In India, about 80% of the accessible fresh water is used for agriculture. However, some of this is often used for household use, for fish production and for drinking water for livestock.

With rising population and increased industrial activity, there is a rising competition for scarce water and pressure to use water more efficiency and productivity.

The total cultivable area of the country is 142 mha. The irrigation potential, by the end of 2000 was about 90 mha. At the time of Independence, it was 22 mha. India has the second largest irrigated area in the world after China.

Under the Five Year Plans, huge investments were made in the construction of large irrigation projects. The thrust on the high water consuming high yielding varieties of the 1960s gave an impetus to this strategy. Since the Government constructed and owned the irrigation infrastructure, it inevitably took over the management responsibilities also. Farmers were completely excluded from the operations, maintenance and any other management decisions. For a very small cost, the farmers received irrigation water that raised the productivity of their land.

Over time, with the government failing to set aside sufficient funds for repairs and maintenance and the limited funds being managed by the centralized irrigation bureaucracy, the irrigation infrastructure went into a downward spiral of disuse and neglect. Year after year the agitation of farmers for timely supply of water and for repairs of the system become stronger. Larger farmers and those with nexus with the irrigation department managed to access more than their share of water. An assessment by the Government of India in 1995 indicated that the irrigation sector faced problems related to poor management, corruption, deteriorating physical infrastructure, lack of adequate financing, social inequity in access to water and lack of incentive to use water optimally. The extremely low cost of water encouraged wastage which in turn deprived those at the tail end of the system.

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