• 30/10/2003

Disarray Jairam Sravan, a staunch patkari in Jaikheda village of Nasik district in Maharashtra, is now redefining his life. For 11 years now, he has had no patkari work to do. First, the irrigation department took over. Then, the bhandara broke down and the main canal got clogged and blocked up. Farmers sold off their lands. "I have to look for an alternative livelihood," he says. Says S G Bhogle, faculty of social science, Water and Land Management Institute (WALMI), Aurangabad, "Due to huge water interception upstream [by dams], the phad system as well as the water managers are in a state of collapse."

The report of the irrigation department at Sakri, Dhule district, is symptomatic of the decay. Just before Independence, there were 66 bhandaras on the Panjhra river in Dhule districts, with a command area of 5569 hectares (ha). A study of the Panjhra project in 1964 recorded about 45 functional bhandaras. When the Panjhra Medium Irrigation Project came up in 1971, most bhandaras downstream became non-functional. Today, the patkari or jagliya tends to a mere 1500 ha. Except in a few villages, a management practice first evolved in the 17th century has ceased to exist.

On March 10, 2003 the Dhan Foundation organised a convention of water managers in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. 1000-odd neerkattis gathered to tell a story which contained the same message: neerkattis were on the verge of extinction.

In 1950, in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, neerkattis helped irrigate 4.15 million ha of land (18.6 per cent of India's net irrigated area at that time) By 1990, the area had shrunk to 2.9 million ha. Neerkattis used to manage 1,60,000 tanks in the three states. But now, as the Dhan Foundation's estimate shows, they look after a paltry 1000. Says A Vaidyanathan, former director of Madras Institute of Development Studies, "The intervention of government in irrigation is the sole reason for the decline of the neerkattis."

Post-Independence, India's hydraulic environment underwent a major change. Large dams, canals, and irrigation departments replaced the water managers. Overall, there was a great expansion of government control over irrigation. Says S M Ratnevel, retired chief engineer of the Public Works Department, Tamil Nadu, "In the process government forgot the traditional managers and they are not serious in rehabilitating them."

A major reason for this decline, especially in the three southern Indian states, was the shift in government policy of focussing on groundwater rather than surface water. The emergence of well-driven irrigation ensured farmers lost interest in tanks, and their management. A well is a private resource; a tank, on the other hand, is a common property. Moreover, well irrigation is more stable and reliable. So farmers preferred individually owned wells rather than community owned tanks.

Consider the scenario in tank-irrigated Andhra Pradesh. In 1955-56, when the state was formed, there were 58,527 tanks irrigating about 10.68 lakh ha of land, or two-fifths of the state's total irrigated area. Since then, the number of tanks have increased (70,000 in 1993-1994), but - amazingly - the area under tank irrigation has declined to 8.62 lakh ha. Why is this so? It is so because, in the same period, the area irrigated under wells increased from 2.84 per cent to 9.03 per cent, and the area irrigated under tube wells increased from 0.66 lakh ha in 1970-71 to 7.73 lakh ha in 1998-99.

Such is the impact of groundwater use that in Karnataka, most existing water managers have abandoned their profession. In Pavagada taluk - with bore wells and open wells in every field - a handful of farmers depend on tank irrigation. Rues Ramanjanayappa, neerkatti of Doddachelluru village, Chitradurga district, "I cannot give up my traditional profession because it gives me something to eat."

A similar shift has caused water managers to virtually vanish in Uttaranchal. The first water legislation related to control, maintenance and management of irrigation channels or guhls was passed in 1917. This was the Kumaon Water Rule, which transferred ownership of water resources to the state. The rule stated any guhl to be constructed by an individual or community Had to have the prior permission of the irrigation department. This system persisted after independence. Says Raghubir Singh Negi, the head of village Maletha in the Tehri-Garhwal district, "Since the government has taken over the management and maintenance of guhls and levy water tax on people for the same, water managers no more find acceptance at the village level." Government collects a water tax of Rs 2,300 from Maletha residents. The kollalus are appointed on a temporary basis to only distribute water in summer. The task of maintaining guhls is now in the hands of the irrigation department chowkidar. Now, the number of guhls in the Almora district alone has reduced significantly: from 2,539 in 1998-99, to about 1,265 in 1999-2000 to 1,136 today. This bears testimony to the fact that these farmer managed irrigation systems have died out.

Other developments have also affected the water manager: urbanization, and the rise of non-farming employment. Says Ravi Chopra of People Science Institure, a Dehradun-based NGO working to revive traditional management mores, "How will we cultivate or irrigate small terraced fields when we don't have labour in the rural areas?" Since the chowkidar gets meagrely paid for his work, he looks to other sources of income, such as daily wage labour. Lalit Pande, director of Uttarakhand Seva Nidhi, an Almora-based NGO, says, "With government control, the very basis of local management has been destroyed. People are now taught to think that management is best done by the irrigation department."

No space even now
Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu have recently enacted legislation on participatory irrigation management to tide over growing conflicts over irrigation and revive the traditional tanks. Even here, there isn't much space for water managers. The Andhra Pradesh Farmers Management of Irrigation Systems Act 1997 - which created about 70,000 water users associations at the village level to control local irrigation - doesn't include neerkattis in the scheme. So with the Tamil Nadu Farmers Management and Irrigation Systems Act, 2000.

Even Ladakh has been shaken up. After the 1962 war with China, a huge military build-up occurred in the region. In 1974, the region was opened to tourists. Such new connections with the wider world means that villages like Saboo, closer to Leh town, are today growing potatoes on nearly 50 per cent of the land, completely changing the cropping pattern. In such places, the churpun is now paid in cash, and not in kind. The prestige accorded to the churpun has also declined. People are reluctant to take up the responsibility, for it is not commensurate with earnings. "In Leh, people refused to take up the job of churpun, hence the government has to intervene by paying salary for the churpun," says Sonam Dawa, Director, Ladakh Ecological Development Group.

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