TN must focus on irrigation

A Narayanamoorthy | Updated on August 04, 2021

Net cropped area has fallen due to dip in tank/canal irrigation

Considering that overall economic growth cannot be achieved without agriculture growing, the newly formed DMK government in Tamil Nadu is looking at a slew of measures to boost the farm sector. Top priority should be given to irrigation, which is lagging in the State.

In the 1960s and ‘70s, Tamil Nadu was India’s leading irrigated State. During 1960-63, Tamil Nadu accounted for about 11 per cent of India’s gross irrigated area. But, due to inadequate importance given for irrigation development, the State’s share declined to just 3.40 per cent in 2014-17. Shockingly, Tamil Nadu is the only State that registered a negative growth in gross irrigated area during the period 1960-61 to 2016-17.

There are reasons why Tamil Nadu could not increase its irrigated area. In most of the northern States, canal and groundwater are the two important sources of irrigation. Tamil Nadu though, has been getting irrigation water equally from all the three major sources — tanks, canal and groundwater.

Overtime, the irrigated area from tanks and canals fell drastically in the State. Canal irrigation declined from 9.03 lakh hectares (lha) in 1960-63 to 6.22 lha in 2014-17. Similarly, tank irrigated area declined from 9.41 lha to 3.69 lha. However, groundwater irrigation has grown significantly from 6.02 lha to 16.53 lha during the same period.

But the massive growth in groundwater irrigation could not compensate for the loss of area that occurred due to the drop in tank and canal irrigation. Although States like Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh experienced almost a similar decline in tank irrigated area, the massive increase in canal and groundwater irrigated area helped them to increase their total irrigated area significantly.

Undesirable impacts

Owing to continuous decline in tank and canal irrigation, the net cropped area in Tamil Nadu decreased from 61.69 lha in 1970-71 to 45.82 lha in 2018-19. That is, in the last 48 years, the State had lost a total of 15.87 lha of area that was under cultivation earlier.

Also, there was a big increase in fallow land, which rose from 15.38 lha to 29.78 lha during the aforesaid period. The 108.66 per cent increase is many times higher than the the all-India figure of 36.38 per cent.

Due to the reduction of low cost irrigation sources, farmers in Tamil Nadu have been forced to cultivate crops using cost-intensive groundwater, which affected their income. According to a study in 2016-17 by NABARD, the monthly income of a farm household in Tamil Nadu was just ₹9,975, which is very low compared to that of many States.

As per the estimate of Central Water Commission, the total irrigation potential of Tamil Nadu is 55.32 lha, of which, only 32.71 lha is currently in use. The reason for the low utilisation of irrigation potential should be found and required steps should be taken to increase the utilisation level.

Second, the water storage capacity of 41,127 tanks in Tamil Nadu is 347 tmc (thousand million cubic feet), which is higher than the storage capacity of all the dams in the State. A total of about 5.72 lha of tank irrigated area was lost in the last 54 years. Any view that attributes the reduction of tank area to low rainfall is misplaced. The Standing Committee on Water Resources in its 16th report underlined that tank irrigated area has declined due to heavy encroachments and lack of proper maintenance.

While taking efforts to remove the encroachments, the State should divest the control of tanks from PWD. A separate ‘Tank Management Board’ may be created to effectively manage the tanks.

Third, the Central Groundwater Board indicates that groundwater is exploited more than 80 per cent in 17 out of 32 districts. If this continues, groundwater acreage will decline. Therefore, stringent measures should be introduced to regulate groundwater use. Drip irrigation method needs to be promoted in the over-exploited blocks to reduce water demand. Free electricity to large farmers with more than 10 hectares of land should be stopped to reduce groundwater exploitation.

Fourth, ‘water accounting method’ in all canal command areas should be introduced to increase the overall water use efficiency. And, fifth, a ‘Water Regulatory Authority’ may be established with experts having vast experience in water management.

To achieve overall growth, Tamil Nadu should attach top priority to developing its irrigation facilities.

The writer is a former Member (Official), Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices. Views are personal

Published on August 04, 2021

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