Read this article to learn about Irrigation: 1. Necessity of Irrigation 2. Development of Irrigation.

Necessity of Irrigation:

The necessity and importance of irrigation for the harvest in India can hardly be exaggerated.

It has the potentiality of bringing commercial revolution in any country. British administration in India was also in perfect agreement with this view.

The East India Company (EIC) servant Sir Charles Trevelyan noted in 1816 – “that irrigation is everything in India; water is more valuable than land, because when water is applied to land it increases its productiveness at least six-fold and renders great extents of land productive, which otherwise would produce nothing or next to nothing”.


Despite this, the British administration played a different ball game and the notorious neglect of irrigation in the era of the Company rule proved disastrous as time passed on. Marx, in 1853, held that the British rule in India “have neglected entirely” irrigation works and held “the deterioration of an agriculture which is not capable of being conducted on the British principle of free competition, of laissez-faire and lassiez-aller”.

Development of Irrigation:

Irrigation works received the attention of the State in ancient and medieval India. The canal, known as the Western Jumna Canal, built in the 14th century by Feroz-Shah Tuglak had been renovated during the reign of Akbar in 1568. The Eastern Jumna Canal had its beginning in the 17th century during- the reign of Shah Jahan and the original Bari Doab and the inundation canals of Sind were also of ancient origin.

According to Maddison’s estimate, the irrigated land in the Mughal empire was not more than 5 p.c. of the cultivated area and the State works were a very small proportion of this. Zeal and enthusiasm that Mughal rulers displayed in the building of irrigation works was conspicuously absent during the regime of the EIC.

However, some irrigation works were undertaken during Dalhousie’s administration after the formation of the Public Works Department in 1855. The number of such works was very remarkable, notably in the North, Western Provinces, and in Madras. The first irrigation work undertaken by the EIC was the restoration of the Western Jumna (Yamuna) Canal (in 1821) and the Eastern Jumna Canal (in 1830) which had fallen into neglect. Another monumental work undertaken by the East India Company was the (Upper) Ganges Canal which was opened in 1854 and the capital expenditure reached well over £ 3 million.


At the time of its opening in 1854, water flowed nearly 900 miles in length to irrigate 15,00,000 acres. It was a thoroughly public enterprise and its express purpose was to fight drought and famines. The Bari Doab Canal was constructed in 1856 in the Punjab. Minor irrigation works were in operation in Rohilkhand and the Dun.

While these works were being constructed in Northern India, to the South in the Madras Presidency, old irrigation works were now in operation in the deltas of the Cauvery (or Kaveri), Kistna (or Krishna) and Godavari rivers. Seeing the success in the Cauvery river, the Godavari ‘anicut’ (dam) was also completed by Sir Arthur Cotton—the pioneer of modern irrigation works in India—during this period (1853).

In spite of these irrigation works in different parts of the country, the EIC. exhibited deadening indifference with regard to irrigation during this time. Thus, the record of the period of ‘merchant capital’ and of the EIC rule “is not a particularly good one”.

With regard to irrigation the Company’s “practice of providing for such projects out of current revenue prevented any regularity or continuity of work and, on the contrary, often resulted in considerable waste from the suspension of valuable public works already undertaken.”


All irrigation works were built by the Government itself out of revenue surpluses. But ultimately this coasted dearly to the Company and an opinion had been aired that irrigation works akin to the guarantee system of railway construction in India could be entrusted to the British private companies. Altogether, two private companies (East India Irrigation Company and Madras Irrigation and Canal Company) were floated but they failed disastrously.

It was then agreed that henceforth the State should undertake all irrigation works and funds should be raised even by means of loans. State patronage poured in continuously after the end of the Company’s rule. Between 1860 and 1880, several important works, like the Lower Ganges Canal and the Agra Canal (in U. P.), the Shirhind Canal (in the Punjab), the Khadakwasala dam (in the Bombay Deccan) were initiated. Even then, progress in this direction was not only unsatisfactory but also inadequate, considering the needs of the country. Some factors were responsible for this mess.

Firstly, a good deal of money had been wasted on some ill- conceived projects and no definite irrigation policy had been formulated.

Secondly, financial stringency prevented from raising funds for investment in irrigation projects. As ‘Home Charges’ were heavily draining resources of the Government, very little fund was available for canal irrigation.

Thirdly, and most importantly, deliberate neglect of irrigation works by the British adminis­tration was based on a wrong premise. The British gave priority to the construction of railways over the construction of canals since the recurrent famine problems could be minimized through the extension of railway traffic rather than canal irrigation.

The virtues of an extensive system of irrigation in fighting famines were spelt out by Sir Arthur Cotton when terrible famine of 1877-78 devastated Madras and Mysore. This famine took 1,350,000 lives and £9,75,000 were expended in relief — a savage demonstration of the need for famine finance to be made a permanent part of Government’s accounts.

The extension of irrigation facilities got priority in the recommendations of all Famine Commissions. The Famine Commission of 1880 also recognised the value of irrigation in its recommendations. Closely on the heels of the recommendations of the Famine Commission (1880), some definite programmes of work were put into action in different parts of the country and, by 1895, most of these were completed.

Some important irrigation works were the Sutlej and the Chenab Canals (in the Punjab), the Lower Ganges and Betwa canals (in the United Provinces), and the line of navigable canals between Cuttack and the Hooghly. Some protective works were undertaken out of the newly created Famine Relief and Insurance Fund.

The first protective work sanctioned to be financed through this Fund was the Betwa Canal project in Bundelkhand. Other protective works worth noting here were the completion of the Nira Canal System in the Bombay Deccan, Jamrao, and Western Nara Canals in Sind.

By 1895-96, the total capital outlay on irrigation works, in tandem with protective works, amounted to Rs. 38.3 million—an increase of 33 p.c. over the figure for 1885-86. The result was the doubling of British India’s irrigation capacity. In actuality, the State went on sponsoring various public works scheme after the end of the Company’s rule.

Roughly, between 1875 and 1890, the area irrigated by government works rose by 8 million acres to about 18.5 million acres. With an increase in private irrigation of more than 3 million acres and government works by 8 million acres the total area under irrigation canal came to 44 million acres. During this period, percentage of total irrigated area under private works (like canals, tanks, wells, and other sources) amounted to 57.8 p.c. as against the State works which stood at 42.2 p.c.

The overall result was the increase in total revenue by 47 p.c., net revenue by 62 p.c., and net profits from Madras, North Western Provinces, and the Punjab Provinces offset the net losses experienced by Bombay and Bengal (in just 10 years after 1885-86). Meanwhile, the overall net rate of return of revenue on capital outlay rose from a wholly inadequate 3 p.c. in 1885-86 to barely adequate 4 p.c. in 1895-96.

In the jungle of this data, the alien Government was tom-tomming and drumbeating what it had achieved. The Government was then arguing that agriculture without irrigation was hard to flourish. But what was worrisome was that the increase in irrigation potential lagged far behind the country’s requirements.

Gopal Krishna Gokhale showed that, in 1883, 30 p.c. of the expenditure on public works had been on irrigation—Rs. 24 crore as against Rs. 54 crore on railways. This criminal neglect of agriculture resulted in frequent and devastating famines, more widespread and intense than any of which history keeps record. Further, the protective and preventive power of irrigation had not been successfully exercised in the most productive areas.

The North could not be made free from drought, the majority of the Deccan works were small canals, catering only a few hundred cusec water. Works constructed in the greater part of Bengal, in the Bombay Deccan and Gujarat in the Central Provinces, and up- country Madras were neither productive nor protective. Thus, so far, the development of irrigation had benefited only some parts of the country.

It was said that the recurrence of famines in 1897 and 1900 proved to be a blessing in disguise for the cultivators in India. Accordingly, the Indian Irrigation Commission was appointed in 1901. The Commission made comprehensive recommendations for the improvements of the existing and construction of new irrigation works.

The Commission’s attention was specially directed towards the extension of irrigation in preventing or mitigating ‘the horrors and the cost of famine’. The Commission was realistic in its appraisal of irrigation prospects. The Commission recommended a programme of major works — both productive and protective — to cost Rs. 44 crore spread over 20 years.

Following the recommendations of the Commission, many projects came into operation. Chief among these were a few productive works like Triple Canal Project in the Sind, etc. and protective works like the Tribeni Canal in Bihar, the Ken Canal in Bundlekhand, the Tendula Canal in Central Provinces, and a few other projects.

However, though a great many projects were undertaken by 1914, many of them could not be completed. Anyway, in 1913-14, the total irrigated area came to about 47 million acres and, by 1917, the Government obtained nearly 15 p.c. on its investment on irrigation works.

The end of the First World War brought some important changes. As a result of the Constitutional Reforms in India, agriculture, cooperation, local self- government, etc., were transferred to the provinces. Thus, irrigation was turned over to local or provincial governments. Now all works could be financed out of loans.

During this time, the demand for small-scale irrigation grew for crops like wheat, sugarcane, etc., to meet the intensive requirements of water supply of these crops. Government stepped in to meet the new challenges by increasing allocations to the agricultural departments. Government also showed its keenness in the exploitation of ground water resources. Now the stage was set for rapid expansion.

The country witnessed the construction of the Sukkur Barrage Project in Sind — ‘the greatest irrigation work ever undertaken’. The Sutlej Valley Project to irrigate southern districts of the Punjab and the adjoining states of Bikaner and Bhawalpur, the Cauvery-Mettur Project to improve the fluctuating water supply of the existing system of irrigation in the Cauvery delta were no less important. Another important scheme was that of the Sarda Canals in the United Provinces.

A remarkable increase in the area irrigated by Government works in India occurred during the period 1914-1939. However, 90 p.c. of the total area irrigated in British India was concentrated mainly in the Punjab, Sind, Madras, and the United Provinces. Resources for the construction of any irrigation works exhausted when the Second World War supervened.

Finally, the partition of the country caused a great havoc since many major irrigation works concentrated in the West Punjab and Sind fell on West Pakistan territory. It was only after independence, that irrigation system, the backbone of modern Indian agriculture, received an unambiguous priority.

A Few Comments on the Development of Irrigation:

The greatest advantage of irrigation is that it acts as a bulwark against famine and drought. It is said that “irrigation thus not only made directly for greater prosperity, but prevented almost all the bad effects of famine or of the fear of famine. The yields of canal-irrigated land were much higher than the un-irrigated land”.

Unfortunately, such comment is unwarranted since famines were almost regular visitors in India throughout the period of our study. One can also contradict the prosperity brought about by irrigation works. One of the important indices of agricultural prosperity is agricultural production.

Available evidence does not indicate any substantial improvement in production. “If, following Maddison, we combine Sivasubramaniam’s more optimistic estimate that cultivated area rose by 23 per cent with Blyn’s estimates of yields (Blyn estimated 122 per cent) we get a roughly constant per capita figure for agricultural output between 1900 and 1946.”

However, irrigation works brought a change in the crop pattern. To meet the government’s various demands like water rate, cultivators went for cultivating commercial crops like sugarcane on irrigated land. Thus, it helped the process of commercialisation of agriculture.

It should be borne in mind that, in India, not all State efforts on irrigation were beneficial to this country. Public works programme on irrigation were out by British administration to serve the British interests. The foreign mentality of the alien rulers was to convert India into a major supplier of raw materials and food grains for Europe.

Major irrigation works in the four provinces of the Punjab, Sind, Madras, and the United Provinces were undertaken in supporting exports of raw cotton and wheat in exchange of manufactures from Britain. It would have been more beneficial if public works on irrigation had been concentrated in the uninhabited areas, at least in the early stages of construction of irrigation canals. It concentrated mainly in productive areas.

The gross command area of various irrigation works did not always equal the net increase in irrigated area despite encouragement of the Government. The reason probably is that the extension of large-scale works displaced earlier works in the form of wells and ponds constructed and maintained by private enterprise.

These private sources supported agricultural practices that attached due attention to crop mixtures and the preservation of soil fertility. It is true that though irrigation helped to generate exportable surplus of food-grains and cash crops and, hence, the process of commercialization, it displaced dry crops like millets or pulses.

Further, Amiya Bagchi argues that the giant canal irrigation aggravated social cleavages. The high payment of water rates, the rising of the assessed value of the land, the pressure to grow cash crops, etc., forced cultivators to fall back upon landlords-moneylenders’ net, leading to the indebtedness of the former to the latter.

Besides monetary costs, one should also consider the non-monetary cost or the ‘mischief’ caused by irrigation:

Brian Davey talks about ecological imbalances created out of giant irrigation works. “Persistent heavy cropping under the stimulus to cultivate valuable commercial crops like sugarcane, opium, cotton, and indigo brought a decline in fertility in areas like the irrigated Doab region in the U. P.”

There were other injurious side effects. In the absence of a very good drainage system, it caused widespread problems of water-logging, salinity and alkalinity, which rendered million of acres infertile. No sufficient attention had been paid during the construction of the canals to the drainage system of the land roundabout.

Water table in some areas declined considerably as canals carried away rivers’ water upstream. Further, canal irrigation encouraged overuse of water that harmed tillage. An increase in the incidence of malaria followed as water-logging problem assumed menacing proportion. Thus, irrigation development was not an unmixed blessing.

We now conclude our discussion. Compared with the enormous dimensions of the major irrigation systems, the overall results were disappointing. Ii was designed to serve the British interests and the overall costs (including injurious side effects) were stoically to be borne by Indians.