The history of irrigation development in India can be traced back to prehistoric times. Vedas and ancient Indian scriptures made references to wells, canals, tanks and dams which were beneficial to the community and their efficient operation and maintenance was the responsibility of the State. Civilization flourished on the banks of the rivers and harnessed the water for sustenance of life. According to the ancient Indian writers, the digging of a tank or well was amongst the greatest of the meritorious acts of a man. Brihaspathi, an ancient writer on law and politics, states that the construction and the repair of dams is a pious work and its burden should fall on the shoulders of rich men of the land. Vishnu Purana enjoins merit to a person who effects repairs to wells, gardens and dams.
In a monsoon climate and an agrarian economy like India, irrigation has played a major role in the production process. There is evidence of the practice of irrigation since the establishment of settled agriculture during the Indus Valley Civilization (2500 BC). These irrigation technologies were in the form of small and minor works, which could be operated by small households to irrigate small patches of land and did not require co-operative effort. Nearly all these irrigation technologies still exist in India with little technological change, and continue to be used by independent households for small holdings. The lack of evidence of large irrigation works at this time signifies the absence of large surplus that could be invested in bigger schemes or, in other words, the absence of rigid and unequal property rights. While village communities and co-operation in agriculture did exist as seen in well developed townships and economy, such co-operation in the large irrigation works was not needed, as these settlements were on the fertile and well irrigated Indus basin. The spread of agricultural settlements to less fertile and irrigated area led to co-operation in irrigation development and the emergence of larger irrigation works in the form of reservoirs and small canals. While the construction of small schemes was well within the capability of village communities, large irrigation works were to emerge only with the growth of states, empires and the intervention of the rulers. There used to emerge a close link between irrigation and the state. The king had at his disposal the power to mobilize labour which could be used for irrigation works.
In the south, perennial irrigation may have begun with construction of the Grand Anicut by the Cholas as early as second century to provide irrigation from the Cauvery river. Wherever the topography and terrain permitted, it was an old practice in the region to impound the surface drainage water in tanks or reservoirs by throwing across an earthen dam with a surplus weir, where necessary, to take off excess water, and a sluice at a suitable level to irrigate the land below. Some of the tanks got supplemental supply from stream and river channels. The entire land-scape in the central and southern India is studded with numerous irrigation tanks which have been traced back to many centuries before the beginning of the Christian era. In northern India also there are a number of small canals in the upper valleys of rivers which are very old.