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India: Irrigation
Country Study > Chapter 7 > Agriculture > Economic Development > Development Programs > Irrigation


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, 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.

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 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

Last Updated: September 1995

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for India was first published in 1995. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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