Water 1 Any land anywhere can be used to harvest rainwater
The fundamental reason: extend the fruits of the monsoon
The basic principle: Catch water where it falls
Water 2 Water Harvesting   watertop_06.jpg (1999 bytes)
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Indigenous systems

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Contemporary systems

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Age: 57
Town: Madaivini Patti
District: Madurai
State: Tamil Nadu
If you met Ganesan on the street, you will never know that his work requires the skills of a top-of-the-drawer business executive. He manages the water supply of Madaivini Patti, a hamlet on the outskirts of Village Vairavan Patti in district Madurai, Tamil Nadu. He is a neerkatti (the irrigator in Tamil).

The chief ministers of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka will do well to use his water management skills to settle the Cauvery riverwater dispute. There has never been a major dispute among the farmers of his village regarding water.

Madaivini Patti consists of some 35 families. Poverty, though not abject, is clearly visible. There is only one child who has completed higher secondary schooling. In the off-season, the entire village works as casual labour in neighbouring areas.

Agriculture is limited to subsistence. There is hardly any surplus. Paddy is the main crop and water is essential. The only source is the run-off from the monsoon. This travels down the invisible slope of the Eastern Ghats, and collects in the age-old kanmoy, as tanks are known here. Effective water management is crucial to social harmony. Ganesan provides it.

He comes from the pallar caste, which is listed as a scheduled caste in the state. But there are no special benefits from the government for Ganesan. He lives on what he earns. Which includes the respect of the entire village. His caste status never clouds the recognition and appreciation of his skills. Pallars have traditionally managed the water supply in this area.

At all community functions, the village priests have to accompany Ganesan to the market to make purchases, a symbol of his special status. He is the authoritative mediator, the honest broker, the village elder. In not just the water disputes but even the social disagreements within the village.

Says S Subramaniam, executive committee member of the village’s Tank Farmer’s Association: "The neerkatti tradition is of great benefit. Faith in the neerkatti is crucial to the smooth functioning of agriculture. Otherwise everyone will fight."

Ganesan knows the topography of the village like the palm of his hand. He knows exactly where the water comes from and where it should go. He knows the water need of each and every farmer, each and every crop. His work starts before the monsoon. He walks through the channels, digging and clearing in rhythmical motion. Singing a song or two.

Then there is the maintenance of the embankments of the kanmoy. But the most crucial part is the operation of the wooden sluice valves that release water in the channels. This is where the fate of all the farmers rests. While operating the valves, Ganesan is dealing with the life-blood of the village economy. One mistake in the calculation of waterflow and timing of the valves can ruin a poor farmer’s crop. Yet it never happens.

Ganesan’s social status apart, his economic condition is no better than the rest of the village. For maintaining the channels and the kanmoy, he receives rice from each farmer in proportion to the size of the fields (4.5 kg of rice per 60 cents of crop area). In addition, he gets 4 kg of rice from each farmer for operating the sluice valves. If he requires an additional hand or two in his endeavours, it is his own headache.

However, work in the village is restricted to the monsoon. That, too, once in three years. He has two brothers who are also neerkattis. They take up water management in turns.

In the off-season, Ganesan has to go looking for daily wages to either the neighbouring fields as agricultural labour or to the nearby towns as a loader. Some days are good. He manages to earn Rs 50. Others are bad.

Ganesan’s two sons and four daughters are not interested in carrying on the neerkatti tradition. But as long as there are paddy fields, the limited water will need to be managed with care. There will have to be a neerkatti. A tradition.

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