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Participatory irrigation management in the Chambal command

S.N. Mundra

Senior Advisor, HRD RAJAD Project, Kota

A.K. Garg

Area Development Commissioner, CAD Chambal, Kota


The idea that farmers should participate in irrigation management has grown in India since the mid-1980s. Irrigation management has become a matter of concern for planners, engineers, farmers and politicians. Experience all over the world shows that farmers are potential managers who can manage their own affairs effectively if they are properly organized. The need for farmers' participation in irrigation management is recognized by the government of Rajasthan and pioneer efforts are being made to answer it.

These efforts were initiated in the Chambal command area to ensure farmers' participation in irrigation management in 1993-94. Thirty-two water user associations were registered between 1993 and 1996, with positive results at Arnetha, Kuwarti and Barot. By the end of 1997 there were 62 such associations active in the command. This paper presents the methodological approach followed in the formation of these associations, which includes people's participation in planning, formation of outlet committees and registration of water user associations, training of members in operational and functional aspects, and dissemination of know-how on on-farm water management.

As a result of this approach, positive signals are seen in the efficient management of irrigation water in the Chambal command area. One group has managed to reduce water use by 32 days while the area under cultivation increased from 272 ha to 322 ha, an 11.84 percent increase. Another group repaired a 5km stretch of canal road and three main cuts in the minor by pouring in 14 tractor-loads of earth by their own resources. This success inspired other groups to undertake civil work for lining and cleaning a stretch of about 4 km along a minor. This experiment resulted in savings on costs and better quality of the work. A total of 2 025 km of watercourses have been cleaned by the water user associations in the command. A training programme on farm water management was organized and 1 800 farmers including women were trained in improved irrigation technology.

It can be concluded from all this that there is growing participation of the people in the Chambal command area and that a sense of competition is developing among the water user associations over the management of their minors. This case study may serve as a source of motivation for other commands in the country.


Increased farmer participation in irrigation is part of a world-wide trend of devolution in natural resource management. Experience shows that farmers all over the world are potential managers who, when properly organized, are able to manage their own affairs. Participatory irrigation management is increasingly viewed as a means to improve the performance of irrigation investments. Beginning in the 1980s, there have been large-scale programmes to turn over irrigation management from government agencies to organized water user groups in a number of countries, such as the Philippines, Indonesia, Senegal, Madagascar, Colombia and Mexico.

The idea that farmers should participate in irrigation management has grown in India since the mid-1980s. It has been driven by the need for a higher return from the massive funds invested in irrigation, which plays a major role in increasing agricultural production. The concepts of farmer participation and farmer organization are not well understood and are not used in the same way by all. They must be discussed, tested in the field and standardized.

Farmer participation in the prevailing system of irrigation management in Rajasthan takes place at two distinct water distribution levels. One is above the outlets, i.e. the canal distribution network, which is managed by the irrigation department or the command area development in co-ordination with the district level committee consisting of district collectors, executive engineers for irrigation, public representatives and representatives of water users, etc. (The Command Area Development (CAD) schemes are governed by a CAD Authority which is under an area development commissioner and of which chief engineers, officers from the Departments of Agriculture, groundwater, drinking water, forestry, education, health etc, collectors, members of Parliament and of local assemblies as well as elected Panchayat members and farmer representatives are members.) The other is below the outlet, meaning that distribution among farmers is left to them to manage.

In June 1993, the government's irrigation department reconstituted the water distribution committees. These are headed by a divisional commissioner for large and medium-sized projects covering two or more districts, a district collector for large and medium-sized projects covering one district, and a sub-district official for minor irrigation projects.

These committees meet before the crop season starts. In the command area development projects, in addition to the CAD Authority, there are project-level water management and water regulation committees under area development commissioners and water management committees with representation of farmers and officers of various disciplines and wings of the command area development. The CAD committees meet three or four times each crop season.

Generally, in water distribution committee meetings, the following decisions are taken after making an assessment of the available water in the reservoir: number of watering rounds; time, date and period of opening of the canal; suggested cropping pattern; and, for the larger systems, grouping of canals for rotational running and setting of dates for the running of each group.

After a canal is opened, there is generally no supervision from the irrigation department to check and regulate watering, except in the Bhakra, Gang & CAD-IGNP canal systems. In the Chambal command development area project, some attempts at regulation have been made. However, in some projects, the farmers distribute water among themselves in an organized manner at levels below the outlet.

In February 1994, the government of Rajasthan formed a high-level committee to suggest ways and means for increasing the effective and creative participation of farmers in water distribution at various levels. A report was prepared by that committee covering the present status of farmer involvement and the need for the formation of a water user association. The report proposed amendments to the irrigation act and rules, as well as implementation steps. Farmer participation in water management in large, medium-sized and small projects other than the IGNP and Chambal projects is restricted, to the extent that farmers are merely informed about the quantity of water available at the source and the likely amount to be provided in the ensuing crop season, which helps them decide on which crops to grow.

Participatory irrigation management

Participatory irrigation management is not a new concept. There are instances of locally managed irrigation systems which are centuries-old in Northern India, in the Atlas mountain range of North Africa and in the semiarid regions of Pakistan. The subak system of Indonesia also comes to mind. However, in the present context, these systems exist in isolation. Once government willingness is there, such systems do have the capability to encompass a wide area and catch the fancy of the participants.

In the irrigation sector, the trend is clearly toward reducing the role of government in operation and maintenance. Portions of the systems are being turned over to associations of farmers to manage, in some countries on a pilot basis, in others, on a large scale. In India, the appropriate division of management responsibility between the users and the agency varies. The transfer can be at the level of a distributary (15 000-25 000 ha) or of a minor (up to 500 ha), or it can be done in stages. There are no predetermined norms for the association of farmers, which are to be governed by their own by-laws.

The trend of farmer participation in the management of the Chambal command

The Chambal irrigation project is one of the large interstate irrigation and power projects built in India soon after Independence. Its construction started in 1953 and water for irrigation became available as of 1960. The gross project area in Rajasthan is of 485 000 ha, compared with a cultivable command area of 229 000 ha. The total length of branches, distributaries, etc in the project is 2 342 km.

In the beginning, to get the farmers to use irrigation water, it was decided to provide it at their own convenience rather than on a rotation basis. The farmers irrigated their fields by carrying water by katcha watercourses along field boundaries without making provision for drainage. Field-to-field irrigation was not introduced. Soon this became a curse as farmers did not allow any type of warabandi to be introduced.

After 1975, while going along with the full package of on-farm development including the realignment of field boundaries and watercourses, provision of field drains and field paths, land shaping and so on, the Chambal officials endeavoured again to introduce warabandi, but in practice only "parchies" are issued to farmers in the 95 000 hectares of the command area informing them about their turn for drawing water.

In the Chambal command area, the interaction between the staff and the catchment committee was quite regular and reasonably effective in the late 1970s when on-farm development works were done by the staff based on bank loans that the farmers had to repay. During that period, no catchment committees were formed, but in 1993 those were revived. However these committees are normally operational only till the on-farm construction work is completed.

In the Chambal project, efforts at demonstrating improvements in water management and the organizing of agriculture extension field days as well as campaigns to popularize subsurface drainage and such, somehow started off a round of creation of water user associations. This was somewhat surprising because the area had been known for its difficult farmers, and for extremes in water indiscipline. It was also an area where warabandi did not exist and getting water to the tails assumed crisis proportions every year. Nonetheless, farmers did get together to form water user associations. The first, at Arnetha, registered in 1992, reduced the number of days of watering from 79 to 47 while the area irrigated went from 680 acres to 805 acres. This trend has been sustained since then.

Other activities like integrated pest management, digging of compost pits, tree plantation, weeding out canals, improving outlets and earthwork in canals, appointing group leaders for each outlet and fixing of a 24-hours-a-day seven-days-a-week warabandi schedule of water distribution from each watercourse, repairing gates at outlets, building roads, lining watercourses, etc, were taken up by the water user associations formed in the Chambal project. Thirty-two of these have so far been registered as co-operative societies and 30 more are in the process of being registered. In May 1996 the Chambal command area project also issued guidelines about how irrigation water management co-operative societies could be formed and get registered. These guidelines were based on a number of consultations with farmers and members of water user groups. The list of activities which the farmers and officers jointly thought appropriate for such societies is as follows:

  1. Just and equitable distribution of irrigation water and management for better water use.
  2. Management and maintenance of the water distribution system.
  3. Determination of the cropping pattern as per availability of water.
  4. Recovery and collection of irrigation revenue.
  5. Organization of training in irrigation water management and adoption of appropriate techniques.
  6. Arrangement of agricultural inputs.
  7. Resolution of disputes related to irrigation management.
  8. Demonstrations and training in the latest agricultural technologies.
  9. Repair of pacca channels, adoption of sprinkler irrigation, drip irrigation or border irrigation, etc.
  10. Making available agriculture and plant protection equipment.
  11. Other production-related programmes such as marketing, processing, storage and others that the grouping considers appropriate to undertake.

Keeping in mind the fact that the Chambal farmers were creating water user associations which had already taken up many activities, and without insisting upon the deferred maintenance of canal rehabilitation works being done first as was the case in the pilot projects mentioned above, the World Bank agreed to have three water user associations of the Chambal project involved in as many pilot area development projects, in order to collaborate with the Chambal command engineers in designing the canal rehabilitation and improvement works and then execute the work. This is now underway. A memorandum of understanding between the associations and the Chambal command project was drafted.

In the command area, many experiments are made by various water user associations. In one of them, each member has pledged one day of labour a month to the association, either by providing a family member or a servant to do the work or by paying the association to hire a labourer for a day. In another case, the association made available a certain amount of money for fuel for the engineers to use an earthmoving machinery to clean and maintain a canal (the fuel cost is about one third of the machine operating costs) and then the members stood and supervised the work along with the engineers. Elsewhere, where some work was to be done by the government but it would have taken too long to get the machines over to the site, the water user association hired private machines and got the work done on the understanding that the government would reimburse the cost. The associations have also contributed funds as matching assistance for DRDA works under various programmes like Apna Gaon Apna Kam, United Funds, or even Jawahar Rozgar Yojana, to take up watercourse or canal lining (most Chambal canals and all the watercourses are unlined) or dirt-road works which they consider useful.

Some leaders of water user associations have been championing participatory irrigation management and have proved more than equal to the task of facing off scepticism about the practical applicability of participatory irrigation management which farmers and irrigation and agriculture staffers alike were expressing at the October 1996 Udaipur area conference on the topic. In various seminars and workshops, they also have made valuable suggestions on possible policy and procedural changes and even legislative amendments which need to be considered by the government.

Since training funds for participatory irrigation management have become available from the Ministry of Water Resources through either WAPCOS or the Rajasthan Land Development Corporation or in the Chambal Kota project area through the Canadian International Development Agency-funded Rajasthan Agriculture Drainage research project, even ordinary members of the Chambal water user associations have been exposed to short irrigation management workshops, and selected farmers and officers are sent out for field visits-cum-training in Gujarat and Haryana.

The Chambal model for organizing water user associations

In the Chambal command area, consensus has emerged for organizing water user groups under the Co-operative Act. Therefore, a streamlined procedure has been laid for the organization of the programme. The various extension functionaries have been required to fully understand the spirit of participatory management and its directives before embarking upon the action plan.

One water user society has been formed for a single hydrological unit, which in the case of Chambal is a minor. In a normal situation, one minor with an average of 15 outlets has a command area of 500 ha and covers 200-300 farming families. The agriculture supervisors are the ex-officio secretaries of the proposed societies. Four basic steps have been followed in the Chambal command area in the formation of water user associations:

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