Irrigation Management in Odisha: Participatory Perspective


“Irrigation as a pre-condition for sustainable agro-economic development and food security urges a “people inclusive approach” in its management”.

The prosperity and economic development of a region is intertwined with the nature and extent of available water resources, its development and management. Armed with, Odisha, abundant water resources of an average annual precipitation close to 1500 mm, having a long coastline of 480 KM and some perennial and semi-perennial rivers, the contradictory proposition witnessed here is that, most of the rural folks are abysmally poor and largely dependent on rain-fed agriculture for their livelihood and sustenance.

It is nothing but an abject anarchy brought in by the absence of a prudent, well thought-out irrigation management policies and practices. It also throws open the limitations ignoring or overriding traditional management practices relating to the available water resources.


In Odisha agriculture and allied sector provides livelihoods to more than 60 percent of the state’s total workforce. However, the shares of Agriculture sector constitute 16.46 (17%) percent in real terms at 2004-05 prices of the Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP).

Though the “mainstay” of Odisha economy, the above statistics reflects the gross underdevelopment of the sector and the abject poverty of the people involved in the sector. In such backdrop, the development of irrigation holds the key to sustainable agricultural development.

Status of Irrigation Potential;

Blessed with an average rainfall nearly more than the double of most parts of Rajasthan, parts of Andhra Pradesh, Vidarbh and other arid and semi-arid regions; still, Odisha’s agriculture suffers from perpetual water scarcity resulting into slow growth rate of agricultural productivity, crop loss and food scarcity due to the inadequate and erratic irrigation facilities. The largest share for creating new infrastructures in the state’s budget goes for development irrigation infrastructures.


The irrigation sector holds the key to Odisha’s economic development and poverty alleviation. The state has a cultivable land of 61.65 lakh hectares. It has been assessed that, 49.90 lakh hectares can be brought under irrigation through major, medium and minor (flow & lift) irrigation projects.

Irrigation development has not made much headway in the state since the pre- independence era. Hardly 1.83 lakh hectares of Net Irrigation Potential (NIP) were created. After introduction of the Five Year Plan by Govt. of India in 1951, attempts were made for the rapid harnessing of water resources and much emphasis was laid to accelerate the irrigation potential creation. Many major, medium and minor irrigation projects have been constructed in the state during the last six decades, thereby increasing the net irrigation potential from 1.83 lakh hectares in 1951 to 30.15 lakh hectares in 2011.

The state government was claiming to have created irrigation potential in 29.31 lakh hectares, about 47.5 percent of the total cultivable area, by year 2009-10. Out of this created potential, as high as 45.1 percent was through major and medium irrigation projects; while 18.8 percent was through flow based minor irrigation sources, 16.8 percent through lift based minor irrigation projects and 19.3 percent of sources created through other sources.

Irrigation Management and its Challenges;


However, these claims are refuted repeatedly by experts, farmer organizations and various Water User Associations (WUA’s). There exists a very large gap between potential created and utilized. Coverage of most of the irrigation structures is shrinking.

The claimed growth in irrigation potential seems to have miserably failed in increasing agriculture production or at least in stabilizing it. The production of paddy, the major crop that covers more than 70 percent of Net Sown Area (NSA), is as fluctuating as earlier. Droughts are still causing as much, if not more, havoc and loss as it was earlier. Since 1991-92, the year that had a bumper food grain production, 72 lakh tons, the production of food grains is gradually on the decline.

The government is showing signs of desperation. It knows that irrigation statistics are hiding gross inefficiency of the irrigation sector. In the year 2005-06 it got the awakening that as high as 198 of 314 blocks in Odisha did not even have 35 percent of cultivable land under irrigation.

The government then declared that by the end of the eleventh five-year plan period, i.e., by 2012, every block of the state will have a minimum of 35 percent of their cultivable land under irrigation cover. Well said… but by the end of June 2011, only 41 of the 198 blocks with less were able to meet the minimum 35 percent coverage. To achieve the target the state is required to create additional irrigation potential in 6.6 lakh hectares in the targeted blocks alone.


But only 3.73 lakh hectares of new irrigation potential could be created in five years, out of which a meager 2.53 lakh hectares were created in the deficit blocks. A clear case of target is going astray. While irrigation coverage, demarcated in terms of potential created, has lagged behind; management of irrigation sources is a cause of greater worry.

The focus, over the years, has been more about major and medium irrigation projects. But they are the ones where user participation is the least, where the efficiency of water is the minimum, but the cost of creating the potential is highest. Odisha is one of the first among major Indian states to provide legislative support to water users, to form their associations, known as Pani Panchayat (Participatory Irrigation Management), to manage irrigation installations and processes in the year 2002.

But implementation of the idea has never really taken off. Pani Panchayat (Participatory Irrigation Management) functionaries have hardly gained ownership over the total processes and installations. Rather, partial transfer of responsibility is being seen as shifting of difficult burdens to the farmers. Transfer of management control has not happened at the top and middle level which is still controlled by department engineers.

The problem is less pronounced in case of smaller irrigation sources where community engagement is more evident. Large irrigation projects are also leading to further mono-cropping of paddy and wasteful cropping practices. This is evident in every major and medium irrigation project where the chasm between design cropping pattern and actual cropping pattern is very high. Apart from this, the major and medium irrigation projects have their fair share of environmental and social burdens.


Still, the government’s perspective plan is highly tilted in favour of major and medium projects and of late on ground water. As large and medium projects are not coming up in the expected manner, the ground water sources are being touted as an easy way out.

This new phenomenon stems from an assessment that, Odisha’s ground water potentials are being grossly underutilized and that development of ground water stands at a mere 15 percent of its potential. But real experiences tell something else.

Depletion of ground water is becoming a cause of serious concern in non-coastal areas, where its utilization rate has been assessed as very low. In absence of the supplementary system to recharge ground water sources, serious headway in exploiting ground water sources will be catastrophic. Failure in agriculture, largely a product of an absence of supplementary irrigation, has become a common phenomenon. It adds to the misery of the agriculture dependent persons and pulls back Odisha’s economy badly.

The way we develop our irrigation sources also create an impact on water availability for other sources. The state government approaches both flood and drought as two different sets of problem and tries to address them separately. There lies the fundamental error of judgment. Small irrigation sources can also mitigate floods in the mighty rivers. That has to be the way.

The government Water Resources Department still stays rooted as an engineer driven organization. It tries to find a solution in engineer and technology alone. It has failed to rise above the erstwhile Irrigation Department which was refurbished as Department of Water Resources (DWR)  to include and integrate everything related to water for holistic planning and development.

With this backdrop, they hold the view that they have offered the best possible system design, which needs no change. It is the people, who must change their habits and use the system as per the design provisions. They are not prepared to accept the fact that the design provisions and the system performance to support the desired crops are incompatible.

Future Prospects;

Nothing is free from loopholes in terms of its design and implementation. Much less is a design methodology of an irrigation system. For the amateurs it is already obsolete. If the present system has defied improvement for about half a century now, logically there is a case for reviewing it by a group of high powered experts.

The chinks have been identified since long. But community participation and the addition of a social-environmental perspective to irrigation planning has still eluded. Unfortunately the irrigation fraternity is so deeply entrenched and their lobby with any Government is so strong that, it has been ordinarily impossible to make any dent on their capital intensive and engineering driven fortress. It requires an extra-ordinary effort of the kind of public demonstration to shake the immobile.

However, as Pani Panchayats (Participatory Irrigation Management) in Odisha is a recent practice in irrigation scenario, there are various hypothetical questions have been raised on the brink of its low out-put like; was there any design error? Was it poorly implemented? Is the department or the farmers to be blamed for the under performance of the Pani Panchayats   or Participatory Irrigation Management in the context of Odisha?

In this backdrop, the functioning of the Pani Panchayats (Participatory Irrigation Management) in Odisha needs to be analysed  with immense academic concern and research under the following line that ; is it suffering from any structural or designing deficiency or the issue that of poor implementation or something else? However, the answer lies in,

  • To promote and secure equitable distribution of water among its users, adequate maintenance of irrigation system, efficient and economical utilization of water to optimize agricultural production.
  • To protect the environment and to ensure ecological balance inculcating a sense of ownership of the irrigation system in accordance with the water budget and the operational plan.
  • To bridge the gap between potential created and potential utilized.
  • To have a prompt attention to problems and resolutions of disputes.
  • To be collective involvement in better application & management of agricultural extension services.


  • Arunanchalam, R. and T. Radhakrishnan. (2006). Status and Concerns for Natural Resource Management. Kurukshetra, Ministry of Rural Development.Vol.54, No.6.Pp. 42-43.
  • Krishnan, S. A. (2004). Is the Water Bomb Ticking for India? Science Reporter, CSIR, New Delhi. Vol.41, No.6, Pp. 9-19.
  • Pati, Biksh Kumar. “Water Resources of Odisha”: Issues and Challenges; RCDC.Pp.51-53.
  • Sivanappan, R. K. (2000). Time for Policy Reform, Survey of Indian agriculture: The Hindu. Chennai.Pp.155.
  • Shiva, V. (2005). The First and Last Commons. Yojana, a Development Monthly. New Delhi. Vol. 49, Pp.6-8.
  • Annual Report 2010-11, State Water Policy, Odisha.


Mr. Uttam Kumar Jena

Rajiv Gandhi National Fellow

P.G. Department of Political Science,

Utkal University, Bhubaneswar, Odisha.

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