In the history of every nation or a State, there comes a defining moment that has transformative potential, a moment that holds promise for a great future. The inauguration of the multipurpose Kaleshwaram Lift Irrigation project is one such moment in the journey of Telangana. The socio-economic benefits of this mega project cannot be quantified in terms of the rigid cost-benefit binary. One needs a holistic understanding of the project from the perspective of Telangana farmers and how it can transform their lives in myriad ways. It would be myopic to argue that the project must follow the RoI (Return on Investment) norms. Governments are not corporate entities to be driven by profits but have a social responsibility to meet the requirements of the people. A project that would have otherwise taken several decades to complete has come to fruition in a record time of three years. Apart from directly irrigating lakhs of acres in the State, the Kaleshwaram project will contribute to recharging the groundwater by filling tanks and other water bodies and lead to larger benefits, including development of fisheries, inland waterways and tourism. The economic activity it generates in the region in the long-run is not quantifiable in terms of revenue returns. The benefits of such a gigantic effort are long-term and difficult to evaluate through cost-benefit analysis in mere economic terms. For instance, how can cost-benefit be calculated if farmers’ choices of crops to cultivate widen as a result of increasing access to irrigation water through 24-hour power supply and increased groundwater table resulting in greater discharge from borewells.
Tangible benefits like irrigation and drinking water can be quantified but intangible benefits like groundwater storage, public health, fisheries, dairy, tourism and environmental change are difficult to quantify. But, they form a very important part of the economic analysis of such projects. Stabilising the groundwater through the Kaleshwaram project will ensure that farmers need not go for new borewells which is a major benefit for them. A modern welfare State need not follow conventional economists’ prescription of cost-benefit analysis when millions of farmers are under agrarian distress. It is unfortunate that armchair critics ignore the larger socio-economic benefits of this project in a region that had witnessed deliberate neglect in the combined Andhra Pradesh. Though revered as ‘temples of modern India’, dams in our country face notoriously long delays and environmental and political obstacles, leading to steep cost escalation. Timely completion of irrigation projects will ensure that the benefits reach the targeted people and help in creating valuable social assets. Kaleshwaram is a fine example of how innovation and out-of-the-box thinking hold key to the success of any project in an increasingly technology-driven world. And the entire credit for this should go to Chief Minister K Chandrashekhar Rao, whose vision and determination alone made the gigantic exercise see fruition.