Political strings of irrigation authority

March 25, 2019

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Newly appointed SIDA Chairman Basit Soomro briefing Chief Minister Sindh Murad Ali Shah regarding completion of the Water Sector Improvement Project and other SIDA affairs.—SIDA official website
Newly appointed SIDA Chairman Basit Soomro briefing Chief Minister Sindh Murad Ali Shah regarding completion of the Water Sector Improvement Project and other SIDA affairs.—SIDA official website

Achieving autonomy remains a distant dream for Sindh Irrigation and Drainage Authority (SIDA). Along with independence, transparency and performance related regulations continue to elude this organisation which as per Sindh Water Management Ordinance (SWMO) 2002 is a corporate body.

SIDA was created to promote a participatory irrigation system amidst reforms. Farmers’ participation was to be ensured from the Water Course Association (WCA) level to Farmers Organisations (FO), Area Water Boards (AWB) and ultimately SIDA.

Established under the World Bank oversight, SIDA is supposed to be headed by a non-political chairman who is elected. Same applies for the rest of the statutory bodies and tiers such as AWBs and FOs.

As per SWMO 2002, Sindh’s irrigation system including Guddu, Sukkur, Kotri barrages and 14 main canals should have been transferred to SIDA by June 30, 2005. It has not yet been done. Similarly, a regulatory authority for irrigation, drainage and flood protection has not been set up though its formation was laid down in clause-67 of chapter VII of the ordinance.

Sindh is ruled by a party that has a large number of voters in the rural areas. Their legitimate interests are directly tied to the irrigation and agriculture sectors. However, such interests are often undermined

Sindh government is supposed to implement this ordinance but appears to be content with the ad-hocism that rules SIDA. The province is ruled by a party that has a large rural area voter base whose legitimate interests are directly tied to irrigation and agriculture sectors. Such interests are however often undermined.

Ruling PPP in Sindh rightly champions the cause of autonomy as it got the 18th amendment approved from parliament when it ruled the centre in 2008, leading to transfer of subjects like irrigation, agriculture and health to provinces. Autonomy in SIDA, however, remains a far cry since the government can nominate members in addition to elected ones. In SIDA, anyone other than minister irrigation can also become chairman through nomination but he cannot hold political office.

SIDA, as well as AWBS, is managed through nominations which are used by the government as a tool for political appeasement. SIDA chairman has been a political nominee for the last 12 years, which negates the spirit of law. Incumbent SIDA chairman is the younger brother of Dr Qayyum Soomro, trusted man of top PPP leadership.

Five elected members — one each from Guddu and Kotri barrages’ command area and three from Sukkur barrage’s command area — have not yet become part of SIDA, despite clause 5(ii) of the law. Same goes for three AWBs of Ghotki Feeder, Left Bank Canals and Nara Canal. “Sindh irrigation department is unable to run its system so how can SIDA manage it. 95pc of FOs fail to deliver in absence of reforms”, said Sindh Chamber of Agriculture vice president Nabi Bux Sathio.

Apart from elected members, top positions like Managing Director (MD), directors of AWBs and General Managers (GM) of SIDA are supposed to be filled through competitive process. Since SIDA’s establishment, only two MDs — Rafiq Safi and Ehsan Leghari - were hired from market. It was because of his merit based appointment that when Leghari was removed twice he got himself reinstated through judicial intervention.

Leghari — who served from 2010 to 2014 — pointed out that reforms, though enshrined in law, have not been introduced. “As in other departments, governance is a moot point while managing SIDA. FOs are powerful only where political support exists”, he said.

The government fears that people appointed on merit are not amenable, says Zahid Junejo, Leghari’s successor. “SIDA’s regulation is no different from how Sindh irrigation department works while ground realities are different. Tail-end growers have no representation in SIDA”, he said.

Revenue recovery — abiyana — in SIDA governed areas remains unimpressive as it has been no different from what the irrigation department has been recovering. Some in SIDA say recovery is less than 40pc but SIDA claims it to be at 50pc.

Kotri barrage’s four canals, perennial and non-perennial, are with SIDA but equitable water distribution remains a far cry. Farmers posit that it is Kotri barrage that bears highest water shortage whenever there are system related shortages. Water shortage figures do lend credence to farmers’ claim, especially in early Kharif season between April-May.

Despite these water shortages however, around 150,000 acres of Sukkur barrage’s command area was shifted to command area of Kotri barrage sans opposition from SIDA. This makes matters worse for farmers of this area.

All SIDA directors, all General Managers (barring one), and successive MDs are irrigation engineers/chief engineers. Thus, as irrigation officers they are influenced by Sindh secretary irrigation which defeats the participatory approach.

SIDA, however, recently executed $313 million World Bank funded Water Sector Improvement Project (WSIP) in Nara, Left Bank and Ghotki Feeder AWBs. As per official claim it would benefit 347,000 farmers and 1.56mn acres of land through improvement in irrigation services. The project includes Ghotki feeder’s re-modelling at some reaches and replacement of Phuleli canal’s regulators.

Defending SIDA, its spokesman Hibzullah Mangrio said Rs13bn were saved out of WSIP funding. “It will be spent on preparation of feasibility reports of Kotri barrage’s Akram Wah, Sukkur barrage’s Rice and Dadu canals, Manchhar lake, strengthening of FOs etc. Under WSIP even 100 year old systems will be rehabilitated or gates changed. These works have increased life of canals amidst high velocity of water for end users”, he claimed.

However people of Badin district, fed by Phuleli canal, were dissatisfied with WSIP, attributing severe water shortages to it. Farmers from this water shortage prone area argued that defective sill levels are built in Phuleli canal which serve as stumbling blocks to supply of water to tail-end reaches. Sindh government should get canal’s works re-examined by a committee that has strong representation of famers and consultants.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, March 25th, 2019