On the crossroads
The age old community-based water management systems are on the crossroads. The
present-day governments and aid agencies in their bid to modernise these
systems have in fact ruined them. Weathering this downward slide, these traditions still
continue to hold a place of prominence. For instance, in Nepal and in the Philippines,
about three-quarters and half of the irrigated land, respectively is still being managed
by the traditional water managers. Will these systems survive or peter out in history?
This 60 minute audio has ten inspirational songs on
traditional water systems of India. These compositions highlight the tradition, culture,
significance of rain in our lives. Yah hi vo dharti, is one of the
beautiful song unfolding the pivotal role played by water in every aspect of human
The wise use
Seth, The Elephant and the Ragopan, 1991
"I do not see the reason why you do not use what lies to hand. Before you try to dam
our land. Your pipes cry out for renovation. Your storage tanks corrode. The valves are
loose. The washers weak. I've seen the water gushing out from every reservoir and spout.
Repair them it will cost far less than driving us to homelessness. But that's just one of
many things.... Destroying beauty that once gone, the world will never look upon.
S O U T H I N D I A
traditional practice of community-based water managers, known as Neerkatti in Tamil
language, is under threat of extinction. Once considered as a respectable and a lucrative
profession, has become unsustainable with the onslaught of modern practices.
Searching for an identity
About 1,000 neerkattis from Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka got an opportunity
to voice their concerns during a seminar held by Dhan Foundation (DF), a Madurai-based
NGO, on March 10, 2003.
The tradition and its decay
Most of the neerkattis belong to lower castes and are appointed by the village community
on a hereditary or an annual rotational basis. The number of neerkattis managing a tank
varies from one to as many as 12 persons. It depends on the size of the tank and the
supply channels. As remuneration, they receive one marakka ie five kg of grain per acre or
equivalent cash. Before 1950s, their main responsibilities were: distribution of water on
a rotational basis; managing sluice gates; and, maintenance works.
the responsiblity of managing tanks has been passed on to the Public Works Department
(PWD), the role of neerkatti is now been reduced to just opening and closing of sluices.
Instead of maintaining the tank during non-monsoon season, they generally assist the
village administrative officer in the departmental work. As farmers switched to well
irrigation, tanks became insignificant.
The changing social structure at the village level has intensified this trend. The
ownership of land has shifted from the upper to the lower castes. According to a study
conducted by Sivasubramanian from Madras Institute of Development Studies, "Between
1850 and 1912 the land holding pattern of Kaveripakkam area, Chennai, changed
completely". It is significant to note that the tank of this area is one of the
biggest in Tamil Nadu - once irrigating more than 14 villages is in a degraded state,
|T H I L A N D
Then came progress..
Muang faai, the 1,000 years old water management practice
of northern Thailand is under threat. Thoughtless intervention by the Thai government has
instigated a trend of corruption and inefficient management in this system.
To maintain muang faai irrigation system the cooperation
and collective management by inhabitants of a single or many villages is crucial.
Traditionally, the rules governed the water distribution pattern, dispute settlement, and
the protection of catchment area. The principle that everyone gets enough water to survive
was paramount. Contributions in labour were given preference. While a village-based
committee was made formally responsible, the entire community, as proprietors of the
system was expected to enforce the rules.
But as progress arrived, all these rules were
forgotten. Thai government armed with international aid, concrete and plans for a made
over of agricultural system setting the clock backwards. Bamboo weirs were replaced with
the concrete barrages. The rate of siltation increased manifold. Management was taken over
by the Royal Irrigation Department. The behaviour of water, communities and economy
changed. For instance, traditional crops grown in the valley region and dependent upon
timely irrigation were abandoned as too risky investment. Modern varieties, suited to the
centralised water regime, were promoted without giving a thought about its viability. As a
result, today the communities has lost control over their ecology, culture and economy.
The Madurai convention gave neerkattis a platform to share their concerns and redefine
their roles. In general, the participants felt that they were not adequately paid. Veeran,
who has been working as a neerkatti for the past 12 years, from Kambur village, Madurai,
said, "The village tank irrigates 60 acres of paddy. However, the remuneration fixed
is kuzhikku naalu padi ie 6.5 kg per 60 cents (100 cents = 1 acre). Even this meager
amount is not regularly paid." Another neerkatti from Thiruvarangai village,
Ramanathapuram, Solomon felt that "The work involves more risk and is less assured as
the tanks do not get regularly filled - just once in 3 or 5 years." Ganesan from
Madaivini Patti, Madurai, who was facilitated by the former president K R Narayanan for
his services as a neerkatti, share these concerns. "I get a very small amount. None
of my five sons wants to become a neerkatti. I am doing it as a service to the community
and god." Not many think like Ganesan. Why should they? Most of the neerkattis are
experts in tank management - they are at par with any well-experienced irrigation
engineer. R Sakthivadivel from International Water Management Institute, Sri Lanka,
suggests, "The government should effectively include neerkattis in water users
associations of tank renovation programs. It will save state crores of rupees while
returning control back to where it actually belongs." Neerkattis are at the
crossroad. Their survival depends on whether the state and society are ready to treat the
issue from a fresh perspective or not.