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Water management in rural South India and Sri Lanka

Patrice Cohen
S. Janakarajan


A Multidisciplinary Approach to study Water Management

Patrice Cohen et S. Janakarajan

Texte intégral

1This book is the fruit of the collaboration between the French Institute of Pondicherry and the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS) in Chennai. The papers of this book have been written by the participants of the Indo-French round-table on Water Management in South-India and in Sri Lanka held on the 31st of October 2001 in Pondicherry.

Water Management: a main stake of the new millenium

2The water resources and their uses are one of the main stakes of the environmental and social equilibrium of this new century. India and all the South-Asian area are often shocked by variations of the climate, with lack of rain some times or excess of it in a short period at other times. The drought in India in 2002 and in 2003 suggests the role of a combination of climate consequences and water management resulting in these terrible effects. A good productivity of agriculture and by consequence an enough availability of food depends on the proper use of the water resources. But in other way agriculture production – like industrial ones – can affect the water quality and availability for crops and for drinkin g purpose. Pollution of the water is beginning to be a big problem in India, not only in the cities, but also in the rural areas. Natural aspects of the water like watersheds or rivers are not fully linked to the administrative boundaries (states, districts, taluks, cities, villages) or to the management. So the understanding of the use of the stored or flowing water need to be analysed in an holistic way.

3Macro and micro factors have to be understood, types of the water uses have to be explored (agriculture, industrial production, drinking water, religion purposes, domestics purposes, etc.), different levels of political decisions have to be highlighted, roles of the producers of the water and the users or consumers have to be analysed, natural availability of the water has to be linked to the political and social management of this resource, collective and individual actions have to be notified, social and cultural relationships to the use of the water have to recognised. And in a larger perspective social cultural, political, and economic factors (to notify only these ones) are acting to the water access and availability according to the climate variations, the role of the soils and of the equilibrium between flora and fauna. So to analyse and to understand how water is available (and how it is and for what purpose and for whom and to the profit of whom...) it is necessary to explore different aspects of the social water management and of the natural aspects of its availability and storage.

4That is the reason why we have asked different specialists from social sciences and environmental sciences to present their approach of the water management in India and in Sri Lanka. The French Institute with a department of social sciences and with departments in indology and ecology is well placed to propose a meeting on water management based on a social sciences and natural sciences approaches. The interdisciplinarity is not often easy because each discipline have developed its own conceptual and methodological tools. But through this seminar, we think we have contributed to gather at the same time, specialists who are not used to working together.

5Therefore, with this round-table we wanted to begin a regional reflection on the water management in South-India and in Sri Lanka. Mostly focussed on rural water management, we were agreed to include some aspects of the urban water management due to the real interaction of the availability in rural zones and urban areas. The situation of South-India and the one of Sri Lanka are not the same but many climatic aspects and traditional water management techniques have some similarities. Thanks to the historical approaches, it is possible to understand how traditional water management has been built in the two countries.

Irrigation and Social Water Management

6Irrigation development in India has undoubtedly contributed to agricultural growth, food security, employment and so forth. Ever since the planning era started in the country, there was a heavy concentration on development of irrigation infrastructure but did not provide adequate attention to improved water management techniques. Besides, the issue of competing demand for water was never thought as a potential problem. And growing urban population and massive industrial expansion are currently taking place in the country.

  • 3 HYV technology: High Yielding Varieties technology.

7Therefore, three phases in the India’s irrigation sector can be identified. The first one is bound to the realization of a series of large and medium irrigation projects, from around 1950 to the beginning of 1970s. The second one – mid 1960s on wards to around 1990 – starts with the introduction of the HYV technology3. During this period ground water irrigation proved to be more profitable for well owning farmers, as it helped to increase productivity, farm employment, stabilize production and livelihood, reduce vulnerability and to intensify cultivation. Above all it helped to build capital formation and household savings. Indeed, well irrigation was identified as the key factor for addressing the core issue of the Indian economy viz., poverty alleviation. Further, it was the phase in which well irrigation was growing at an exponential rate. Therefore, even the academic research during this period was centering around the several issues: stability in agricultural production, equity and access to groundwater, productivity comparisons between ground and surface water irrigation, impact of well irrigation on farm income and employment, nature, extent and equity aspects of groundwater markets, efficiency or inefficiency of groundwater markets, economics of groundwater irrigation and pumping technology and so forth.

  • 4 See for instance, Appasamy, 1994, Bhatia, 1992, Blomqvist, 1996, Jacob, 1996, Janakarajan, 1997, 19 (...)

8The third phase (from 1991 till today) is flagged by more inter-state water disputes, by governments efforts in restructuring the department and maintenance activities for reasons of inefficiency and poor water rates recovery. And most of all groundwater irrigation is more excruciating due to twin problems of groundwater overdraft and pollution. State Governments do not seem to be having any control over groundwater extraction, which has resulted in depletion and pollution in many parts of the country in particular hard rock regions. This has resulted in reduction of groundwater stock, adverse crop yields, farm income and above all increasing rural – urban migration. The competing demand for water from industries and urban domestic users poses new threat to agricultural well owners. This has not only aggravated the problem of groundwater table decline, but also contributes to severe inequity in groundwater use. And wells have become a source of debt accumulation. This situation is particularly concerning the low rainfall hard-rock regions of South India, where unregulated groundwater extraction in the long run have contributed to illfare of the society as well as to individual farmers. And the academic research undertaken during this period was mostly focused around the themes mining of groundwater, over-use and over-extraction, groundwater depletion and drawing down the buffer4.

9This period also witnessed high rural-urban migration, high degree of urbanization, rapid industrial expansion. And further this was the period in which foundations were laid for economic liberalization.

10What implications all these have in our present context? It means (a) enhanced demand for good quality water and (b) so much water has to come from rural areas, which is already stressed due to conflicts, competitive deepening, inequity, exclusion and over-extraction. As a result, the farming community is stressed further more and agriculture as an occupation is proving to be unprofitable.

11On the other hand, Sri Lanka’s irrigation sector is still to a great extent depends upon surface water sources and groundwater exploitation to meet irrigation needs is at a relatively early stage. The kind of crisis situation that South India is facing in the use of groundwater may surface in Sri Lanka in the years to come.

12So the proceedings of this roundtable with the help of Indian, French and Sri Lankan specialists are proposing emerging themes and critical issues in the water management in rural South India and Sri Lanka. Three parts bring different levels of understanding.

History and Traditional Irrigation

13The part 1 presents the historical basis to understand the traditional system of irrigation in the two countries.

14Gomathinayagam’s paper on ‘Socio-economic and technological history of irrigation in Tamilnadu’ has traced an evolution of organized irrigation in the Tamil society from the Sangam Age, which coincides with Iron Age. The author quoting evidence from the Sangam literature, which dates back to the First Century B. C, has described the significance of tank irrigation. The tanks are nothing but the earthen embankments, which holds the gravity flow of water. The Tamilnadu State gets most of its rainfall from the north-east monsoon, which is not dependable. A heavy downpour for a few days inundates the land. Tanks have been constructed precisely for this reason to withhold water so that crops could be irrigated in the dry season. The paper describes the technical superiority of tank and its regulatory structures such as deepest sluices and elevated ones, surplus escapes, water regulators, chain of tanks (the surplus of an upstream tank feeding a down stream tank) and so forth. As regards the history of canal irrigation in this part of the country, the author rightly points out ‘Grand Anicut’ built during the 2 century A. D across the river Cauvery. This structure is in a marvelous condition even today. However, the earliest from of water diversion structures constructed across streams and rivers were called Korambus. These were temporary structures raised with wood and mud with a view to divert water and to inundate the adjacent fields. This technology was developed and became sophisticated in due course of time. There existed a well-organized irrigation institution for undertaking all critical functions of water management. There were irrigation functionaries who were responsible for supervising the maintenance, water distribution, fund collection and resolving conflicts. These functionaries were basically performing supervisory labour. Besides, community irrigation workers were performing in each village for undertaking all menial operations. These workers were paid annually by the faming community. During the British administration, several changes were introduced which altered the village institutions. The traditional irrigation institution is one such community setup, which underwent substantial changes. This was the period when a series of legislative measures were introduced with a view to make the community labour (for tank maintenance) compulsory. This has weakened the traditional irrigation institution in the villages. The author concludes with a note that the present society is fortunate to inherit thousands of tanks; but is the society paying enough attention to maintain them and turn them over to our future generations?

15D. N. Weerasinghe and C. M. K. Navarathne in their paper on ‘History of Hydraulic Civilization and Irrigation Systems Development in Sri Lanka’ provide water management and water resource development in the country with an historical perspective. The authors outline the history of small irrigation systems that existed in Sri Lanka in the pre British period and the development of new irrigation systems during and after the British period. The irrigation structures created during the 12 Century A. D. were reported to be quite systematic with expertise skills and further, there existed strong public works bureau for the maintenance. However, these massive irrigation structures were in ruin during the subsequent periods due to multiple factors such as foreign invasion, climatic changes and famine. During the early part of the British rule in Sri Lanka, the irrigation maintenance was almost nil. It was during the period 1855-1877 then the Government paid considerable attention to irrigation development and maintenance. In 1930, under the leadership of Hon. D. S. Senanayake, irrigation became the most important activity. Many old irrigation systems were restored and several new ones were constructed under his leadership. During the 1960s and afterwards, multi-purpose projects were constructed with the motivation of conserving not only irrigation water but also to generate power. The major issues confronting the Government and the society are diminishing water supplies, lack of rational system for water allocation, unregulated pumping of groundwater, seawater intrusion in the coastal regions and the declining water quality. These are the real challenges being faced by the Government today.

Emerging and Critical Issues of Irrigation and Social Water Management

16The part 2 is proposing nowadays different issues of irrigation and water management. According to the actual situation, it is not possible to consider the rural situation without considering the urban one. So approaches on these two areas will be found in this part. The social and economical consequences of degraded ground water regimes (S. Janakarajan), the place of the women in the rural water management (K. Jayalakshmi) and the links between water management and its use with poverty and food security (N. Druesnes) are developed in the indian rural areas context. Water supply in urban environment (P. Appassamy) and peticularly in Chennai (J. Ruet & M-H. Zerah) are analysed through economical and institutional perspectives.

17S. Janakarajan in his paper on ‘Competition, Conflicts and Crisis: Stressed Groundwater Regime in Tamilnadu’ addresses an important issue of increasing conflicts in the use of groundwater and nature and sources of conflicts across different users and uses. This paper also provides insights into the forces, which limit the effectiveness of efforts to seek remedies. Two kinds of conflicts take place: First, within rural areas: in this case, conflicts occur between different users (farmers), essentially because of the restricted access to this important productive resource. Basically, conflicts in the rural areas reflect upon the ambiguous property rights. Conflicts within rural areas occur for many reasons: (a) As land gets fragmented, well also gets fragmented into as many shares, posing serious managerial problem. Eventually, such disputed wells, either remain in disuse, or purchased by a sharer who has better access to resources, (b) Conflicting interests among well owners surface essentially because of excessive extraction over recharge. As a consequence, wells are deepened in a competitive manner. This eventually results in a few emerging successful with adequate groundwater, while a large majority getting deprived of their access to groundwater, (c) In the process of trading in groundwater, several conflicts occur between agents involved in the trade, namely, water seller and water purchaser. Basically, the divergence in the resource position as well as unequal trading relationship between these two agents cause enormous friction, (d) Conflict in the use of surface and groundwater is imminent, in particular tank commands. The aftermath of unregulated pumping in the tank commands and near the river beds have resulted in the drying up of tanks and spring channels, which once were serving the purpose of the principal sources of irrigation. Many studies confirm that the rapid growth of wells in the tank commands as one of the principal reasons for the disintegration of the traditional tank systems. On the other hand, there are at least two reasons for which conflict occur in the use of groundwater between rural and urban areas: (a) Enormous quantity of groundwater is transported from rural to urban areas in order to meet the increasing municipal/industrial water needs, resulting in decline in agricultural activities as well as groundwater depletion and (b) the environmental damages caused to the groundwater as a consequence of untreated trade effluent discharged into the water bodies or in the open surface. All these have significantly contributed to farmers unrest. The author raises an important question. Where do we go from here? The author advocates appropriate legal measures, political will and the social dialogue among various stakeholders to protect and regulate this precious but eroding resource.

18‘Role of Women in Water Resource Management’ was the main issue addressed by D. Jayalakshmi. She draws attention to three crucial aspects, (a) How water policies have differential impacts on men and women? (b) How such differential impacts affect efficiency in water management? (c) How women’s participation in water management can help the cause of sustainable development. She critically reviews the hitherto perceptions or the perceived notions of women’s role in water management. Women’s involvement in water has been restricted to the domestic sector only (in so far as managing the domestic water needs). And the existing framework of water management has excluded women as a stakeholder. Women are seen as providers and managers of water in the household but refuse to accept the fact that they have a bigger, better and useful role to play in the overall water management in any given society.

19N. Druesnes in his paper on ‘Water and food security’ attempts to link the water crisis to the issues of food security. The author argues that food security does not mean a mere building up of the buffer stock; but it should ensure sustainable agriculture, sustainable water use, safe drinking water and also to ensure that food is produced from efficient, effective and environmentally benign technologies that conserve natural resource base. But these issues are addressed by the politic ians with myopic perspective which can be judged from the fact that Panchayat elections (local bodies) are not held regularly, the tank maintenance and the formation of the Water Users’ Association are either in paper or they were forced upon the farmers, the unresolved inter-state water disputes aggravating the problem of delta farmers and so forth.

20The paper on ‘Urban water supply and urban environment’ by P. Appasamy discusses two important implications of rapid urban expansion, namely, ever increasing demand for urban drinking water needs and the water pollution. In other words, the paper emphasizes the competing demand for water across sectors as an emerging critical issue, which deserves enough attention by the State. There are quite a few agencies involved in the urban water management but the water quality concerns remain outside their ambit. Only the municipal authorities have the technical and managerial capacity to handle sewerage. The neglect of wastewater disposal and solid waste often results in the contamination of water. A study by the World Bank quoted by the author indicates that water contamination accounted for over 60 % of the damages caused by pollution and environmental degradation. Therefore the author argues that the investment in waste management are probably well worth the benefits of reduced damages.

  • 5 The other providers belong to local unofficial groundwater extraction: 4 % from private tankers, 10 (...)

21The paper ‘Providing water supply and sanitation in Chennai: some recent institutional developments’ proposed by J. Ruet & M-H. Zerah brings from a survey they have done in urban India (Mumbay, Calcutta and Chennai) that the Tamil Nadu Capital is concerned by institutional and organizational innovations worth being exemplified in the other cities. Actually this city is facing a structural shortage of water resources – due to the climate limitations, the lack of perennial rivers, and limited storage capacities of the rainfall. But in focusing on an economical and institutional assessment of the centralized public body – the Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board (CMWSSB) – whic h ensure the water supply in Chennai, the authors are concluding that this body is an innovative system towards management of water. The Board extracts the water from groundwater which represent 80 % of the water supply and the rest is provided by farmers under a tripartite agreement (the Water Board, the Electricity Board, and the farmers). This situation leads to an implicit rural/urban competition in the Chennai area, mostly because irrigation consumes 70-80 % of the water resources of the States and farmers are selling water to urban consumers even if they don’t pay electricity to extract it. The Board which is distributing only 64 % of the water consumption5 have conducted a policy to distribute water in a large scale, to reduce the waste of water, to implement a water conservation. In the same time an efficient policy of the financing, of the improvement of the relationship with the consumers, of adaptable and moderate tariffs have been identified by the authors. But unfortunately, these positive aspects are not enough to balance the scarcity of the water during the drought season or during a monsoon failure. The authors are mentioning the ongoing plans to distribute additional water (Krishna river project, and treated water coming from the Chembarambakkam tank expected in 2004). But nowadays there are a lack of sustainable solutions specially in slums areas. So the sanitation and the health situation due to the seasonal scarcity of water are still a big problem in this city.

Legal and Ecological Settings in Water Management

22The part 3 is bringing additional aspects to the understanding in the field of legal and ecological issues. The legal one by a critical analysis is offering keys to consider water rights systems and legislations in India (A. Rajagopal and S. Janakarajan). With the ecological issues – very often forgotten in the social sciences – the importance and the dynamics of the ecosystems in India are highlighted through the soil context of the watersheds (P. Curmi) and the role and the management of trees in soil and water conservation (D. Depommier).

23A. Rajagopal and S. Janakarajan in their paper on ‘Politics of water rights and water resource management: A critical analysis of water rights and legislations in Tamilnadu’, trace somewhat historically the evolution of water rights and water laws in Tamilnadu and their relevance for water resource management in the State. The paper discusses the traditional/customary water rights enjoyed by user communities for many centuries, the strengths and weaknesses of these customary rights, methods by which the State appropriated these rights, the problems associated with management of water by the State, recent attempts to transfer water rights to user communities as a part of a ‘System Turnover Programme’ by the World Bank and its policy implications. The paper, in particular, makes a critical analysis of the Tamilnadu Farmers’ Management of Irrigation Systems Act, 2000 in the context of turning over of rights to user communities under the above programme. The paper also presents two case studies with a view to discussing the appropriation of water rights by the State and the process of bureaucratization of water management. The case studies presented are Palar Anicut System (an age old irrigation system in the erstwhile North Arcot district) and Parambikulam Aliyar Project (a new irrigation project in Coimbatore district).

24P. Curmi through his paper ‘Soils and water: the small watershed approach’ is helping to understand that water management is not only a social, institutional or a political product. It is also reposing also on the functioning of the ecosystems. So the geography scale of the small watershed approach allows to understand the consequences of the human management towards natural and physical system of water. He presents his research approach in the French Institute through two projects. On the basis of the first one, he proposes how the effects of climatic drainage and human activities towards dynamics of biogeochemical and hydrological cycles can be studied in small watersheds and rivers on the back slope of the Western Ghats (south-west of Bangalore). On the basis of the second one, the author raises some questions on the relationships between soil systems and farming systems with irrigation by rain feeding reservoirs in rural south Indian areas. How do soil constitution, behaviour and spatial distribution influence the farming system? How do agricultural practices modify present soil functioning and long-term evolution? These research issues are opening a very interesting link between soil sciences, ecology, agronomy and social sciences.

25D. Depommier in his paper is focusing on the “roles and management of trees in soil and water conservation” through the case of peninsular India from mountains to drylands and coastal areas. Considering the soil erosion he explains how the vegetation and specially the trees are playing a role in the soil and water conservation. He presents the advantages of the agroforestry for these conservations. First he explains how the trees are in interaction with the dynamic of the water conservation: through the water and nutrients cycles, the physical action of the rooting system, the symbiotic association with bacteria and mycorrhizae, and the physical action of the canopy. Second, he presents the different agroforestry technologies and tree management practices: windbreaks and shelterbelts, living fences, hedgerows and trees on erosion control structures. Third he shows how the homegardens – among the commonest tropical agroforestry system in the humid zone – can be considered as agroforests. The appropriate quality and number of tree and of their location among the agricultural landscape can bring judicious water conservation to be used to the crops and for the human uses. His approach bridging agroforestry, socioeconomy, and ecology is bringing fruitful conclusions on the necessity of multidisciplinary research to develop model water tree-based systems for the rehabilitation of degraded landscapes and watershed areas.


26These papers show the necessity of multidisciplinary approaches to understand all the components of the water management. They also indicate that different scales have to be taken in account: the geographic one with the climate, soils and ecological aspects, the administrative and political ones for the boundaries of the rules, the laws and the organization of water supply, the social and cultural ones for the uses of the water bounds to the places of living, and social and economic status and structure. However some lack of topics have to be mentioned here. For instance, the indeed link between water uses and health is not here really highlighted. And we know this theme has to be deepen due to its importance in India. More analysis and illustrations from the grass root level should have given a comprehensive perspectives of the real perceptions, uses and needs of the population. And we are aware that the Sri Lankan situation has not been as well explored than the Indian one. But these approaches and these topics can be in the future initiated in the Indo-French cooperation context in complementing the deeper explorations of the ones presented in this book.


3 HYV technology: High Yielding Varieties technology.

4 See for instance, Appasamy, 1994, Bhatia, 1992, Blomqvist, 1996, Jacob, 1996, Janakarajan, 1997, 1999 and 2000, Moench, 1992, Moench et al, 1999, Vaidyanathan 1996)

5 The other providers belong to local unofficial groundwater extraction: 4 % from private tankers, 10 from community tanks and wells, 21 % from in-house well (WSP, 1999).


Anthropologist, Lecturer in Anthropology, University of Rouen, France, Former Head, Department of Social Sciences, French Institute of Pondichery
Group of Research Innovations and Societies University of Rouen, France
As Head of The Department of Social Sciences in French Institute of Pondicherry from August 2000 to August 2002, he has initiated this Indo-French round-table on water management. He has specialised in anthropology of food and in anthropology of health. He has made researches in France, in Reunion Island (French Overseas Department, near Mauritius), and more recently in India. He has directed researches on health in social sciences perspectives in South India. He is now lecturer in anthropology in University of Rouen, France and is co-directing the axis “Incertitudes – Risks – Precarious Situations" in the Group of Research on Innovations and Societies (GRIS). He has published a book on anthropology of food in Reunion Island, and co-edited a couple of ones in health areas.

Economist, Professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai, India
Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai
Is an economist and currently a Professor at Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai, India. He has specialised in the areas of agrarian markets, rural development, agrarian institutions, water management and environment. For the past 15 years, he has been deeply involved in water and environment related research. For the past 7 years, he has also been a part of an international team consisting of academics and academics cum activists from India, Nepal and the US (mainly funded by IDRC Canada). His long research experience in water and environment and of late his involvement in academic activism have given a good deal of confidence in setting up stakeholder and user groups in a couple of river basins in the State of Tamil Nadu. He has published a couple of books and many papers and has international experience in research. Earlier, he worked on his postdoctoral work at the Cornell University, U. S. A (1993) and was a visiting fellow at Queen Elizabeth House, Oxford University, UK (1995-96).

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 2003

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