Irrigation in India

Irrigation in India includes a network of major and minor canals from Indian rivers, groundwater well based systems, tanks, and other rainwater harvesting projects for agricultural activities. Of these groundwater system is the largest.[1] In 2013–14, only about 36.7% of total agricultural land in India was reliably irrigated,[2] and remaining 2/3 cultivated land in India is dependent on monsoons.[3] 65% of the irrigation in India is from groundwater.[4] Currently[when?] about 51% of the agricultural area cultivating food grains is covered by irrigation. The rest of the area is dependent on rainfall which is most of the times unreliable and unpredictable.

An irrigation canal in Gujarat. Irrigation contributes significantly to the agriculture in India.

Indian government launched a demand side water management plan costing INR6000 crore or USD854 million across 8,350 water stressed villages of 78 districts in seven states – Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh – over five years from 2021–2022 to 2026–27, with the view to harvest rainwater, enhance water table, water recharge rate with village panchayat level water management plans.[4] Most of the canal irrigation is in the canal network of Ganges-Yamuna basin mainly in the states of Punjab, Haryana, and Uttar Pradesh and somewhat in Rajasthan and Bihar, while small local canal networks also exist in the south in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Kerala.[5] The largest canal in India is Indira Gandhi Canal, which is about 650 km long.[3] India has an ambitious river linking national project to enhance the coverage of canal-irrigated area, reduce floods and water shortage.[6][7]

Irrigation in India helps improve food security, reduce dependence on monsoons, improve agricultural productivity and create rural job opportunities. Dams used for irrigation projects help produce electricity and transport facilities, as well as provide drinking water supplies to a growing population, control floods and prevent droughts.[6]


Ancient IndiaEdit

The earliest mentions of irrigation are found in Rigveda chapters 1.55, 1.85, 1.105, 7.9, 8.69 and 10.101.[8] The Veda mentions only well-style irrigation,[9] where kupa and avata wells once dug are stated to be always full of water, from which varatra (rope strap) and cakra (wheel) pull kosa (pails) of water. This water was, state the Vedas, led into surmi susira (broad channels) and from there into khanitrima (diverting channels) into fields.[8]

Later, the 4th-century BCE Indian scholar Pāṇini, mentions tapping several rivers for irrigation.[8][10] The mentioned rivers include Sindhu, Suvastu, Varnu, Sarayu, Vipas and Chandrabhaga.[8] Buddhist texts from the 3rd century BCE also mention irrigation of crops.[9] Texts from the Maurya Empire era (3rd century BCE) mention that the state raised revenue from charging farmers for irrigation services from rivers.[8][11]

Patanjali, in Yogasutra of about the 4th century CE, explains a technique of yoga by comparing it to "the way a farmer diverts a stream from an irrigation canal for irrigation".[12][13] In Tamil Nadu, the Grand Anicut (canal) across the Kaveri river was implemented in the 3rd century CE, and the basic design is still used today.[11]

Medieval eraEdit

The most widespread irrigation system in India was undertaken in India in the medieval period by the Sultanate rulers. Firoz Shah Tughlaq (1309-1388) built the most extensive canal irrigation system around the Indo-Gangetic doab and the region west of the river Yamuna in the fourteenth century. These canals provided vast resources of water to agricultural lands in northern India as well as vital supplies of water to urban and rural settlements.[14] These irrigation projects were continued by the subsequent rulers of northern India, particularly the Mughal rulers till the early eighteenth century. The British built the colonial canal networks on these medieval canal systems.[15]

Colonial eraEdit

Ganges irrigation canal built during the colonial era, and inaugurated in 1854.

In 1800, some 800,000 hectares were irrigated in India.[11] The Britishers by 1940 built significant number of canals and irrigation systems in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar,[16] Punjab, Assam and Orissa.[17][18][19] The Ganges Canal reached 350 miles from Haridwar to Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh. In Assam, a jungle in 1840, by 1900 had 1.62m hectares under cultivation, especially in tea plantations. In all, the amount of irrigated land multiplied by a factor of eight. Historian David Gilmour states British colonial government had built irrigation network with Ganges canal and that, "by the end of the century the new network of canals in the Punjab" were in place.[20]

Much of the increase in irrigation during British colonial era was targeted at dedicated poppy and opium farms in India, for exports to China.[21][22][23] Poppy cultivation by the British Raj required reliable, dedicated irrigation system.[24] Large portions of the eastern and northern regions of India, namely United Provinces, Northwestern Provinces, Oudh, Behar, Bengal and Rewa were irrigated to ensure reliable supply of poppy and opium for China.[25] By 1850, the Asian opium trade created nearly 1,000 square kilometers of poppy farms in India in its fertile Ganges plains, which increased to over 200.000 hectares by 1900.[25] This diversion of food crop land to cash crop use, state scholars, led to massive famines over the 1850 to 1905 period.[26][27]

Major irrigation canals were built after millions of people died each in a series of major famines in the 19th century in British India.[11][27] In 1900, British India (including Bangladesh and Pakistan) had about 13 million ha under irrigation. In 1901 the Viceroy, Lord Curzon, appointed a Commission chaired by Sir Colin Scott-Moncrieff to draw up a comprehensive irrigation plan for India. In 1903 the Commission's report recommended irrigation of an additional 2.6 million hectares.[28][29] By 1947, the irrigated area had increased to about 22 million ha.[11] In Northwestern British India region alone, with the colonial government's effort, 2.2 million hectares of previously barren land was irrigated by the 1940s, most of which is now part of Pakistan.[30] Arthur Cotton led some irrigation canal projects in the Deccan peninsula, and landmarks are named after him in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. However, much of the added irrigation capacity during the colonial era was provided by groundwater wells and tanks, operated manually.[31]

Irrigation trends since 1947Edit

One of the sections of Bhakra Canal system in north India. This canal network irrigates over 4 million hectares of land.[32]

India's irrigation covered crop area was about 22.6 million hectares in 1951, and it increased to a potential of 90 mha at the end of 1995, inclusive of canals and groundwater wells.[33] However, the potential irrigation relies on reliable supply of electricity for water pumps and maintenance, and the net irrigated land has been considerably short. According to 2001/2002 Agriculture census, only 58.13 million hectares of land was actually irrigated in India.[34] The total arable land in India is 160 million hectares (395 million acres). According to the World Bank, only about 35% of total agricultural land in India was reliably irrigated in 2010.[2]

The ultimate sustainable irrigation potential of India has been estimated in 1991 United Nations' FAO report to be 139.5 million hectares, comprising 58.5 mha from major and medium river-fed irrigation canal schemes, 15 mha from minor irrigation canal schemes, and 66 mha from groundwater well fed irrigation.[33]

India's irrigation is mostly groundwater well based. At 39 million hectares (67% of its total irrigation), India has the world's largest groundwater well equipped irrigation system (China with 19 mha is second, USA with 17 mha is third).[1]

India has spent 16,590 crore on irrigation development between 1950 and 1985. Between 2000-2005 and 2005-2010, India proposed to invest a sum of 1,03,315 crore (INR) and ₹ 2,10,326 crore (INR) on irrigation and flood control in India.[35]

State-wise irrigation dataEdit

Tables below provide the fraction of agricultural area irrigated by state, the agricultural yield per hectare, and the proportion of different irrigation technologies employed.

Statewise Irrigation Coverage and ProductivityEdit

State Agricultural Production (Million Tonnes) Percentage of total Production Productivity (tonnes per hectare) Percent of cultivated area under irrigation[36]
Punjab 27.3 11.6 4.2 98.1
Haryana 15.6 6.6 3.3 87.6
Andhra Pradesh 20.4 8.7 2.7 63.9
Bihar 12.2 5.2 1.7 63.4
Tamil Nadu 7.1 3.0 2.2 63.1
West Bengal 16.3 6.9 2.4 48.2
Gujarat 6.4 2.7 1.5 44.7
Madhya Pradesh 13.9 5.9 1.1 44.5
Uttarakhand 1.7 6.7 1.7 42.9
Orissa 7.4 3.1 1.3 33.6
Karnataka 11.2 4.8 1.5 28.5
Chhattisgarh 5.1 2.2 1.0 27.6
Rajasthan 16.6 7.1 1.2 26.4
Maharashtra 11.4 4.8 1.0 16.8
Jharkhand 1.7 0.7 1.7 5.4
Assam 4.1 1.7 1.5 4.9
Other States 6.3 2.6 NA NA
All India 234.4 100 1.9 48.3

State-wise irrigation types, capacity and actualEdit

State Total crop area
(million hectares)
Groundwater irrigation
crop area
(million hectares)
Canal irrigation
crop area
(million hectares)
Total crop area
actually irrigated
(million hectares)
Andhra Pradesh 16.6 2.5 2.7 4.9
Arunachal Pradesh 0.4 0.07 0.05
Assam 3.2 0.13 0.1 0.22
Bihar 6.4 2.2 1.3 3.5
Chhattisgarh 5.1 0.17 0.74 0.85
Goa 0.1 0.1 0.1
Gujarat 9.9 3.1 0.5 3.2
Haryana 3.6 1.99 1.32 3.26
Himachal Pradesh 1.0 0.02 0.09 0.11
Jammu & Kashmir 0.9 0.02 0.38 0.37
Jharkhand 3.2 0.11 0.13 0.24
Karnataka 12.2 1.43 1.33 2.38
Kerala 1.5 0.18 0.21 0.39
Madhya Pradesh 15.8 2.74 1.70 4.19
Maharashtra 19.8 3.12 1.03 3.36
Manipur 0.2 0.05 0.05
Meghalaya 0.3 0.06 0.06
Mizoram 0.1 0.01 0.01
Nagaland 1.1 0.1 0.07
Odisha 4.9 0.17 1.07 1.24
Punjab 4.0 3.06 0.94 3.96
Rajasthan 21.1 3.98 1.52 5.12
Sikkim 0.1 0.01 0.01
Tamil Nadu 6.5 1.61 1.43 2.66
Tripura 0.3 0.02 0.05 0.07
Uttar Pradesh 17.6 10.64 4.21 14.49
Uttarakhand 0.8 0.22 0.14 0.35
West Bengal 5.5 2.09 1.22 2.98
All India 159.6 39.43 22.48 58.13

Note: The All India total includes land area for Union Territories of India that is not shown in the above table.

Project classificationEdit

An irrigation canal in western Rajasthan.

Irrigation Projects in India are classified as follows:[citation needed]

  1. Major Irrigation Projects
  2. Medium Irrigation Projects
  3. Minor Irrigation Projects
  4. Micro-irrigation Projects

Since 1950, irrigation works were classified on the basis of cost incurred for the projects' implementation, governing and dissemination. However, the Planning Commission of India adopted the classification of projects on the basis of culturable command area (CCA).

Minor Irrigation ProjectsEdit

This reservoir of the Mamer Minor Irrigation Project in Rajasthan is an example of a minor irrigation project

Minor irrigation project is a classification of irrigation projects used in India. A project with a designed to irrigate an area of 2000 hectares or less is classified as a minor irrigation [37][38][39] Before the Fifth Five-Year Plan, irrigation schemes were classified on the basis of investments needed to implement the scheme.[37] Since the Fifth Five-Year Plan, India has adopted the command area-based system of classification.[37]

Minor Irrigation ProjectsEdit

Micro Irrigation Fund (MIF) of INR 5,000 crore was established "to bring more land area under micro-irrigation as part of its objective to boost agriculture production and farmers income", NABARD offers low interest rate to state govts "to promote micro-irrigation, which currently has a coverage of only 10 million hectares as against the potential of 70 million hectares." Drip irrigationis promoted.[40]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b S. Siebert et al (2010), Groundwater use for irrigation – a global inventory, Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 14, pp. 1863–1880
  2. ^ a b Agricultural irrigated land (% of total agricultural land) The World Bank (2013)
  3. ^ a b Economic Times: How to solve the problems of India's rain-dependent on agricultural land
  4. ^ a b PM Launches Rs 6,000 Crore Groundwater Management Plan, NDTV, 25 December 2019.
  5. ^ Pooja Mondal, Canals Irrigation in India (With Maps an Pictures).
  6. ^ a b National Water Development Agency Ministry of Water Resources, Govt of India (2014)
  7. ^ Jayanta Bandyopadhyay and Shama Perveen (2003), The Interlinking of Indian Rivers: Some Questions on the Scientific, Economic and Environmental Dimensions of the Proposal Archived 14 July 2014 at the Wayback Machine IIM Calcutta, IISWBM, Kolkata
  8. ^ a b c d e BN Puri, Irrigation and Agricultural Economy in Ancient India, Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Vol. 48/49 (1968), pp. 383-390
  9. ^ a b Hoiberg, Dale (2000). Students' Britannica India. Encyclopædia Britannica. p. 260. ISBN 978-0-85229-760-5.
  10. ^ Gopal, Lallanji (2008). History of agriculture in India, up to c. 1200 A.D. p. 762. ISBN 978-81-8069-521-6.
  11. ^ a b c d e India - History of Irrigation FAO - United Nations (2014)
  12. ^ White, David (2014). The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: a biography. Princeton University Press. p. 139. ISBN 978-0-691-14377-4.
  13. ^ Patañjali (Transl: Chip Hartranft) (2003). The Yoga-Sūtra of Patañjali: a new translation with commentary. Boston: Shambhala Publications. p. 62. ISBN 978-1-59030-023-7.
  14. ^ Husain Siddiqui, Iqtidar, and Husain Siddiqui, Iqtidar. “Water Works and Irrigation System in India During Pre-Mughal Times.” Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient 29 (1986): 52–78
  15. ^ Smith, R. (1849). Canals of irrigation in the North Western Provinces of India / [by R. Baird Smith]. Calcutta: Calcutta Review, 1-20
  16. ^ Praveen Singh (2003), Colonising the Rivers: Colonial Technology, Irrigation and Flood Control in North Bihar, 1850–1950, Ph.D. thesis (Jawaharlal Nehru University), pp. 198–261
  17. ^ Neil Charlesworth, British Rule and the Indian Economy, 1800-1914 (1981) pp 23-37
  18. ^ Ian Stone, Canal Irrigation in British India: Perspectives on Technological Change in a Peasant Economy (2002) pp 278-80
  19. ^ for the historiography, see Rohan D’Souza, "Water in British India: the making of a ‘colonial hydrology’." History Compass (2006) 4#4 pp: 621-628. online
  20. ^ David Gilmour (2007). The Ruling Caste: Imperial Lives in the Victorian Raj. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. p. 9.
  21. ^ Thorner (1962), ‘Deindustrialization’ in India, 1881–1931, In: D. Thorner, and A. Thorner (Editors), Land and Labour in India, ISBN 978-8180280214
  22. ^ T. Roy, London School of Economics, Globalization, Factor Prices and Poverty in Colonial India, Australian Economic History Review, Vol. 47, No. 1, pp. 73-94 (March 2007)
  23. ^ Sarkar (1983), The colonial economy, In: S. Sarkar (Editor) Modern India: 1885–1947, Macmillan, ISBN 978-0333904251
  24. ^ National and English Review, Volume 6, p. PA480, at Google Books, WH Allen & Co, London
  25. ^ a b The Parliamentary Debates, Volume 348, p. 1058, at Google Books, Hansard's, HM Government, Great Britain (14 August 1890), pp. 1054-1061
  26. ^ Maddison, A. (1970), The historical origins of Indian poverty, PSL Quarterly Review, 23(92), pp. 31-81
  27. ^ a b Richard Hunt (1997), To End Poverty - The Starvation of the Periphery by the Core, Oxford, UK, ISBN 978-0952887201, pp. 145-148
  28. ^ "Scott-Moncrieff Commission". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 3 December 2016.
  29. ^ Scott-Moncrieff, Sir Colin Campbell (1903). Report of the Indian Irrigation Commission, 1901-1903. London: H. M. Stationery Office.
  30. ^ Jin-Bee Ooi (1983). Natural resources in tropical countries. Singapore: Singapore University Press. p. 350. ISBN 978-9971-69-063-2.
  31. ^ Edward Balfour, The Cyclopædia of India and of Eastern and Southern Asia at Google Books, pp. 377-380
  32. ^ Himachal Pradesh & Punjab - Bhakra and Gobindsagar FAO - United Nations
  33. ^ a b Irrigation in India FAO, United Nations
  34. ^ Net Irrigated Area FAO, United Nations
  35. ^ "PDF on 10th 5-Year Plan of India(2002-2007)" (PDF).
  36. ^ Gupta, Dhritman (20 August 2012). "How UP Beats Maharashtra, Gujarat In Agriculture Productivity". India Spend. Retrieved 27 December 2013.
  37. ^ a b c Dhawan, B.D. (30 September 1989). "Major and Minor Irrigation Works". Economic and Political Weekly. 24 (39): A117–A121. JSTOR 4395392.
  38. ^ The Andhra Pradesh Water Resources Development Corporation Act, 1997. 1997.
  39. ^ The impact of Minor Irrigation Projects on Economic Development in Selected Six Tribal Majority Districts of Jharkhand, Orissa and West Bengal (PDF). New Delhi: Planning Commission of India. 2004.
  40. ^ 10 important government schemes for agriculture sector, India today, 2019-08-30.

External linksEdit