A veritable black hole has been keeping agriculture in Assam backward for decades. It is the high-profile and gargantuan Irrigation department which has gobbled up more than Rs 1 lakh crore of Central funds. And what are the tangible benefits on the ground for farmers? Not even 2 per cent of the State’s agricultural land has been brought under irrigation as of today. In more than sixty years, 1,311 completed irrigation projects have come up in the State. But not even one-fifth of these projects are now fully functiol. There is not a single fully operatiol irrigation project in Dhubri, lbari and Karimganj districts, where agriculture is the mainstay for most of the people. Many other projects are lying defunct or degraded beyond repair in other districts. Such a performance would have made the Irrigation department a laughing stock had not the effects been so tragic. The department can afford to fold its hands and do practically nothing since Assam is rain-fed, and it is the heavens that have bailed out its farmers again and again. But with rapid climate change in recent years, the monsoons are becoming irregular or failing altogether. And even in normal years, there is the challenge to raise additiol crops during the long dry season, after floods have played havoc with the main crop. So with no cals to carry river waters to the fields, farmers have to rely on shallow tubewells. That has its downside, with groundwater levels falling steadily over wide areas.
Irrigation may thus be a joke in agrarian Assam, but the roaring commission raj in the State Irrigation department is serious business. A full-fledged department with 67 divisions and employing an army of several thousand engineers and officials, it is a prize that comes with all sorts of political calculations. Ismail Hussain, Nurjamal Sarkar, Ardhendu Dey and now Chandan Sarkar have been vested with the Irrigation department, in the 14 years since Tarun Gogoi has ruled the State. But the Irrigation department continues with its merry old ways. While examples of its profligacy and non-performance are legion, one will suffice here. Way back in 1974 even before State Irrigation became a separate department, an irrigation project was launched on the Dhanshri river at Bhairabkund in Udalguri. The Rs 15 crore project was to irrigate cropped areas spread over 12 thousand hectares near the Indo-Bhutan border. Unbelievable as it may appear, its construction is still continuing after 40 years. For a succession of corrupt politicians, bureaucrats, engineers and contractors, this project has been a milch cow whose cost has now ballooned to Rs 567 crore. Does it come as any surprise when farmers in nearby grijuli revenue circle in Baksa district made headlines last year when they revived a traditiol cal system called ‘Dong’? With no government irrigation facilities in the area, it was an NGO called ‘Gramya Vikash Manch’ which helped the farmers access streams down the Bhutan foothills.
There have been allegations galore that a section of ruling party politicians collect huge funds from contractors allotted irrigation works, to fund their election expenses. The State Irrigation department is thus a department which refuses to irrigate, a hostage to ruthless political extortion. The role irrigation can play in raising agricultural productivity manifold can be appreciated in bread-basket states like Punjab and Harya which ushered in the green revolution back in the Seventies. In vast parts of the country that are rain deficient, no state government can easily trifle with irrigation. In Assam, about 90 per cent farmers belong to small and margil groups, cultivating tiny land holdings. With irrigation support, what they may achieve in fulfilling the State’s agri-potential can well be imagined. But the numerous irrigation schemes on the Kolong, Kopili, Bordikrai, Pagladia, Puthimari and many other rivers do not benefit them. What the State is instead saddled with is continuous loot of the exchequer in the me of irrigation schemes. Though agriculture is a state subject, it is high time the Central government institutes a rigorous audit and assessment system to check such rampant corruption. Lack of irrigation is a major reason why the agricultural sector’s contribution to Assam’s economy is less than one-fifth and decreasing further, despite employing more than half the State’s population.