This paper explores the dynamic interface of state-water users' relationships in large-scale surface irrigation in India and China, to inquire to what extent the issues encountered in large-scale irrigation management and governance are independent of regime characteristics. Though operating in very different overall political regimes, China and India exhibit strong similarities in the way a central state has attempted to relate with local water users, in the types of policy instruments deployed to shape that relationship, and in the problems encountered. Both China and India have a long history of state involvement in irrigation management. Both saw massive expansion after the late 1940s. The state then tried to extend its control in response to ‘underutilisation’ of the created infrastructure, revenue shortfalls and perceived inefficiencies and yield gaps. In recent decades the policy approaches have, at least rhetorically, emphasised water users' self-management and governance, including financial self-management/cost recovery. In both countries the instrument for this has been Water User Associations. Results have been mixed, to say the least, on all counts. Larger institutional and policy characteristics adhering to the problematic of the state-user interface subvert stated reform objectives.

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