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Tertiary level irrigation system management in the Chambal command by water user associations

K.V.G.K. Rao, R.C. Bower, Anju Gaur and N.A. Visvanatha

RAJAD Project, CAD Building, and UMA Eng. Ltd


The canal irrigation system in India suffers from low performance leading to low levels of service that inhibit efficient use of land and water and optimal agricultural productivity. This in turn leads to dissatisfaction and resistance to pay seemingly reasonable water charges for an unreliable and inequitable service. Poor maintenance of canal networks, inequitable distribution of water, inefficient water conveyance and delivery, excess water application and inadequate and inefficient drainage are causing extensive waterlogging and silt build-ups. Large-scale water and drainage management initiatives are needed to ensure the sustainability of agricultural production, as well as a sense of ownership among the farming community if irrigated agriculture is to prosper.

This paper describes the first-of-its-kind experience of the Rajasthan Agricultural Drainage (RAJAD) research project in the implementation of a tertiary-level irrigation system management in the Chambal command. Such management is designed to develop, demonstrate and evaluate improved and integrated water, land and crop management procedures in order to achieve optimum production with the participation of the farmers. The programme has a multidisciplinary approach. It integrates irrigation management and agronomy, agricultural extension and social development activities.

The management of the irrigation system at the tertiary level is taking place in an irrigated command area of about 600 ha serving nearly 300 farmers. Farmers are partners in planning, implementation and management and they have formed their own water user association. The management goals are: assurance of a reliable water supply to the farms; adoption of a system of equitable water distribution, appropriate irrigation scheduling and efficient irrigation practices; operation and maintenance of the system by the beneficiary farmers; and creation of community awareness of the activities needed for sustained agricultural production.


The sustainability of irrigated agriculture in India is in jeopardy due to the low performance of irrigation systems, which leads to an inefficient use of land and water and to an agricultural production much below potential. Due to unreliable and inequitable irrigation services, indiscipline in the use of canal water has become rampant among farmers and has resulted in resistance to pay seemingly reasonable water charges. Participatory irrigation management and water management by user associations in which the farmers are the managers and the government agencies are the service providers are felt to be the vehicles to bring about a sense of ownership among the farming community. Only within this context will the goal of improved efficiency of land and water use for sustainable crop production be achieved. A success would in turn constitute a model of integrated water and agricultural management for the region. The underlying concepts are as old as the irrigation systems built and operated by private entities in India. However, the large-scale investments in irrigation projects funded by the government and the formation of village-level administrative agencies such as the panchayat system in the 1950s in effect made the farmers dependent on the government agencies to operate and maintain the irrigation systems. Until recently, there was no legislation, either at federal or state level, that enabled the formation of participatory irrigation management policies and the establishment of water user associations in irrigated lands. Several such associations in the Chambal command have now been created through administrative measures, although the required legislation is still under formulation. Due to inadequate infrastructure, the use of irrigated areas has gradually decreased and problems of waterlogging and soil salinity are making it difficult for the farmers to irrigate their land properly. The development of participatory management and water user groups is considered essential to protect the existing investments and sustain agricultural production to meet the demands of an ever increasing population.

The Rajasthan Agricultural Drainage research project, sponsored by the Canadian International Development Agency, has introduced, on a pilot basis, irrigation system management as part of an Integrated Water and Agriculture Management (IWAM) strategy in the irrigated Chambal command area of Rajasthan. The objective of this paper is to discuss the experience and achievements of the project.

Irrigation management in the Chambal project

The Chambal project in south-east Rajasthan is a river storage scheme. Three upstream hydroelectric projects release water after power generation to the Kota barrage, where the irrigation system takes off to irrigate 229 000 ha in Rajasthan and an equal area in Madhya Pradesh. In the Chambal project, water is conveyed from the reservoir to the farms through a network of unlined canals. The main canal supplies water to the distributaries, which, in turn, supply the minor canals. The minors in the Chambal command are the starting point of the tertiary distribution system. Farm outlets which receive water from the minors have no standard operation procedure. Flood irrigation is practised by drawing water from the respective watercourses. The system cannot provide water to the farming communities in the command area in a timely and equitable way, as head-end farmers naturally get preferential water supply over tail-end farmers.

Since the start of irrigation in the early 1960s, the Chambal project has experienced inequitable distribution of water, inefficient irrigation delivery, excess water application and seepage losses from the extensive unlined canal network and poor drainage system. This has resulted in low water-use efficiency and land degradation due to waterlogging and soil salinity. Drainage improvements have been going on since the early 1980s through on-farm development programmes which have sought to install a surface drainage network. However, the problem of inequitable water distribution is far from being solved, due primarily to the deteriorating conditions of the supply network and to increasing waterlogging and salinity.

The Rajasthan drainage project is introducing large-scale horizontal subsurface drainage systems in the critically waterlogged and saline lands, thus initiating tertiary-level solutions to the irrigation water management issues in the pilot-scale IWAM model.

The Integrated Water and Agriculture Management programme

IWAM is a multidisciplinary programme aimed at improving and optimizing agricultural production by making efficient use of the available water and land resources with full participation of farmers. It is a systemic approach to irrigation and agricultural management which takes into account the cropping pattern and the various ecological and socio-economic aspects. It involves scientific planning and implementation of practices for irrigation supply and distribution, on-farm application, and management of water, including appropriate drainage and maintenance of irrigation and drainage systems.

The IWAM pilot project is planned for implementation in a 600ha irrigated area served by the Nimoda minor within the command area of the Chitawa distributary in the Chambal project. Key activities include:

Implementation status

IWAM field activities started in 1994 with system identification and implementation of pilot programmes to study the existing irrigation, crop and on-farm water practices, and the impact of modified irrigation methods and irrigation scheduling on farming operations and agricultural production. Farmers were involved at every stage of planning and implementation. The Nimoda minor selected for the pilot programme was found to be in a very much degraded condition, with broken structures and banks and a lot of vegetation on the bed and sides. The existing conveyance efficiency was only about 40 percent. Out of the design discharge of 330 l/s, much of the flow was lost as leakage and seepage and the rest irrigated mostly head and middle-reach farms. Tail-end farms are mostly single-cropped and depend on drain water for irrigation. Any improvement in on-farm water management must start with the rehabilitation of the minor.

System improvement model. The main considerations in the rehabilitation of irrigation and drainage systems are timeliness, reliability and sufficiency of on-farm irrigation water, equitable water distribution, and capital investment and maintenance requirements. A unique implementation model was developed in which the funds for system rehabilitation would be advanced to the water user associations. The associations would contribute labour and manage the rehabilitation of the system. Advisory services, technical assistance and regulatory help would be provided by the Command Area Development Authority and the engineering consultant, the Canadian executing agency. Following this model, the modalities of rehabilitating initially a portion of the minor and ancillary structures were being worked out in the spring of 1998.

Options were considered for rehabilitation, such as renovation as earthen minor, reconstruction as CC-lined minor, or pipe minor. These options would improve the conveyance efficiency of the distribution system to 60, 80 and 90 percent respectively against the existing 40 percent. The water user association finally opted for CC lining of the minor on the basis of financial feasibility and social acceptance.

The infrastructure of the Nimoda minor has been handed over to the association by the irrigation department through a memorandum of understanding and the association is eligible to execute works on the minor through special grants made available under any scheme of the state or central government or international agency. The following typical functions of the association on irrigation water management are:

Sensitizing farmers. Two initiatives, participatory rural appraisal and participatory planning, were organized at grassroots level in the IWAM implementation area. They resulted in the creation of an atmosphere of mutual understanding between farmers and officials, which led to the formation of a water user association at the minor level and of informal working groups at outlet level. Participatory rural appraisal is a methodology to get to know the existing situation by understanding farmers' views, interacting with the villagers and developing rapport with them. Participatory planning consists in forming an institution at grassroots level with the objective of providing an opportunity for the farmers to discuss problems and find ways to solve them. These two initiatives worked as catalysts in accelerating farmers' understanding and interest and in the formation of outlet committees and a water user association.

Formation of outlet committees. Farmers drawing water from a common watercourse are organized into an outlet committee. This is an informal organization with a voluntary membership. Outlet committees have been formed in all 25 outlets of the minor. The outlet committees are responsible for:

Formulation of a water user association. The water user association is the basic organizational unit for achieving truly participatory irrigation management. However, lack of financial support, absence of legal framework and of training requirements have been recognized as the limitations for the development of water user associations. In 1993, the RAJAD project provided the seed money for the first association to manage water supplies. The association is located at the head end of the Arnetha distributary. It has attained a legal standing and manages the water supplies within its jurisdiction. For the IWAM pilot project, another water user association was formed for the Nimoda minor, with the participation of about 300 members. Although the association is a registered entity under the Co-operative Society Act of the state, it has no legal standing per se. Nonetheless, it started operating under a memorandum of understanding with the irrigation department specifying its roles and responsibilities.

The composition of the executive committee and the running of the association follow the guidelines for participatory irrigation management provided by the state and central governments. At present, the association's executive committee, the outlet committee representatives and the irrigation department are developing a working relationship so that the association can manage the resources and implement structural improvements under the IWAM initiative.

The financial sustainability of the water user association operation is a matter of concern at this point. The unduly low rate structure of irrigation water charges would challenge its financial viability in the short term until more realistic rates are collected from the farmers. Initially, the association would pay about 10 percent of the implementation costs. As the initial costs of rehabilitation of the system are disproportionately high owing to the major differed maintenance needs of the system, a low contribution from the association would appear reasonable. This is consistent with the general concepts of the World Bank-financed schemes in the state. For regular maintenance of the system, the water user association would contribute 30 percent of the costs while the remaining 70 percent would be funded by the state.

Training of members of a water user association. Training is necessary to make a water user association effective. It will help its members to have an awareness of and commitment to co-operative water and resource management; develop the operation and maintenance requirements of the irrigation system, including sound financial management of the resource; familiarize themselves with relevant farmer organizations and forthcoming conventions; gather information and develop a communication strategy; and develop water allocation plans for optimum agricultural production. Together with autonomous functioning, a few years of lead time are needed for a new water user association to be functional and stable.

On-farm irrigation and agriculture management. Field trials on border strip irrigation and water balance experiments were conducted on selected areas to demonstrate the benefits of improved irrigation and agricultural practices to the farmers living there. The findings were disseminated through the agricultural extension department for adoption by the farmers in other parts of the Chambal command area. The following are some of the on-farm management recommendations based on the field trials:

Demonstrated advantages during the field trials include land levelling, better application of irrigation water, a reduction in waterlogging, and effective and efficient disposal of surface drainage. Agricultural production has improved by choosing the appropriate crop varieties, fertilizer doses, crop spacing and the application of herbicides.

Verifiable indicators. The following indicators are projected based on RAJAD achievements to date in sensitizing the farmers, setting up outlet committees and organizing a water user association at the minor level:

The authors are grateful for the funding assistance of the Canadian International Development Agency and the co-operation and support of the government of Rajasthan.


Annual report 1995-96. Ministry of Water Resources, Government of India

RAJAD. 1997. A note on approach paper for Integrated water and agricultural management

RAJAD. 1997. Designs and estimates for reconstruction models of Nimoda Minor. RAJAD TR 900-11

Gaur Anju, B.L. Verma, J.A. Millette & Sewa Ram. 1995. Integrated water management: a new RAJAD initiative. Presented at National Drainage Seminar, May 1995 and published in Subsurface drainage of irrigated lands in India, an ICID-CIID publication, 1996

Gaur Anju, D. Srivastava, J.A. Millette & N.A.Visvanatha. 1996. Integrated water management opportunities in the irrigated agriculture of the Chambal command area of Rajasthan. In Proceedings of the Canadian Water Resources Association, CANCID Workshop, Quebec, Canada, Jun 1996

Hooja R., R.C. Bower & S.N. Mundra (ed.). 1997. Irrigation agriculture and social development

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