An unending thirst: Irrigation projects delayed

The Mahadayi project has encountered several roadblocks over the last three decades
Last Updated : 04 June 2023, 02:54 IST

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It has been a long eight years for farmers in Dharwad’s Navalgund. They take turns and sit in a makeshift tent in the centre of town, demanding implementation of the Mahadayi project.

For all these years, the farmers have been asking for a supply of nearly 7.56 tmcft of water drawn from the Kalasa and Banduri streams (tributaries of River Mahadayi) and emptied into the Malaprabha at the Renuka Sagar dam in Belagavi’s Savadatti.

A desperation to see good yields has led these farmers to demand irrigation from the Mahadayi project, which is intended primarily to supply drinking water to parts of Gadag, Bagalkot, Belagavi and Dharwad districts.

Land in this region is already irrigated by the Malaprabha right bank canal, but fields on the tail-end of the canals are dry as a bone, as water does not reach these parts. This is leading to the demand for yet another mega water project like Mahadayi.

The Mahadayi project has encountered several roadblocks over the last three decades, including an interstate dispute. Over the years, the project has also seen many modifications.

Officials say that the terrain of the region has posed technical hurdles while laying down pipelines in the Western Ghats and supplying power to the pumps to lift water from the reservoir.

It is not just this project that has been facing a long gestation period — many mega water projects in the state are stuck in similar quagmires.

The Almatti dam project, for instance, is awaiting a gazette notification from the central government to increase its height from 519 metres to 524 metres. After Telangana and Andhra Pradesh approached the court seeking a revision of water allocation, the project has been on hold for a decade now.

Set in the backdrop of only 43 per cent of the 114.53 lakh hectares of net cultivated area in the state being irrigated, it comes as no surprise that there is a crying need for water supply, especially for agricultural purposes.

Between 2010 and 2023, the state has spent around Rs 1.38 lakh crore — 82 per cent of its allocated budget — on the implementation of major and medium irrigation projects. Of this, Rs 67,952.30 crore was spent between 2019-20 and 2022-23.

Yet, the state has added a negligible area of 1.48 lakh ha in these three years to its bank of irrigated land.

Veteran journalist Madan Mohan, who has extensively researched irrigation projects in North Karnataka, said that lack of forethought and political will have resulted in a major portion of the region remaining barren. Even water allocated to the state by tribunals has flowed into neighbouring states, he said.

Data shows that successive governments are inclined towards implementing mega water projects despite their utility being far lesser than minor irrigation projects.

A majority of projects that were taken up decades ago are still in the process of completion — progress stands between 10 per cent and 70 per cent, said Rajendra Poddar, former director, Water & Land Management Institute (WALMI), Dharwad.

“Politicians and bureaucrats see irrigation projects as just building reservoirs and dams. But a project succeeds only when the irrigation potential is utilised by ensuring that even the lands at the tail-end of the canal get water,” Madan Mohan said.

Take for example the Upper Krishna Project, which was to irrigate nearly six lakh hectares of drought-prone land in Vijaypura, Bagalkot, Kalaburagi, Yadgir and Raichur districts between 2005 and 2010.

According to the irrigation department, the construction of a dam at Almatti began in 1963 at an estimated cost of Rs 120 crore. After a wait of 42 years and an expense of Rs 10,371 crore, the project was finally ready in 2005.

However, farmers complain that several hectares of land within striking distance of the reservoir have not been receiving water till date.

Just eight km from the Almatti reservoir, at Benal village in Vijayapura district, lies G C Muttaladinni’s 15 acres of land. Despite the short distance, he says, “I have to rely on borewells or redirect water from the backwaters using huge irrigation pumps.”

He explains that poor condition of the canals and excessive use of water by farmers in the upper regions of the canals have spelled out this fate. Other farmers in the area complain of similar problems. They fault the low quality of canal construction and poor maintenance.

Portions of the canals have breached, developed cracks or are clogged due to encroachments. These structures are vandalised to divert more water to particular fields. The situation is such that the water cannot reach the tail-end even if released.

“Projects that were completed 20 to 30 years ago are in dilapidated condition and need urgent repairs,” said Poddar.


Another major concern is regarding underutilisation of the state’s share of water supply. Delay in allocation of funds to build sufficient storage capacity and a good canal network that could irrigate fields means that even though several swathes of land in these stretches are dry, water flows, unutilised, to neighbouring states.

The Krishna Water Dispute Tribunal, for instance, had specified (in 1973) that Karnataka could utilise 734 tmcft of water in the Krishna River Basin annually. In 2011, the tribunal revised water share, enhancing Karnataka’s quota to 911 tmcft.

Data from the irrigation department shows that the state has not utilised more than 465 tmcft of water in a year to date.

“Every year, excess water from the Krishna basin flows to the neighbouring states as Karnataka has failed to utilise it. This is despite the fact that several farmers are awaiting irrigation for over 15 years,” Muttaladinni added.

Underutilisation of allocated water is a concern even in the Cauvery basin.

“Since 2007, successive governments, irrespective of their political affinity, have failed to utilise the state’s quota from Cauvery river. Unlike politicians from Tamil Nadu who unite despite political differences, our politicians have not found a solution,” says Lakshmana M, convenor of Association of Concerned and Informed Citizens of Mysuru.

Lakshmana explains that year after year, excess water from four reservoirs in the Cauvery basin has been released to other states. This is particularly distressing at a time when farmers in the old Mysuru region are facing water shortage and crop loss. The Mekedatu project is a case in point, he adds.

Groundwater exploitation

An effect of a delayed or ineffective network of irrigation systems is that farmers begin to depend extensively on borewells and tubewells.

In fact, the Economic Survey of 2022-23 reveals that there are 47 taluks (spread across 15 districts) where groundwater is exploited in the state.

Monocropping and unnecessary flooding of fields is prompting the agriculture and horticulture departments to promote less water-consuming crops.

Irrigation department officials say that many farmers violate stipulated cropping patterns. “The farmers in irrigated areas are supposed to grow semi-deciduous crops such as maize, tur, millet, oil seeds and other food grains. However, many are cultivating water-guzzling crops such as sugarcane and paddy. Through policing, we cannot force crop cultivation in the irrigated area,” an official said.

However, part of the reason why crops that are water-intensive are cultivated is because crops like sugarcane and paddy get better procurement support from the government. Last year, Karnataka procured sugarcane, paddy, wheat and other major crops (irrigated) at Rs 1.5 lakh crore whereas only Rs 20,000 crore was spent on procuring rain-fed crops such as oilseeds, millet and pulses.

“Unless this policy lopsidedness is addressed, we cannot expect farmers to switch to scientific cropping patterns and prevent double losses,” said agriculture expert K P Suresh.

Instead, Suresh added, it is essential to strengthen minor irrigation, especially in rain-fed areas, for better food production instead of spending on mega irrigation projects.

Decentralised system

Several activists advocate that instead of such large-scale projects, the government should adopt a more decentralised system. Noted environmentalist Nagesh Hegde suggests that creating multiple lakes in the upper regions of Bengaluru to supply water to the city could prove an alternative to the Mekedatu project.

“By adopting such a decentralised water system, we can get adequate water for Bengaluru at five times lesser cost than Mekedatu,” said Hegde.

After all, the environmental damage that large-scale projects like the Mekedatu can cause is irreparable.

The Yettinhole project is another relevant example that can cause irreversible harm to the ecologically sensitive areas of the Western Ghats. The integrated drinking water project is set to draw water from a tributary of the Netravathi to the arid regions of Kolar, Chikkaballapur and Bengaluru Rural districts.

Originally, the project was proposed in 2013 and was supposed to be completed at a cost of Rs 12,000 crore. However, in December 2022, Basavaraj Bommai-led government revised the project cost estimates to Rs 23,251 crore.

“Yettinahole is an ill-conceived project. Even before a drop of water is drawn, the officials have begun realising that the project will fail as the source water body is drying up due to various development work in the catchment area,” says environmental activist Dinesh Holla. This project is said to be the cause for landslides, flooding, and drying up of water sources in this region.

Expensive and time-consuming projects have failed, in the past and present, to address the concerns of farmers, people and even officials implementing the project.

Need of the hour

As a middle riparian state with the corresponding potential for mega water projects, Karnataka is involved in several inter-state water disputes that take long periods to resolve. This is resulting in delay in implementation of the project and cost escalation.

Officials in the irrigation department also concede that over the years elected representatives, cutting across the party lines, have failed to press upon the Union government to clear irrigation related files at the earliest.

“Even when the state and the Union government were governed by the same party, the state could not get nod and clearance for several important projects. On the other hand, the Tamil Nadu government, in spite of having a different party in power in the Centre, ensured their demands were met,” said a senior officer at the irrigation department who did not wish to be named.

There is consensus that there is a need to discern which regions can be supplied with their water requirements through minor irrigation projects and decentralised systems. This could go a long way in avoiding inter-state disputes.

Mega projects that are of absolute necessity can only be executed with forethought and political will, experts say.

Published 03 June 2023, 17:31 IST

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