Development of Irrigation in India

by - Sanjay Kumar ( Media & Communications Officer, PIB, New Delhi)

The history of development of irrigation in India can be traced back to prehistoric times. In an agrarian economy like India, irrigation has played a major role. Vedas and ancient Indian scriptures made references to wells, canals, tanks and dams which were beneficial to the community and for their efficient operation and maintenance the responsibility was of the State. Civilization flourished on the banks of rivers and the water was harnessed for sustenance of life. According to the ancient Indian writers, the digging of a tank or well was amongst the greatest of the meritorious acts of a man. Vishnu Purana enjoins merit to a person who effected repairs to wells, gardens and dams. The irrigation technologies during the Indus Valley Civilization were in the form of small and minor works, which were operated by households to irrigate small patches of land and did not require a collective effort. Nearly all the irrigation technologies prevalent then still exist in India with little technological change and are continued to be used by households in rural areas.

The spread of agricultural settlements to less fertile area led to emergence of large irrigation works in the form of reservoirs and small canals. While the construction of small schemes was well within the capability of village communities, large irrigation works emerged only with the growth of states and empires.
In south, perennial irrigation began with construction of the Grand Anicut by the Cholas as early as second century to provide water for irrigation from the Cauvery river. Wherever the topography and terrain permitted, it was an old practice in the region to impound the surface drainage water in tanks or reservoirs by throwing across an earthen dam with a weir, where necessary, to take off excess water, and a sluice at a suitable level to irrigate the land below. Some of the tanks got supplemental supply from stream and river channels. The entire land-scape in the central and southern India is studded with numerous irrigation tanks which have been traced back to many centuries before the beginning of the Christian era. In northern India too there are a number of small canals in the upper valleys of rivers which are very old.

Irrigation during Medieval India
In medieval India, rapid advances took place in the construction of inundation canals. Water was blocked by constructing bunds across steams. This raised the water level and canals were constructed to take the water to the fields. Ghiyasuddin Tughluq (1220-1250) is credited to be the first ruler who encouraged digging canals. However, it is Firuz Tughlug (1351-86) who, inspired from central Asian experience, is considered to be the greatest canal builder before the nineteenth century. As agricultural development was the pillar of the economy, irrigation systems were paid special attention.

Irrigation under British Rule
Irrigation development during British rule began with the renovation, improvement and extension of existing works. The Government also ventured into new projects, like the Upper Ganga Canal, the Upper Bari Doab Canal and Krishna and Godavari Delta Systems, which were all river-diversion works of considerable size. The period from 1836 to 1866 marked the development and completion of these four major works. In 1867, the Government adopted the practice of taking up works, which promised a minimum net return. Thereafter, a number of projects were taken up. These included major canal works like the Sirhind, the Lower Ganga, the Agra and the Mutha Canals, and the Periyar Dam and canals.
The recurrence of drought and famines during the second half of the nineteenth century necessitated the development of irrigation to give protection against the failure of crops and to reduce large scale expenditure on famine relief. Significant protective works constructed during the period were the Betwa Canal, the Nira Left Bank Canal, the Gokak Canal, the Khaswad Tank and the Rushikulya Canal. Between the two types of works, namely productive and protective, the former received greater attention. The gross area irrigated in India under British rule by public works at the close of the nineteenth century was about 7.5 m.ha. Of this, 4.5 m.ha. came from minor works, like tanks, inundation canals etc. The area irrigated by protective works was only a little more than 0.12 m.ha

At The Time Of Independence
The net irrigated area in the Indian sub continent, comprising the British Provinces and Princely States, at the time of Independence was about 28.2 m.ha. The partition of the country, resulted in the apportionment of the irrigated area between the two countries; net irrigated area in India and Pakistan being 19.4 m.ha and 8.8 m.ha respectively. Major canal systems, including the Sutlej and Indus systems went to Pakistan. East Bengal, now Bangladesh, which comprises the fertile Ganga Brahmaputra delta region also went to Pakistan. The irrigation works which remained with India, barring some of the old works in Uttar Pradesh and in the deltas of the South, were mostly of protective nature, meant more to ward off famine than to produce significant yields.

Irrigation Development Now
At the central level the Union Ministry of Water Resources is responsible for development, conservation and management of water as a national resource, i.e., for policy on water resources development and for technical assistance to the states on irrigation, multipurpose projects, ground water exploration and exploitation, command area development, drainage, flood control, water logging, sea erosion problems, dam safety and hydraulic structures for navigation and hydropower. It also oversees the regulation and development of inter-State rivers. These functions are carried out through various Central Organisations. Urban water supply and sewage disposal is handled by the Ministry of Urban Development whereas Rural Water Supply comes under the purview of Department of Drinking Water under the Ministry of Rural Development. Hydro-electric power and thermal power is the responsibility of the Ministry of Power and pollution and environment control is that of the Ministry of Environment and Forests.
Water being a State subject, the State Governments have primary responsibility for use and control of this resource. The administrative control and responsibility for development of water, rests with the various State Departments and Corporations. Major and medium irrigation is handled by the irrigation/water resources departments. Minor irrigation is looked after partly by water resources departments, minor irrigation corporations, Zilla Parishads/Panchayats and by other departments such as Agriculture. Urban water supply is generally the responsibility of public health departments and panchayats take care of rural water supply. Government tubewells are constructed and managed by the irrigation/water resources department or by tube well corporations set up for the purpose. Hydro-power is the responsibility of the State Electricity Boards.

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