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Water management, policies and legislation related to water use in agriculture


Under the Indian Constitution, the states are responsible for water. Thus the federal states are primarily responsible for the planning, implementation, funding and management of water resources development. The responsibility in each state is borne by the Irrigation and Water Supply Department. The Inter-State Water Disputes Act of 1956 provides a framework for the resolution of possible conflicts.

At central level, which is responsible for water management in the union territories and in charge of developing guidelines and policy for all the states, three main institutions are involved in water resources management:

  • The Ministry of Water Resources (MWR) is responsible for laying down policy guidelines and programmes for the development and regulation of the country’s water resources. The ministry’s technical arm, the Central Water Commission (CWC), provides general infrastructural, technical and research support for water resources development at state level. The CWC is also responsible for the assessment of water resources.
  • The Planning Commission is responsible for the allocation of financial resources required for various programmes and schemes of water resources development to the states as well as to the MWR. It is also actively involved in policy formulation related to water resources development at the national level.
  • The Ministry of Agriculture promotes irrigated agriculture through its Department of Agriculture and Cooperation.

Further, the Indian National Committee of Irrigation and Drainage (INCID) coordinates with the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage (ICID) and promotes research in the relevant areas. The Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) is in charge of water quality monitoring, and the preparation and implementation of action plans to solve pollution problems.

In 1996, the Central Groundwater Authority was established to regulate and control groundwater development to preserve and protect the resource.

Water management

Water resources planning and management should be seen in a context of food grain availability. From the mid-1960s onwards, food grain production increased in the 1950s and 1960s as a result of increases in the cultivated area, expansion in irrigated area and the use of high-yielding varieties (HYVs). Irrigation also helped reduce inter-annual fluctuations in agricultural output and India’s vulnerability to drought. One of the goals of Indian policy is to find ways to maintain the level of food grain availability per inhabitant in a context of population increase. Total water demand is expected to equal water availability by 2025, but industrial and municipal water demand are expected to rise drastically at the expense of the agricultural sector, which will have to produce more with less water.

The centrally sponsored Command Area Development (CAD) Programme was launched in 1974-1975. The main objectives of the programme are to improve use of the area equipped for irrigation and optimize agricultural production and productivity from irrigated agriculture. The Programme involves the implementation of on-farm development works such as construction of field channels and field drains, reclamation of waterlogged areas, renovation and rehabilitation of minor irrigation tanks, correction of irrigation water distribution system deficiencies.

The programme also involves ‘software’ activities such as adaptive trials, demonstrations, training of farmers, evaluation studies, etc. One component of the programme is Warabandi, which is a rotation system for the distribution of irrigation water to ensure equitable and timely supply of water to all farm holdings in the command. An amount of Rs 35 280 million has been released to the states as central assistance under the programme from inception until the end of March 2008. Since the programme’s inception, and up to the end of March 2007, 18.07 million ha had been covered. The CAD Programme was restructured in April 2004, the and renamed as the ‘Command Area Development and Water Management (CADWM)’ Programme.

The main systems of irrigation water management (distribution) schemes practised are:

  • The warabandi system in semi-arid and arid northwest India, where irrigation water is strictly rationed in proportion to farm area and supplied on a predetermined rotational schedule. The distribution system is equipped with field channels and watercourses. Primarily designed to adapt to shortage in water supplies, farmers decide on crops according to the expected water supply.
  • The shejpali system of western and parts of central and southern India, where farmers obtain official sanction for proposed cropping patterns and are then entitled to irrigation supplies according to crop needs. The distribution system is equipped with field channels and watercourses. These systems were designed when irrigation water was plentiful relative to demand.
  • The localization system, in parts of southern India, focusses on locational control of cropping patterns. Low-lying areas are zoned for ‘wet’ crops (primarily rice and sugarcane), while higher areas are limited to ‘irrigated dry’ (ID) crops with restricted water supplies. The distribution system is equipped with watercourses and field channels. Such systems break down as head-end farmers in ID zones take up cultivation of high water requiring crops and draw more water than their allowed allocation quantity.
  • The traditional field-to-field irrigation system is used mainly for rice in some areas of eastern India and some parts of south India. Continuous irrigation flows are provided, passing from field-to-field, generally without watercourses or field channels. Operating rules have often evolved and been agreed based on local tradition, and where water is abundant, yields can be good. However, crop choice and cropping patterns are limited.

A broad distinction can be made between supply-based systems (such as warabandi) that distribute water according to predetermined procedures and require farmers to respond accordingly for cropping patterns and areas, and demand-based systems (such as shejpali) that attempt to meet crop–water needs. In supply-based systems, the role of the irrigation department tends to be simpler than under demand-based systems, which require that the department responds to the changing needs of farmers with more complex and flexible infrastructure and more intensive management. The average overall water-use efficiency in canal irrigation systems is an estimated 38-40 percent.

The National Water Policy 2002 emphasises a participatory approach for water resources management. It has been recognized that participation of beneficiaries will help optimize the upkeep of the irrigation system and promote the efficient use of irrigation water. The participation of farmers in irrigation management is formulated based on the creation of water user associations (WUAs), which aim to: i) promote and secure distribution of water among users; ii) ensure adequate maintenance of the irrigation systems; iii) improve efficiency and economic use of water; iv) optimize agricultural production; v) protect the environment; and vi) ensure ecological balance by involving the farmers and inculcating a sense of ownership of the irrigation systems in accordance with the water budget and operational plan. The WUAs are formed and work guided by the executive instructions and guidelines laid down by each state government. There is no central legislation or legal instrument in this regard. However, Andhra Pradesh is the only state that has passed legislation exclusively covering farmer participation in the management of irrigation systems. A total of 55 500 WUAs were constituted in India covering 10.23 million ha.

The National Groundwater Recharge Master Plan (NGRMP) provides a nationwide assessment of the groundwater recharge potential and outlines the guiding principles for an artificial groundwater recharge programme. The plan estimates that by using dedicated recharge structures in rural areas and rooftop water harvesting structures in urban areas a total of 36 km3 can be added to groundwater recharge annually. The master plan follows two criteria for identifying recharge: availability of surplus water and availability of storage space in aquifers. Investments in the programme would, therefore, be driven by the potential available for groundwater recharge, and not by the need for recharge. Thus, the three states of Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Tamil Nadu, which together account for over half of India’s threatened groundwater blocks, receive only 21 percent of funds, whereas the states of the Ganges-Brahmaputra basin, which face no groundwater over development problems, receive 43 percent of the funds. If implemented successfully, this recharge programme will be able to add a significant quantity of water to India’s groundwater storage, but it will not provide much help in the areas that are most in need of help.


Currently, there is no uniform set of principles to fix the water rates. The water charges vary from state-to-state, project-to-project and crop-to-crop. The rates vary widely for the same crop in the same state depending on irrigation season, type of system, etc.

Water rates, being abysmally low, do not generate sufficient funds for the proper maintenance of irrigation systems, leading to poor quality of service. The state governments need to evolve a policy for periodical rationalization and revision of water rates, so that the revenue generated by the irrigation sector is able to meet the cost of O&M. However, in view of unreliable and poor quality of services, farmers are reluctant to pay increased water charges. They may not be averse to paying increased water charges if the quality of services is first improved.

It is imperative that the tariff structure is reviewed, and revised with simultaneous improvement in the quality of services provided, to restore efficiencies. Rationalization of water rates will also act as a deterrent to excessive and wasteful use of water. Shifting towards fixing the water rates based volume is desirable. This will encourage farmers to avoid over-irrigation and wasteful use of water, thereby increasing water-use efficiencies. A uniform formula of water pricing for the entire country would have no practical value. A recommendation may be considered of setting up an independent State Regulatory Authority to rationalize water rates in each state.

Policies and legislation

India adopted a National Water Policy in 1987, which was revised in 2002, for the planning and development of water resources to be governed at the national level. It emphasizes the need for river basin based planning of water use. Water allocation priority has been given to drinking water, followed by irrigation, hydropower, navigation and industrial or other uses. As water resources development is a state responsibility, all the states are required to develop their state water policy within the framework of the national water policy and, accordingly, set up a master plan for water resources development.


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       Quote as: FAO. 2016. AQUASTAT website. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). Website accessed on [yyyy/mm/dd].
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