USER-FRIENDLY IRRIGATION DESIGNS Nirmal Sengupta Publisher: Sage Publications, New Delhi Price: Rs 185
OUT OF the total 303.42 million ha of land that make up India, 136.18 million ha were categorised in 1987-88 as net sown area and of this, only 43.05 ha receives irrigation. The sources of irrigation, according to official records, are canals, tubewells, tanks, wells and other sources, a classification adapted by the British for the convenience of revenue categorisation.
Nirmal Sengupta traces the evolution, decline, current status and future prospects of what has been categorised as tanks and 'other sources', which broadly, though not exhaustively, include wells, irrigation channels and lift irrigation schemes. These provide water for about 6.24 million ha. The book is fascinating both because of the subject with which it deals -- user-friendly (participatory) irrigation systems -- and the manner in which it has been treated.
Narrating the schism in the usage of the terms traditional and modern, Sengupta desists from associating traditional with participation or user-friendliness though he makes no bones about the connection.
He kicks off with the argument that "traditional" irrigation systems cannot be done away with because the terrain of our agricultural lands does not permit modern canals and tubewells to be effective in even one-fifth of the country. Therefore, future increase in irrigation capacity and even sustenance of current levels will depend on the expansion and maintenance of existing systems. The fact that "traditional" systems exist even today is a testimony to the sustainability, eco-viability and efficiency of these designs.
Traditional techniques such as canal irrigation, which have been studied and developed by engineers of this era, have come to be labelled as "modern" systems. The process of selection has been based not on whether the system is traditional or modern, nor on the large-small divide; the dividing line is between people's participatory systems and centralised bureaucratic systems.
However, when it comes to the economic viability of these systems, Sengupta does a volte-face. He argues that financially, these "traditional" systems do not pass the test. The modern techniques, which were hitherto argued against so forcefully, suddenly become acceptable and the lacunae of them suffering from bureaucratic control can, it seems, be overcome by putting more effort into user participation while operating the system.
At the end of it, the reader is left slightly confused. Is the book arguing for the current thrust in irrigation planning to be changed from mega-projects, which by necessity of design have to be centrally-controlled and unwieldy, to specific, user-need based projects, or is there a plea for smaller designs serving a smaller localised command and allowing people's participation? This is where Sengupta should have, but did not, draw a link between design, planning, control, management and social structure, and given his work a holistic perspective. Any water storage system or run-of-the-river facility has integrated links with the people it affects in more ways than one.
Any analysis of irrigation systems cannot be bereft of an understanding of the complex linkages on each of the above counts. Sengupta has, however, made no such attempt. Modern canal systems have linked with them issues such as displacement, resettlement and rehabilitation, changes in social and economic organisation in the local populace due to canal irrigation, agricultural practices and sustainability of resource use, which no sensitive study of irrigation can afford to bypass.
While initially Sengupta does talk about the tremendous sustainability of user-friendly designs, he completely ignores this question while analysing the cost-benefit aspects of modern systems, understandably using a very narrow definition of costs, benefits and efficiency.
However, the problems notwithstanding, any serious researcher on Indian irrigation systems would necessarily have to add this book to his reading list.
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