Regional equity and droughtproofing

This pattern of groundwater development has brought much succour to the rural economy of the region. Without groundwater development, agriculture would have stagnated or declined in peninsular and eastern India and Bangladesh; food security would of course be endangered; but a more critical problem would be supporting rural livelihood during the decades these regions would take to transfer a sufficient proportion of their agrarian populations to off-farm livelihood systems. South Asia emerged out of British rule with a pattern of irrigation development that showed high regional inequality. The colonial government of India invested in large irrigation projects as a response to recurring famines that caused millions of starvation deaths; but these investments were concentrated in the North-western parts of British India and the Cauvery delta in the South while irrigation development in central and eastern regions was neglected (Whitcombe, 1984; Roy 2004). In the post-colonial era, too, public investments in canal irrigation projects were concentrated in pockets, leaving the rest of the region to rain-fed farming. In contrast, the development of groundwater irrigation had a significant 'equalizing effect'. It also emerged as the biggest drought-mitigator; during the 1960s, a major drought reduced India's food production by 30-40%, forcing India into embarrassing 'ship-to-mouth' dependence on US PL 480 wheat. Since the 1990s, food production has hardly been affected by a single drought (Sharma and Mehta, 2002), though a string of 2-3 drought years can still have an impact. Groundwater development has thus been a major restorer of India's national pride and confidence in feeding its people, and it has helped Bangladesh to transform from an endemic rice importer into a rice exporter (Palmer-Jones, 1999). Throughout the region, the easing of the obsessive sense of insecurity about national food self-sufficiency is explained in no small measure by the development of groundwater irrigation.

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