NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India plans to expand its farmland under irrigation by at least a tenth in the next three years, potentially boosting grains output by an equal proportion in the world's second-biggest rice and wheat producer, a top government official told Reuters.
The extra irrigated area would cut India's dependence on annual monsoon rains that water crops grown on nearly half of the country's farmlands. Rice, cane, corn, cotton and soybean are the main monsoon crops.
Crop yields on irrigated farms are usually 2-2.5 times those in rain-fed areas. Better yields would boost exports after India shipped large quantities of rice and wheat in recent years.
"We have around 97 million hectares under irrigation and it's slated to go up by 10 percent by 2017. Eventually, the potential is to take this forward by almost half to 149 million hectares," A.B. Pandya, chairman of the state-run Central Water Commission, said in an interview on Monday.
Higher output and productivity will also raise rural income, stoking demand for an array for consumer goods ranging from lipsticks to refrigerators.
Although agriculture's share in India's nearly $2 trillion dollar economy has steadily fallen to 14 percent, the sector continues to employ more than half of its 1.2 billion people.
If India manages to realise its irrigation potential, almost three-quarters of its 199 million hectares of arable land would be irrigated, leaving just a quarter dependent on monsoon rains.
A wide range of geographies, climatic conditions and crop patterns will prohibit India from raising irrigation facilities beyond its optimum potential of 149 million hectares.
"I don't have an answer when are we going to realise our full irrigation potential. To realise that potential, we need new reservoirs to raise storage capacity to 450 billion cubic metres from the current 250," Pandya said.
It would cost around 10,400 billion rupees ($173 billion) to boost reservoir capacity, he said.
While there is no dearth of resources, issues such as land acquisition, resettlement and environmental clearances remain a prickly problem in building new reservoirs, said Pandya and his colleagues at the Ministry of Water Resources.
A number of mining and industrial projects, including POSCO's $12 billion Indian steel plant have been stuck in a quagmire of legal and environmental procedures.
Also, there has been stiff opposition to big dams in India that Pandya believes is a major constraint in realising the country's true irrigation potential.
"The voluntary groups that are opposed to dams try to couch their argument in a way that looks scientific but their basic assumption is wrong," he said.
A major project to construct dams in the upper Yamuna has been stuck for the past 20-30 years, Pandya said, referring to the river that flows through the capital New Delhi.
Agriculture may become more resilient because of the extra area under irrigation but the monsoon will continue to play a major role in supporting farmers' income and replenishing reservoirs.
Heavy rains at the tail end of the last monsoon season have ensured water levels at 42 percent of total capacity in India's main reservoirs, a fifth higher than a year earlier and a third more than the 10-year average.
"More than satisfactory water levels at our reservoirs are very reassuring, especially when the new monsoon season is just round the corner," Pandya said.
($1 = 60.12 rupees)
Editing by Douglas Busvine and Richard Pullin