Telangana’s net irrigated area doubled since 2014. Can KCR’s irrigation projects take all the credit?

Not quite, considering groundwater levels also rose thanks to heavy rainfall.

Paddy farmers in Telangana.

Since 2014, Telangana has seen a considerable rise in irrigated agricultural land. The net irrigated area – the actual land where irrigation was used for growing crops in an agricultural year – went up by 95 percent, from 17.26 lakh hectares in 2014-15 to 33.64 lakh hectares in 2020-21. The gross irrigated area – total area under crops, counted as many times as the number of times it is irrigated – went up nearly 123 percent from 25.28 lakh hectares to 56.37 lakh hectares. 

This data from the union agriculture ministry’s land use statistics resonates with the Bharat Rashtra Samithi government’s claims of more than doubling the irrigated area in the state, keeping with the promise of providing neellu (water resources) to farmers after bifurcating from Andhra Pradesh in 2014. 

However, farmers’ rights activists say that much of this increase is due to a rise in groundwater levels and not necessarily due to the massive irrigation projects such as Kaleshwaram and Palamuru-Rangareddy Lift Irrigation schemes, as touted by the government. 

According to the Telangana State Development Planning Society’s annual weather report for 2022-23, the state has seen record excess rainfall in recent years. This year’s annual rainfall of 1,387.8 mm (53 percent excess) is the highest recorded rainfall in the last 19 years, it said. The second (1,322.4 mm in 2020-21) and third highest records (1,180.5 mm in 2021-22) were in the previous two years. 

The BRS government has launched multiple ambitious irrigation projects in its past two terms since Telangana was formed. The Palamuru-Rangareddy Lift Irrigation Scheme is aimed at irrigating upland areas of undivided Mahabubnagar, Rangareddy, and Nalgonda districts for a command area of 4.04 lakh hectares, while the controversial Kaleshwaram project is meant to create new command area of around 18.26 lakh acres (7.39 lakh hectares) in the undivided districts of Adilabad, Karimnagar, Medak, Nalgonda, Rangareddy, Warangal, and Nizamabad. 

However, much of the present increase in irrigated areas can be attributed to rising groundwater levels and lakes filling up since 2018 thanks to heavy rains, as well as water stored in reservoirs that have been completed as part of the irrigation projects, said Ravi Kanneganti, an activist from the farmers’ rights organisation Rythu Swarajya Vedika. 

“Even if a few reservoirs were completed, due to the absence of a proper canal system, the water hasn’t reached farms,” he said.

Between 2013 and 2023, Telangana’s extractable groundwater went up by 56 percent from 472 tmc ft to 739 tmc ft, according to state government estimates. The groundwater estimation committee, consisting of state and union government officials, said that this year, groundwater extraction was expected to be at 38.56 percent (285 tmc ft), with 90 percent of the extracted water (256.5 tmc ft) expected to be used towards irrigation. 

In 2023, groundwater recharge was estimated to have been largely contributed to by rainfall (35 percent) and surface water irrigation (31 percent), followed by groundwater irrigation (13 percent), tanks and ponds (seven percent), water conservation structures (10 percent), and canals (four percent). 

Do costs outweigh benefits in the state govt’s pet projects?

Recently in September, Chief Minister K Chandrashekar Rao launched the first phase of the Palamuru-Rangareddy project on the Krishna river in Nagarkurnool district by switching on a massive pump set, one of 31 such machines. Phase I is aimed at providing drinking water to 1,226 villages, and in phase II, water will be provided for irrigation. 

“Only one motor was started ceremonially in Palamuru. With the ongoing Krishna river water sharing dispute between Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, it will take a long time before Palamuru water reaches as far as Nalgonda,” Ravi said. 

Kaleshwaram, on the other hand, is an even bigger project built at a cost of over Rs 1 lakh crore. The state government has borrowed over Rs 80,000 crore from various banks and financial institutions, which is expected to cost over Rs 10,000 crore annually to pay off over the next 12 to 13 years.

A 2022 draft performance audit report on the ongoing Kaleshwaram project by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India pulled up the state government for miscalculating the benefit-cost ratio of the project in its detailed project report by overestimating benefits while underestimating costs, calling the project economically unviable. The report expressed concerns over the state government being able to finance the debt servicing and operational costs of the project and asked it to come up with a plan to identify income sources for the Kaleshwaram Irrigation Project Corporation Ltd, a special purpose vehicle that was set up to raise funds for Kaleshwaram. 

Kaleshwaram has become the target of much criticism and ridicule amid the 2023 Telangana assembly election campaigns, with opposition parties Congress and BJP alleging large-scale corruption and mismanagement of the engineering works, especially after a few piers of the Medigadda Lakshmi Barrage – the starting point of the Kaleshwaram project – sank in October. 

K Laxminarayana, professor at the University of Hyderabad’s School of Economics, said that the government may have to resort to increasing water cess and taxes on drinking water in its attempt to pay off the loans. In 2021, the 15th Finance Commission too had suggested imposing ‘user charges’ to generate enough revenue to cover the operation and maintenance costs of the project. 

“Collecting huge amounts from farmers would be nearly impossible. They are only able to earn around Rs 25,000 per acre, but the entire expenditure is going up to Rs 1 lakh per acre annually, making it unviable,” he said. 

The CAG report said that the capital cost alone of irrigating the targeted command area of Kaleshwaram would amount to almost Rs 6.5 lakh per acre, apart from annual costs including debt servicing, energy and operational costs that would amount to over Rs 1 lakh per acre. 

Anvesh Reddy, a Kisan Congress leader from Nizamabad, said that one likely reason for the amount of irrigated area not changing much over the years in some districts like Nizamabad is because they were already equipped with irrigation facilities such as the Sriram Sagar Project, and had not come under any new ayacut. 

Meanwhile, crop output has also considerably increased over the past few years. The extent of land over which crops like tur, gram, and rice are sown has grown multifold, as has the crop output, according to data available with the Union Agriculture Ministry for 2014-20.

‘No improvement for the lot of tenant farmers’

Kiran Vissa, co-founder of Rythu Swarajya Vedika, pointed to a recent study by his organisation, which found that 36 percent of 7,774 farmers surveyed across 20 districts were tenant farmers. Extrapolated to the entire state, the number of tenant farmers could be as high as 22 lakh, he said, most of whom remain outside the ambit of the state government’s farmer welfare programmes. 

“Government support is mainly targeted towards land patta holders whose accounts are linked to all the benefits. Even if the production and yield improve, it’s the landowner who gets the Rythu Bandhu support, and even if the government procures the crop, it’s the landowner who is paid directly. Tenant farmers are unsure when and how much they will be paid. Many of them are forced to sell their produce to private traders at lower prices,” he said.  

This report has been published as part of the joint NL-TNM Election Fund and is supported by hundreds of readers. Click here to power our ground reports.

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