Irrigation Reforms in Andhra Pradesh: Whither the Trajectory of Legal Changes?

In its document on the Water Resources Strategy, the World Bank encapsulates its strategy plan for irrigation sector as - “more crop, cash and jobs per drop.” To achieve this, the “new era”, according to the World Bank, “requires irrigation institutions that are radically different from the top-down, construction-oriented irrigation agencies that developed over the past half-century.” Taking forward a similar understanding, several pilot projects and experiments with Water Users Associations (WUAs) and institutional changes to the irrigation sector have been initiated in various parts of India . Eschewing a gradual approach to reforms, the State of Andhra Pradesh was the first to effect legal changes, to enable institutionalisation of water sector reforms. In keeping with the World Bank ‘big bang' approach, the state of Andhra Pradesh enacted three new legislations after 1995, to provide the supportive legal framework, seeking to reorder the institutional structures of the irrigation sector and to regulate the groundwater usage. Much has been written, both documenting and analysing these ‘reforms'. This paper attempts to focus exclusively on the legal regime that is envisaged by the two new enactments, enabling the restructuring of the irrigation sector in Andhra Pradesh.

In its first part, the paper discusses the impetus and rationale for the initiation of the legal restructuring to the water sector in Andhra Pradesh. In the second part, the paper examines the trajectory in debates demanding reforms within the irrigation sector in India and compares it to the reality of the reforms carried out by the State. Based on this, the paper argues that legal reforms to the irrigation sector are long overdue, but the suitability of the framework adopted by the Andhra Pradesh Government, premised as it is on the “Participatory Irrigation Management” model, needs critical evaluation. Relying on various studies, the paper demonstrates that the legal framework disregards the socio-economic and political context within which it is situated, and that “participation” through effective devolution of powers and functions, has not been priortized. In the third part, the paper examines the setting up of the Water Resources Development Corporation and its impact on the governance of the irrigation sector in Andhra Pradesh. In the final part, the paper also examines the jurisprudence informing the new legislations, while simultaneously revisiting the ‘rights' debate within the irrigation sector.