if the irrigation service is dependable and efficient. According to B N Navalawala, advisor to the Planning Commission on irrigation and command area development, the cost of irrigation water levied on farmers in Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra works out to just 1.2 paise per 1,000 litres for paddy and 11.6 paise per 1,000 litres for sugar cane. But in the tribal areas of Panchmahals district in Gujarat, farmers do not begrudge paying a standard rate of 30 paise per 1,000 litres of water provided through a lift-irrigation scheme operated on a no-profit, no-loss basis by the Sadguru Sewa Trust, said R K Patil of the Pune-based Society for People's Participation in Ecosystem Management. And in Mehsana district in Gujarat, irrigation from private tubewells costs the farmer 42 paise per 1,000 litres, Patil added.

Citing recommendations of the Irrigation Commission in this regard, Navalawala said water rates should not exceed 5 per cent of the gross produce value of food crops and 12 per cent of cash crops. But, presently, Gujarat's financial resources are burdened by the prevailing rates which are much lower. He calculated water rates at present do not exceed 3.4 per cent of the gross produce value of paddy and 3.6 per cent of sugar cane.

Insisting that irrigation projects must be financially self-sustainable, Navalawala commented, "In the economic analysis, overall return has to be satisfactory, and, in addition, incremental benefits have to exceed incremental costs."

This was one of the recommendations made at a recent seminar on irrigation water management held in the capital. The seminar was organised by the water management forum of the Institution of Engineers, the Indian Association of Hydrologists, Ford Foundation and Louisiana State University in the United States.

But delegates warned that if irrigation water is to cost more, then officials should ensure the quality of the services to the farmers. Other delegates argued the price of irrigation water should depend on factors like volume, duration, season and frequency of supplies. This would result, they contended, in farmers paying for the water they use and irrigation managers being under pressure to maintain the quality of service and they would also rationalise water allocation procedures.

Consensus at the seminar was that reduced financial viability of the irrigation projects was partly responsible for the ills of state irrigation departments, many of which have not been able to meet establishment costs from the irrigation tariff. West Bengal spent about five times the amount collected as irrigation revenue, on just collecting the levy, while in Bihar the collection cost was about 125 per cent of the amount collected.

A number of the seminar participants said the question of whether the Indian irrigation system was sustainable at all should have been addressed more directly. John Ambler of the Ford Foundation noted that while the seminar did reflect important concerns, it should have focussed more on fundamental questions such as sustainability and how to meet growing irrigation needs when resources are on the decline.

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