Irrigation in Telangana: Equity and Democracy in question

Irrigation is multi-faceted subject, that requires indepth enquiry and understanding. Area development, interlinked with irrigation, has been the subject of world-wide discussion, research and application. In Telangana, as a region in combined State of Andhra Pradesh, irrigation has always been a dream to be achieved. Among the priorities of different governments, irrigation-linked development programmes took a backseat. It is one of the primary reasons cited by separate Telangana agitation.

Interestingly, first government of Telangana State is reviving and reformulating rather aggressively the same pattern and similar strategies. However, current government’s approach as before has lot of glaring gaps, needs questioning on various dimensions.

Transparency and accountability is a major concern. Godavari project reports, in the past and currently, are not available for public scrutiny and discussions. Pranahitha – Chevella Detailed Project Report, containing six volumes, prepared in 2010, is not in the public domain. In 2016, government of Telangana has not shared detailed reports, despite on and off news stories in the media, about the current designs of the same projects, and/or newly contemplated projects. Under Right to Information Act, Government of Telangana is duty-bound to reveal and release these reports, pro-actively.

Even though, government has boldly declared an allocation of Rs.25,000 crores, in Plan allocations of State for the Financial Year 2016-17, State legislature has not discussed this important aspect, not even for minute, leave alone hours or days. Chief Minister’s in his presentation in the Assembly, on 31st March, 2016, refers to fallacies and foibles of the past government. However, past mistakes and failures are no justification for current gaps. With more than Rs.70,000 crores debts on the State Exchequer, a young State has taken a bold decision to commit such a huge amount to a single sector, with a promise of overall development. However, much of the current allocations pertain to projects with a benefit accrual to five districts only, out of 10 districts. There is a huge inequity built into this planning. Such inequity was questioned, in the past, and was a major justification for separate Telangana agitation. Priority for these projects, and massive allocation, has not been arrived at after consultations and does not have wider approval. A single person’s obsession, in a democracy, is being fobbed off as a historical necessity, even while institutions and procedures established to act as checks and balances, to prevent abuse and misuse of power, have gone to a toss.

There is a huge concern on Rs.9,000 crores expenditure, in the past five years, on Pranahitha-Chevella project, with regard to the integrity of such huge investment and how the infrastructure created would go waste. Government of Telangana should have released details of such expenditure, and how the assets created will be utilized, if not for  this purpose. Dug canals and excavated tunnels are now reportedly being abandoned.

There should be more debate and discussion on Godavari projects, with specific objective of generating informed public opinion, that leads to efficient utilization of resources and ensures grounding of a sustainable, comprehensive project. All documents related to the projects on Godavari should be placed in the public domain.

Government also needs to develop alternatives, and weigh benefits and challenges of each such proposal, in relation to the per acre cost on the small farmers, who are ultimately are the beneficiaries of irrigation projects on River Godavari. No longer the discussion and information should be centred on design and technical aspects, but has to include ultimate costs on agricultural sector, impact of such costs on food production, cropping pattern, incomes of farmers and wealth distribution effects. For long, water distribution from large irrigation projects has not only been a matter of contention between competing uses, such as domestic drinking water, agriculture, industrial, urban needs and other purposes, but has also come under the scrutiny of advocates for equity and socio-economic change. On an average, direct distribution to agriculture ranges from 50 to 90 percent, with waters being utilized for other purposes, especially when water storage is not full. Participatory Irrigation Management has become a concept that answers issues of inequitous and inefficient distribution in the command area, for agricultural use. However, no other model or concept has come up for ensuring prioritized usage among competing needs. On paper, National Water Policy 2012 prioritises drinking water over other needs, and has recommended a hierarchy. But, often, experience shows that the principle of ‘might is right’ continues to be applied and no transparent process that ensures the emergence of a negotiated settlement has been delineated in India.

It is no wonder government of Telangana has not given much thought to this issue, in its irrigation planning, apart from the promise of larger benefits. Benefit analysis should precede project design, and not the other way round. Depending on the benefits and interplay between various options, especially from the standpoint of environmental, financial and social impacts, project design has to be finalized. Public discussions on design alone does not help, and would confuse non-technical persons, whose numbers easily outmatch technical expertise, and whose involvement is a must given that they are either losers or beneficiaries, of the whole conundrum.

Participation of farmers in irrigation projects, from planning stage upto realization of benefits from such projects, helps in building ownership, reduces inefficient processes and diffidence, and can help in reducing wasteful water usages on improper crops. Government of Telangana does not seem to prioritise aspirations, opinions and status of farmers in irrigation project planning. Rough and wild estimates arrive at a cost, in the range of Rs.1 lakh to Rs.5 lakhs per acre. Irrigation planning has to take this into account, and has to begin here and work backwards. Higher the burden on the farmer, who for decades was dependent on rainfall alone, cropping pattern would undergo drastic changes. It will also impact on land ownership, with small farmers abandoning their lands, possibly leading to land consolidation. Thus, a project which is supposed to prevent out migration, ensure employment and provide water for agriculture, is likely to destabilize existing natural resources ownership and has the potential to change the local social dynamics and can easily disempower the poorest and economically backward sections in the command area.

Environmental and ecological concerns, coupled with displacement, needs to be discussed. Assessment of such impacts should precede any project activity, and cannot be pushed down under. Unfortunately, most irrigation projects in erstwhile Andhra Pradesh and currently Telangana have not passed through a critical environmental scrutiny. Government of Telangana which has committed itself to mammoth plantation exercise, through Harithaharam project, cannot ignore its responsibility towards environment, ecology and biodiversity.

Telangana civil society needs to generate innovative and motivating ideas that amalgamate administrative, policy, political, environmental, economical and technical aspects of water management.

 

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