|Glimpses of books
Tanks of South India
edited by A Vaidyanathan,
Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, 2001, pp 178, Rs 490
Tanks of South India is a book that attempts to look at ground level
actual data to dispel myths regarding tanks.
Tanks were efficient traditional systems built to harness runoff and streamflows.
Not only were these structures designed to capture every drop, communities that built them
devised excellent management and institutional systems so that the resource - water - was
equitably distributed and the structures maintained.
The advent of largescale storages and energised pumping systems overshadowed these
tanks in recent decades. While the budget allocation to irrigation increased, the
resources allocated towards maintaining the existing tanks and constructing new ones was
but a small fraction. According to official estimates, there were 15.13 lakh tanks in
India in 1986-87, 95 per cent of which were in the states of Andhra Pradesh, Madhya
Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. Silting and poor
maintenance reduced the gross area irrigated by these tanks to 3.07 million hectares in
1985-86 from 4.78 million hectares in 1962-63, though many new tanks were constructed
during that period. This amounts to a colossal loss of Rs 5,000 crore. Except where
groundwater or canal water is available, a decline of tank systems has adversely affected
several dispersed communities depending on these.
Several gaps exist in the information that is available on tanks and their
management and usage. Most assumptions are not backed by actual data. What is the scale of
the debilitation of these tanks? Just how much are communities affected? Are small,
community-managed structures really superior, economically and ecologically?
On the basis of secondary data and an extensive survey of about 80 tanks, this book
has made possible a fuller and more accurate picture of the current status of tank
irrigation in south India. These surveyed tanks lie in the Periyar Vagai and Palar river
basins. The survey revealed that though tanks are in various stages of decline as are tank
management institutions, these tanks are still functioning and serving communities that
The collection of actual data make the conclusions drawn relevant. And disturbing.
Tank irrigation programmes in recent decades have been inadequate in scale, misconceived
in design, poor in implementation and dubious in impact. Irrigation development has been
dominated by large surface and groundwater exploitation. There is no coherent overall
strategy and well-defined priorities reflecting the relative potential of different types
of tanks and different regions.
The book sets an agenda for future action on how these traditional water management
systems can be revived and integrated with large irrigation systems for a more equitable
and efficient use of water. It sends a message that one hopes will be heard: Experience
has shown time and again that measures to improve land and water management introduced by
state agencies have failed. It is time the government opened up and let the communities
explore for themselves what they want.