This paper makes a different, if not a unique, attempt at a quantitative evaluation of the multifarious linkages between irrigation and rural poverty by taking a system approach and using cross-section data pertaining to 80 agro-climatic sub-zones of India for two time points, i.e. 1984–85 and 1994–95. It develops first an analytical framework to depict the most important pathways and layers of irrigation–poverty linkages as mediated though three key systems: water system, agro-economic system and socio-economic and demographic system. These pathways and linkages are, then, translated into an econometric form in terms of a system of simultaneous equations defined by a set of irrigation-related, agro-economic, socio-economic and demographic variables. By estimating this system of equations in the context of the agro-climatic sub-zones of India for the two time points, this paper empirically evaluates the mechanics and dynamics of irrigation–poverty linkages. Based on an analysis of the empirical results, this paper concludes by identifying some of the analytical, methodological and policy issues crucial for understanding and promoting the overall poverty alleviation impacts of irrigation.