Power of tank irrigation
Meeta Rajivlochan

Social Designs: Tank Irrigation Technology and Agrarian Transformation in Karnataka, South India
by Esha Shah.
Orient Longman. Pages 288. Rs 295.

Social Designs: Tank Irrigation Technology and Agrarian Transformation in Karnataka, South IndiaTHE concept of community has occupied prime importance in developmental discourse since the 1980s. While there are several strands in this discourse, the dominant view has been that the community is an excellent manager of natural resources: the corollary to this view being that government should withdraw from managing them. This has been more a matter of philosophy. Empirical data either for or against this view has been rather limited. This extensively researched book on tank irrigation technology in Karnataka makes a valuable contribution to this discourse by showing that technical designs have traditionally worked to sustain a socially inequitable order, and that technology designs are as much social as technical in nature. Social changes in recent times have worked to transform these designs, but with varying success.

Shah shows that tank irrigation designs are rooted in power relations in a specific historical, agrarian and social context. These are specifically coded with the requirements of paddy cultivation and the concomitantly of paddy farmers, historically from upper castes, located in the upper reaches of the catchment area. In such a situation, merely giving representation to marginal groups who grow other crops in less favoured locations in the catchment area, in the users’ organisations, would not ensure democratic utilisation of resources.

The book discusses the four case studies of tanks found in geographically distinct regions—a tank irrigating paddy and garden crops in Western Karnataka, a tank irrigating paddy in the mixed region of Southern Karnataka, a tank irrigating paddy and dry crops in the mixed region of Northern Karnataka and a tank irrigating dry crops in the dry region of Northern Karnataka.

The case study of a tank irrigating paddy in the mixed region in Southern Karnataka shows that tank designs traditionally favoured the upper caste farmers in the head reaches of the tank, so that they could take not one but two crops of paddy in the season. On the other hand, the farmers at the tail end who mostly belong to the service castes were barely able to get enough for one crop. With the arrival of the government on the scene, the Minor Irrigation Department has been insisting on normative equality in water use between the head reach farmers and the tail-enders. More importantly, in recent years, the introduction of high yielding crop varieties and borewells in the command area have created new interests which say that unless there is enough water in the tank for irrigating one crop in the entire command area, water should not be released. This goes in favour of borewell owners since water retention in the tank for a longer period increases water in the borewells. The tail-end farmers also stand to gain from such a position. So, new cropping regimes and interests are challenging the traditionally powerful head reach farmers whose superiority has been sustained thus far by an iniquitous design. The case study of the third tank set in the in the wet region of Western Karnataka shows that the tail-enders have even succeeded in reversing the traditional head reach farmer first rule.

In fact, the book offers a wealth of insights. Shah documents the course of irrigation policy followed by the state government in Karnataka over the last few decades as also the forces that shaped that policy along with its consequences.

The fourth case study in this book demonstrates that a tank, which was designed and built by the state government with World Bank funds in a dry region where paddy is not cultivated, did not take user concerns and cropping patterns into account. As a result, while the tank design is far more rational than those that traditionally obtain in South India, the uniform norms of use it imposes throughout the catchment conflict with the varying cropping patterns and water needs of the users. The consequence: in a water scarce area, there is extra-unused water in the tank, which is simply discharged and is of no use to anyone.

What is even more important is the fact that in this last location, the users have been unable and/or unwilling to form their own irrigation organisations to manage these resources. Rather they insist that government agencies should perform this function for them. In such an area, where a strongly determined social hierarchy did not exist, the villagers have been unable to marshal the resources needed for appropriate conflict resolution mechanisms. In this scenario, the government remains for better or for worse, not just a funding agency but an arbitrator of conflicts.

Farmers do cooperate, but for limited periods and for mutually shared goals, and they may even simultaneously support two conflicting groups for differing reasons. Moreover, these loyalties are fluid and keep changing with the social situation.

All the above suggests that however much we might wish it to be otherwise, so long as communities lack adequate organisational and conflict resolution mechanisms, the government remains a crucial player both as an arbitrator and in the role of enforcer of normative rules of equality in a society that is seriously lacking in these.