Farmers' right to water

A. Narayanamoorthy L. Venkatachalam | Updated on March 09, 2018 Published on September 07, 2011

Diverting water to non-agricultural purposes has huge social implications.

Water diversion to cities reduces availability for irrigation. Farmers need to be consulted, protected and compensated.

The recent killing of three innocent farmers by police in Maval of Pune district, Maharashtra led to has pandemonium in Parliament and in Maharashtra Legislative Assembly. Questions were raised on why it happened and who was responsible for the killing. The Government was reportedly planning to divert more water from Pavna dam situated close to Pune city to Pimpri Chinchwad Municipal Corporation, which is one of the richest municipal corporations in India.

Since diverting irrigation water to domestic and industrial purposes would affect their livelihood farmers who are historically relying on this water for crop cultivation opposed it.

Though this problem was widely covered by media, the ‘real issue' has been buried in the furore over the killing of the farmers. The issue raised by the farmers is genuine, has a larger context and not specific to Pavna dam alone.

A large quantity of water originally allotted for irrigation has been increasingly diverted to non-irrigation purposes without even consulting farmers who are entitled to its use. Rapid urbanisation, along with changing lifestyle of the masses, puts enormous pressure on the government to augment water supply for urban use.


Since the availability of water is limited, any reallocation will have to come from irrigation water. This reduces the overall availability of irrigation water, resulting in reduction in area irrigated The tail-end farmers have been facing extra-marginal burden today in most of the command areas.

In advanced developed countries such as the US, the water transfer from agriculture to other sectors takes place with the consent of the farmers who are adequately compensated for sharing their water. The farmers are provided with ‘use rights' which they can transfer to other sectors, if transfer benefits them adequately.

The transfer takes place purely on voluntary basis; the government cannot transfer irrigation water without the permission of the farmers. But, in the Indian context, the property rights over water is still with the government; farmers, despite property rights over land, could gain such right for water only if water reaches either the sub-canal or the field. The government can take away water from the main source whenever required. Moreover, farmers are also asked to pay for water even if they don't get water, since their land is demarcated under command area of the reservoir. What is the implication of diverting water to non-agricultural purposes? Obviously, it reduces the area irrigated; farmers may not be able to cultivate wetland crops. This would ultimately reduce the income generating capacity of the land and households.

Farmers living at the tail-end of command areas do not have any livelihood opportunities other than crop cultivation. The increased diversion of canal water for domestic and other purposes has also slowed down the expansion of canal irrigation in India, especially since mid-nineties.


Why is the state agency increasingly diverting irrigation water to non-irrigation purposes in the recent years? An important reason for the diversion of water is urban agglomeration.

In the absence of reliable water sources for non-irrigation purposes, states are trying to ‘steal' the water from the dams and tanks which are originally constructed for the irrigation purposes.

One can give live example for this from Maharashtra State itself. Some two decades back, Pune city was drawing about 4 tmc ft of water from Khadakwasala dam, but the drawal level reportedly has increased close to five times now. This increased drawal is already creating lots of hardship to the tail-end farmers of the Khadakwasala dam.

Given the fast decline of unutilised irrigation water potential and increased competition for irrigation water from non-agricultural sectors, there is every possibility that farmers' agitations and their conflicts with the governments would aggravate in the future.

Farmers are more diligent nowadays and have strong political organisations, too. We have also been observing how strongly farmers fought against the land acquisition policy proposed by Uttar Pradesh and Haryana recently.

Therefore, the state needs to find out ways to solve this problem swiftly. First, water allotted for irrigation should not be diverted for non-irrigation purposes without the consent of the farmers. Many in policy circles believe that irrigation water can be diverted to municipal purposes when needed as if it is their right. This kind of arrogant thinking will only result in conflict.

The existing water policy, both at Central and State levels, does not provide any incentive for ‘voluntary transfer' of water from low-value use to high-value use. Introducing incentive-based institutions in the water sector can bring about a ‘win-win' situation for both farmers and urban consumers.

Pricing municipal water

Inefficient use of water in municipal areas is another reason for increased diversion of irrigation water. In Pune, which draws water more than the allocated limit from Khadakwasala dam, the purified water supplied by the municipal corporation has been used for cleaning cars, irrigating parks, home garden, etc. This happens because of low price fixed for municipal water.

Since the ability to pay is high among the city dwellers, water price needs to be increased substantially to improve efficiency and also to compensate the farmers who have lost their livelihood opportunities because of diversion of irrigation water.

Apart from government sources, private water vendors divert huge amount of water from traditional sources of irrigation towards urban areas, which usually goes unnoticed. Water diversion from agriculture to urban areas should have in-built mechanisms to compensate the farmers adequately. There is also a need to enact a proper water acquisition (diversion) policy to protect the farmers, on the lines of the land acquisition policy. The Government should also initiate proper ‘water accounting' at all river basins to find out actual water use by different sectors.

(The authors are Professor, Department of Economics and Rural Development, Alagappa University, Karaikudi, and Associate Professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies respectively.)

Published on September 07, 2011
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