Meena Menon

Region also plagued by lack of funds and political neglect

93 per cent of land in the region is non-irrigatedIrrigation projects in package were part of Vidharbha's backlog

MUMBAI: The Maharashtra Government is hopeful that irrigation projects lagging behind in Vidharbha would be expedited, thanks to the Rs. 2,177 crore earmarked under the Prime Minister's Rs. 3,750-crore package released recently. However, questions are being raised about the feasibility of focusing a large part of the package on irrigation alone.

Shetkari Sanghatana leader from Wardha, Vijay Jawandia said the package had neglected the bulk of farmers in the region, who had no access to irrigation. He claimed that even if all the projects were completed, about 85 per cent farmers in the region would still have no access to water. "Even after spending so much money, only about 1.59 lakh hectares will be irrigated. What about the rest of the area," he wondered. He suggested that authorities could have allotted money in the package to dig wells rather than for drip irrigation and horticulture, as the ryots would have been able to provide protective irrigation to cotton crops.

A team sent by the Planning Commission to study suicides in the region cited lack of irrigation to be a major cause for the farmers' distress. This is reflected in allocations in the Prime Minister's package.

However, Dr. Ajay Dandekar, professor at the Dhirubhai Ambani Institute for Information Communication and Technology, Gandhinagar, who wrote a report on `Farmers' suicides in Vidharbha' for the Tata Institute Social Sciences, said the irrigation projects under this package were not new. They were a part of Vidharbha's irrigation backlog that had crossed Rs. 10,000 crore (as of June 2004). Vidharbha has the highest backlog of irrigation projects in the State, official sources said.

Dr. Dandekar said 93 per cent of land in the region was non-irrigated. With the Prime Minister's office supervising projects now, work maybe expedited. "However, how much these projects will add to the percentage of irrigated area is anyone's guess," he added. He said the package failed to address key issues like regional imbalance and cotton pricing .

Water conservation experts said Vidharbha was known for its tank irrigation and traditional methods of water harvesting. Would the relief package generate sufficient irrigation potential, they wonder.

Dam work incomplete

The region was also plagued by lack of funds and political neglect. Work on many dams is incomplete for years. For instance, work on the Bhawanthadi Project in Gondia district, which began in 1975, is yet to be completed. Projects like the Upper Wardha have been hit by cost overruns. The original cost of the project was Rs. 398.80 million, while today it is Rs. 6,618.60 million. It is expected to be complete only next year, according to the Tenth Five-Year Plan.

The Vidharbha Irrigation Development Corporation (VIDC) was formed in 1997 to expedite works in the region by raising funds through bonds. According to the VIDC, Vidharbha has 97.43 lakh hectares of land area. The total irrigation potential of the region is 28.95 lakh hectares and of this, irrigation potential of 11.78 lakh hectares has been created up to June 2006.

Under the package, irrigation projects would get aid from the Accelerated Irrigation Benefit Programme and the Rural Infrastructure Development Fund. Official sources said the six districts of Wardha, Yavatmal, Amravati, Akola, Buldhana and Washim, which have a backlog of 82 per cent in irrigation projects, would benefit from the Prime Minister's package. About 1.59 lakh hectares would be brought under irrigation in these districts over a period of three years by completing all major, medium and minor irrigation projects.

Official sources said all these projects were already approved by the State Government and are under construction. Work on three big projects like Bembla in Yavatmal, the district with the highest number of farmers' suicides, Lower Wardha in Wardha district and Khadakpurna in Buldhana would be expedited. The projects account for 45 per cent of funds under the package.

Misgivings about package

The 442 minor projects, to be handled by the State's Water Conservation Department, would cost Rs. 90 crore and account for 14,000 hectares of irrigation potential. However, Manmohan Singh's package is valid for only three years. There are fears that some big projects may not be complete by then and there could be some spill over of funds.

Also, as Mr. Jawandia pointed out, though money was allotted on the behalf of farmers, often contractors and industrialists benefited. This was the bane of the Vidharbha region, where the development backlog was rising in the past two decades, he said.