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Water management in rural South India and Sri Lanka

Patrice Cohen
S. Janakarajan

Part III. Legal and ecological settings in water management

8. Politics of Water Rights and Water Resource Management: a Critical Analysis of Water Rights Systems and Legislations in Tamil Nadu

A. Rajagopal et S. Janakarajan

Texte intégral


1Rights over a resource are not necessary when it is abundant and freely available. This applies to water also. However, certain control mechanisms were found necessary due to certain extreme conditions experienced by people. On the one hand, there were floods and the problem of heavy waterlogging and drainage; community participation was found necessary to save human society from such natural disasters. On the other hand, there were droughts and water scarcity and there was the need for certain rules and regulations to use the available water more effectively, equitably and efficiently. Thus, in the process of the development of a society, water has emerged as one of the most important natural resources to deal with for a better human living. Indeed, in the recent times, the increasing gap between demand and supply has resulted in several managerial problems such as allocation, maintenance, prioritizing the use of water and the need to resolve conflicts that may arise in the process of sharing.

2Conferring water rights is an important measure or an institutionalized principle which regulated water use and conflicts. All laws relating to water and other natural resources became necessary because of the progress made by human societies which brought with it demands for resources, scarcity conditions and problems of free riders; precisely because of these reasons, there was a need for informal rules and regulations. These informal rules and regulations, which evolved over a long period time, reflected the socio-economic and political structure of society at any given point of time; These rules were not static but were subject to quite a number of changes which were influenced by factors such as geophysical and climatic conditions, socio-economic and political conditions and the level of technological development.

3Therefore, water rights are basically a certain kind of institutional arrangement, which has evolved / emerged over a long period of time in the history of human settlement in order to enable a society or a user-community to act, interact and to manage a system. This is not to glorify the irrigation institutions that existed in the past. Indeed, the kind of irrigation institutions that were controlled by kings or local chieftains was nothing but hydraulic despotism and reflected very much the local power structure and production relations at any given point of time. Nevertheless, there existed some organized and codified rules and regulations, customs, roles and mores, legislations, notifications, etc., which not only defined access to water for a community, but also subsumed all critical functions of water management. And, given the local power structure and the unequal access to means of production, these institutions performed well in protecting the water rights of user communities’. In the Indian context, the emergence of colonialism and the formation of a welfare state have not only altered the power relations, but have also contributed to the disintegration of these rights over natural resources, in particular water. At the same time, this is not to deny the wisdom the state has a key role in facilitating water use and in protecting the rights of user-communities. Further, in the context of the present water rights debate, it is necessary to distinguish between rights acquired / gathered over time (riparian rights), and rights gained due to access to resources. Urban industrialists controlling water resources in the rural areas by sinking deep tube wells (much deeper than the existing ones in a village) is a classic case in support of rights gained due to control over resources.

4What are the rights that user communities enjoyed in the past? What is the process in which these rights have been appropriated by the state? (Chatrapathi Singh calls it, and rightly so, “the right of a welfare-state”, Singh, 1991). To what extent could the state follow the principle of equity in making available water to all users? Since the prevalence of corruption is one of the biggest problems in a democratically elected welfare state, to what extent are the rights exercised by it efficient and to what extent does it deliver goods to the user-community? The state, given its rights to extend cities and towns, and in extending irrigation systems in order to bring more and more area under their command, takes away the existing rights of the people. To what extent is this justified? Water rights can also be looked at from the angle of the human rights issue. This is more relevant in a situation in which the marginalized people, whose rights have been appropriated, are defenceless and cannot seek justice in a court of law. In this context, it is necessary to distinguish between the rights gathered by the people over time and rights claimed /seized due to access to resources and due to nexus with the state (e.g., urban industrialists who buy land in a village, install deep borewells and extract unlimited groundwater for their industrial use and thereby contribute to the drying up of the groundwater in many wells, or urban industries which pollute the existing water bodies by discharging industrial effluents and thereby deprive the people of their rights over water which they have enjoyed for many centuries). What is the role of civil society in all of this?

5The present paper makes an attempt to examine the traditional water rights / customary rights enjoyed by user communities for many centuries, the strengths and weaknesses of these customary rights, methods by which the state appropriated these rights, problems associated with the management of water by the state, the recent turn-over programme of transfer of water rights to user communities by the state and its policy implications.

Traditional/customary water rights

6Two types of customary water rights prevail in India. They are (a) riparian rights and (b) prior appropriation rights.

7The riparian right is a right vested in the owner of a land that is situated near to a river, stream or watercourse. The right to use water on adjacent / upper land was considered as a natural right. Under this system, the right of a lower riparian is protected to the extent of a customary flow of water to them. It was also laid down that interference with such a flow is wrong and no riparian owner is entitled to obstruct a public river with a dam. However, they are given such right of obstruction in times of emergency, like a flood without creating problems for neighbours. Also, it was recognized that an upper riparian has the right to use as much water as possible without diminishing the quantum enjoyed by a lower riparian. If a lower riparian feels that there is a reduction in water availability / flow, he can seek a remedial measure in a court of law. Similarly, a lower riparian does not have a right to the flood lands of an upper riparian by building a dam on a river. As regards drainage, an upper riparian has the right to drain excess water through channels without affecting the lower riparian lands. It is to be noted that all riparian rights are applicable to only natural water sources and not to artificial canals or watercourses. Riparian rights continue to have relevance even today. They are not lost through non-use or development of a society.

8The limitation of the doctrine of riparian rights began to be felt when there was an expansion of an original (initial) command area. To solve the problems arising out of such expansion, the government resorted to certain administrative measures on the basis of the prior appropriation doctrine. Thus, the state modified the riparian rights doctrine and gave more importance to the prior appropriation doctrine in India. Accordingly, the rule of ’first in time, first in use’ was adopted and later became law. Thus the concept of ’time of appropriation’ became the basis for determination of water rights in a system. Under this doctrine, individual states developed administrative regulations, as mentioned earlier, for appropriating water under major water distribution systems. However, some states recognized both riparian and prior appropriation rights, which have resulted in complications in the allocation of water and in the interpretation of water rights.

9Water rights go hand in hand with the degree of access to resources, cultural practices, customs, formal and informal rules over access to use of water by individuals / groups / communities /states and nations. They are not theoretical abstractions but refer to concrete procedures and certain formalities. These rights also reflect upon the relative power of individuals and groups to use water or transfer rights over water in any given situation.

10The rights over water, which evolved over a long period of time, are called customary or traditional water rights. Such water rights are considered important not only India, but also in many other parts of the world. (FAO 1979, Vol. 1). In England for instance, the right to use water belongs to the occupier of land, that is, riparian rights. In Belgium, water rights are vested with landowners, which can be inherited. Whereas in France, Israel and Italy water rights can be vested with individuals by a license. In Africa, there are limited rights to use water without state intervention. In Benin and Burundi, water rights are generally conferred by custom. Mauritiaus and Kenya provide for access to domestic use without administrative sanction (FAO 1979, Vol. II). According to Singh, the right over water has existed in ancient laws in many countries and they still continue to exist as customary laws. Generally, customary law is based on the community principle that land and water belong to the local community and therefore cannot be subject to individual rights of ownership or use except by virtue of membership in the community. Thus, in many countries water rights ae based upon customary rights.

Practice of traditional/customary water rights in India

11The technology of water use for agriculture has developed over a period of many centuries and its history has run parallel with the patterns of human settlement and formation of village societies (Steward, J. H. 1955). Water rights, therefore, are not something, which was given to water users, but were gained or acquired by them over a very long period of time. These are called customary rights and were recognized by Hindu laws and later by English laws. Although customary laws varied from state to state, they had some common ground such as community rights and informal arrangement. These customary laws, according to Singh, had many advantages compared to statutory rights. “Customary law has been dynamic and more in tune with the needs of the people than dogmatic about certain fixed notions of territorially or ownership right.... Limitless in space and quality, they are broader in approach than the legal systems” (Singh 1991: 67).

12In India, the Easement Act of 1832 specifically recognized the customary rights of people. Thus, according to custom and convention, people were entitled to tap water, which (due to gravity) flows through an upper plot or another person’s land (Singh 1991). However, this Act was not applicable to ground water. In the Tamil Nadu context, in particular tank and traditional canal irrigated areas, the customary rights over water were well codified much before the British period. The British government approved these codified laws (which were locally called mamulnamas) and printed them as a document as early as 1813.

Customary water rights in Tamil Nadu

13Historically, the community of water users undertook all critical functions of water management, including the construction of small diversion weirs and canal networks. Such water user communities were called ‘samudhayam’ in the case of canal irrigated villages, and ‘nadu’ for tank and dry villages. The water rights enjoyed by the community were indeed gained by them due to their hard work in construction as well as in maintenance. The organizational structure for carrying out the responsibilities of traditional water institutions operated at two levels: The first is of a supervisory nature, called kavaimaniyam or nattamai or karaikarar, performing the role of an authority enforcing rules and regulations concerning water management. The second, locally called, neerkatti or neerpaichi or kambakkaran or kammukkutti, was more of a menial nature and involved hard labour. While the former is an honorary position, community at the end of every season or year paid the latter category in kind. In many parts of the country, these positions were held on a hereditary basis.

14The traditional irrigation systems which prevailed in Tamil Nadu and in other parts of India reflected very well the rights enjoyed by the village societies over water and other natural resources. The community had complete control ever and access to water resources within their jurisdiction. The system was functioning well and there existed well laid out rules and regulations to undertake all critical functions of water management such as system maintenance, water sharing in particular during times of scarcity, conflict resolution, collection of penalties for non-participation in the maintenance work and so forth. There existed a hierarchy of functionaries to undertake all these activities. The caste structure played a crucial role in preserving and in allocating responsibilities among various functionaries. For instance, a farmer invariably held the position of a canal manager and was from a high caste, while the position of irrigation workers (menials) was held only by people from scheduled castes. Nevertheless, the traditional irrigation institution had an enforcement mechanism, which facilitated a smooth functioning of water control systems.

Decline of kudimaramath and attempts to revive it under British rule

15Voluntary community labour, or what was called the kudimaramath system, began to slacken from around the middle of the nineteenth century. The colonial government was quick to recognize all the local customs / conventions and the acquired water rights of people. Indeed, they tried to protect the customary rights of people through appropriate legal provisions. The village settlements carried out by the British administration in different parts of the country since the second half of nineteenth century had, in particular, recognized the Kudimaramath system (system of community labour for maintenance) and its associated rules and regulations for water management. However, the kudimaramath system, which worked well until the beginning of the British rule, started declining from around the middle of nineteenth century. The report of the Public Works Commission of 1852 stated that there was not much voluntary community labour and it reported that in all districts labour was more or less forced (Sarada Raju 1942). The main reason attributed for the decline was the disintegration of village society and certain repressive impositions of land tax. The Irrigation Commission of 1901 pointed out factions, absentee landlordism and the decline in the power of village headmen as reasons for decline of the kudimaramath system.

16Realizing the importance of maintaining kudimaramath system, the British had taken a number of steps for its revival; otherwise, the administration feared a heavy financial burden on the maintenance of irrigation systems. Therefore, the colonial government resorted to certain legal measures with a view to reviving the community labour system in the Madras Presidency. The first attempt in this regard was made in 1855, when the then collector of Thanjavur prepared an irrigation bill. The purpose of the bill was to prevent willful damages to irrigation structures. However, on the grounds that the bill was not comprehensive, the Board of Revenue rejected it. The next attempt was in 1858, when an act called the Madras Compulsory Labour Act was passed. This Act legalized compulsory labour for certain aspects of maintenance, and also provided a provision for penalizing those who did not participate in community labour. However, this also did not result in any improvement of the kudimaramath system. Further, the very essence of the principles underlying the voluntary community labour was lost in this legislation. Hence, the traditional irrigation systems were in a process of decay. At the same time, the government failed to provide the required relief measures during the successive famines witnessed in the later part of nineteenth century. The main reason attributed to the failure of this Act was the migration of labour to countries such as Sri Lanka, Burma, Malaysia, Singapore and Africa due to severe famine conditions.

17Therefore, fresh legislations were recommended by the Famine Commission of 1878, and the Irrigation Commission of 1901 (Baliga 1960). Subsequently, the government appointed a committee on kudimaramath and irrigation. The committee in its report recommended a number of steps for the revival of the kudimaramath system and also prepared a draft bill on kudimaramath. The bill was approved by the government of India but came under serious criticism. The bill was also strongly opposed by public on the ground that it was very stringent and gave many powers to canal officers. Finally, the bill was dropped.

Appropriation of people’s rights by the government

18The need for legislation on irrigation and water rights, however, was soon felt. There were a number of court cases against the government relating to irrigation and most of them they were decided in favour of the farmers. "The land holders began to claim not only the beds of rivers and streams but also rights to the usufruct of water, and courts conceded these rights making it impossible for the government to regulate irrigation" (Baliga 1960: 72). The need for irrigation legislation became more vibrant after the first Irrigation Commission (1903) recommended a comprehensive legislation which resulted in the preparation of an irrigation bill, in 1906. This bill sought to define clearly the rights of the government “to regulate the collection, retention and distribution of water”. Since the government of India felt that the bill was not comprehensive enough, it was further revised in 1911, and subsequently in 1914. The government of India’s objection was mainly with regard to the elaborate procedure of inviting objections from ryots before construction of an irrigation system. In other words, the government did not want to take serious view of people’s acquired rights. The government was also against the compensation payable for the failure of crops. This bill was also opposed by the public (Madras Land Holder’s Association) on the grounds that the bill interfered with the rights of landowners / water users. Subsequently, the bill was revised and came up for discussion in 1922 and 1924. In particular, the 1924 bill was prepared mainly to take care of problems created by the new judgments and also to deal with new subjects such as water rates, kudimaramath and irrigation panchayats. Though the bill was said to be "comprehensive", it was rejected by the legislature on the grounds that it interfered with rights of zamindars and ryots, and it was felt that large powers were given to irrigation officers. However, the government appointed another committee to prepare the bill of 1927 and introduced it in the legislative council where it was also passed. However, the government of India suggested some amendments, especially with regard to the fixing of water rates. Fearing a fall in public revenue, the government suggested an increase in water rates. However, the legislative council did not accept the amendments and subsequently the bill lapsed as the council was dissolved. In 1930, another bill was prepared by the government, mainly to frame laws relating to irrigation and to levy of water cess, which was called the Madras Irrigation Cess Act. This bill was not introduced in the legislative council as it was felt that it was not comprehensive enough. Further, it was felt that the Bill did not specify the rights of the landholders in unambiguous terms.

Other attempts to introduce irrigation legislation

19Since all the previous attempts had failed, the government tried other methods to introduce legal measures. Anumber of government orders (GOs) were issued for this purpose. One such important GO was on the formation of an irrigation panchayat at channel / tank levels. These irrigation panchayats had different degrees of success depending upon places, in some places they worked well, and in others not (Rajagopal 1991). Subsequent attempts made by the British government for passing an act also did not materialize due to World War II. Although comprehensive irrigation bills were not passed, some special acts relating to irrigation were passed between 1930 to 1946. They are (1) the Madras Compulsory Labour (Amendment) Act 1935, (2) the Madras Irrigation Cess (Amendment) Acts of 1901 and 1945, (3) the Madras Irrigation (Voluntary Cess) Act of 1942 and (4) the Madras Irrigation Works (Repairs, Improvement and Construction) Act of 1934 and 1945.

20The Compulsory Labour (Amendment) Act (1935) was passed with a view to demanding from ryots not only labour, but also other materials, such as earth, stone and gunny bags necessary for the emergency repairs of an irrigation system. The second act was passed to levy enhanced water cess on irregular irrigation and also levy additional water cess on estates land like zamindars and inamdars. The third act was passed for the purpose of enforcing the kudimaramath system. Instead of compulsory supply of labour, the act provides for the levy of acess equivalent to the labour required from the landholders in an irrigation structure under the kudimaramath system. The Irrigation Works (Repairs, Improvement and Construction) Act was passed to authorize the government to undertake private irrigation works and supply water from government sources to these private irrigation works and levy water charges. These acts, although passed in 1945 are still in effect. All these acts are clear cases of not only of the appropriation by the state of water rights hitherto enjoyed by the farmers, but these Acts also enable the government to exploit the material resources of farmers in more than one way. However, although government was armed with all these legislative measures, it never achieved any great degree of success in revamping the kudimaramath system.

Irrigation legislations and changes in water policies after independence

Irrigation bill of 1947

21After assuming power, the national government prepared an irrigation, bill basically on the line of 1924 bill. The bill sought to declare that water is the property of the state, and that the state has the right to control irrigation works under both the zamindari and the ryotwari systems. It also declared that no civil court has the power to hold back the government from undertaking any irrigation work. It also had many other provisions relating to kudimaramath, irrigation panchayat and water cess. Though the bill was not passed, there were some special acts passed relating to irrigation. They were, the Malabar Irrigation Works (Construction and Levy of Cess) Act 1947, the Madras Estates (Abolition and Conversion to Ryotwari) Act of 1948 and the Irrigation Tanks Improvement Act of 1949. The irrigation bills prepared subsequently, in 1950 and 1953, were on the basis of these special acts. The irrigation bill of 1953 was meant to "define and amend the law relating to irrigation and the levy of water cess", but the bill was never passed.

22There were a number of other acts passed subsequently and most of them were for specific irrigation projects executed as a part of major and medium irrigation programmes under Plans. The Mettur Irrigation Canal Cess Act of 1953 and Parambikulam-Aliyar Project Act of 1994 are examples. There were also some other legislations which are general in nature: the Tamil Nadu Betterment Levy Act of 1955 and the Tamil Nadu Field Bothis Act of 1969.

23There were many amendments to these acts from 1960 to 1980. But none them provided a comprehensiveness to irrigation management covering different aspects. A review of some of the important provisions of these acts is given below (IWS 1997).

Details about provisions of irrigation acts in Tamil Nadu

Tamil Nadu Irrigation Cess Act 1865 as modified up to 1980.

24The 1865 Irrigation Cess Act declared that the state had right to collect water charges as it incurred huge expenditures on irrigation construction and drainage work for the benefit of a large section of farmers, including tenants. According to this act, the arrears of water cess should be collected as arrears of land revenue. This act extends not only to ryothwary lands but also to zamindari areas. This is the first act, which imposed water charges and became the basis for pricing of water in Tamil Nadu. Further, this act has laid down the foundation for the differential pricing of water, based the period of water supply and the dependability of irrigation sources.

Tamil Nadu River Conservancy Act 1884 (as Amended in 1969)

25This act was based on the Bombay and North Indian Drainage Act and also the Bengal Irrigation Act. This act gives wide powers to the canal officers for inspection, regulation, management repairs and other purposes such as removing obstructions and the closing of channels. Where necessary this also gave powers for acquiring land from farmers and the settlement of disputes. According to this act, every farmer is bound to maintain watercourses in a good condition and use it for purpose for which it was meant. There are also provisions for compensation for loss in the case of non-provision of water supply by the state. The act also gave powers to canal officers to levy water rates for canal water supply. The rates were to be fixed by the government from time to time. The act also contained provisions for penalties for the violation of rules and regulations fixed by the state.

Periyar Irrigation Tanks Preservation Act 1933

26This act is meant for the preservation of tanks in Periyar System in efficient condition. It provides for the repair of tanks through labour contribution by farmers as requisitioned by the respective district collectors. The collector has the power to execute measures necessary for the repair of tanks, to determine the cost of such repairs and the extent of contribution that has to be made by water users (farmers) for such repairs. Accordingly, every landowner required to pay an amount, in proportion to one half of the average area of the lands assessed during the three preceding agricultural years.

27The act dispensed with the earlier customary labour contribution and the problems associated with it by levying a cash contribution. However, during emergency times, the collector could take any measure without going through the normal procedure and recover the cost as mentioned above. The act also provided for recovery of the cost as arrears of land revenue by attaching the properties of farmers in the case of default by them.

Tamil Nadu Irrigation Voluntary Cess Act 1942

28The act was passed mainly to enforce the kudimaramath system effectively. The existing provisions in the Madras Compulsory Labour Act 1958 were ineffective, as the procedure in this act was found to be cumbersome. Hence it was felt that the kudimaramath system should be replaced by a cess levied for the purposes of maintenance. The act was also meant to make the cess, which were levied already in some districts statutory. According to this act, the state could levy and collect an annual cess if two-thirds of the farmers in an area desired, and the amount collected could be utilzed for the annual maintenance of irrigation works. In these cases, the kudimaramath obligation on the part of farmers would be dispensed with.

29Thus, the act provided for a cash contribution by farmers on a voluntary basis to replace the kudimaramath system. This act differs from the Periyar Irrigation Cess Act, in which it is levied compulsorily. The act gave relief to farmers from the problems of compulsory labour under the kudimaramath system.

Tamil Nadu irrigation works (repairs, improvement and construction) Act 1943

30The act was meant for undertaking reparis in zamindari areas and private irrigation sources where maintenance was neglected and affected food production. This act provides for farmers to compel the landowners to undertake repair and maintenance works. In case of failure to undertake such works by landowners, the government would do so and recover the cost from the landowners concerned. The landowners in turn get the right to avail of loans from the government under the Land Improvements Act, and also to enhance the rent payable by farmers. The act also gave powers to the government to supply water to private irrigation sources where there was a total collapse of such sources and to collect water charges at the rate fixed by the government. However, in practice, the act was found to be less effective as tenant farmers were afraid of applying to the collector, obliging the landowners to undertake maintenance and repairs.

31An amendment of the act in 1945 laid down principles of cost-sharing between the government and the private owners of irrigation sources for repairs and maintenance works carried out by the government. Earlier, the entire cost of the maintenance works was to be borne by the private owners / zamindars, although the improvement benefited the ryotwari (government) lands. However, the amendment removed the anomaly and the costs on repairs and maintenance should now be shared proportionately, not exceeding 4 % of the incremental income from such improvements.

Tamil Nadu Irrigation Tanks (Improvement) Act 1949

32The act was passed with a view to preventing the deteriorating conditions which had resulted in the decline in the command area effectively irrigated. According to provisions in the act. the government could increase the capacity of the tank by raising full tank level, regardless of location, whether zamindary, inamdari or ryotwari area. It also empowered the government to recover the costs in such proportions as would be prescribed by the collector. It also provides for compensation to those affected by such an increase in the level of the tank.

Tamil Nadu Irrigation Works-Construction of Field Bothies Act 1959

33Although a number of irrigation schemes were executed, the potential command designed was not fully utilized. One of the main reasons identified was the lack of field channels to transport water from branch canals and minor channels. Moreover, as these field channels had to be dug in the midst of the field which fall under the domain of private property, there was the problem in such construction due to the lack of cooperation among farmers. Hence, there was a need for an act, which would facilitate such construction. Under this act, the district collector could ask landowners to construct or improve field channels at their own costs. It also prohibited anyone from obstructing the flow of water in a field channel. However, the implementation of this act was also unsatisfactory as there was no provision for the compulsory acquition of land. As a result, the schemes meant for development of command areas could not be undertaken effectively.

Tamil Nadu Irrigation Levy Betterment Contribution Act 1955

34Since independence, a number of irrigation projects were taken up as a part of the overall agricultural development strategy. This has also contributed to improvements in the existing irrigation systems. This act provided for the capital cost recovery of those projects from beneficiaries. Accordingly, the cost incurred by the improvements should be fully collected over a period of time. However, in practice this act was quite unsatisfactory as the state was not interested in the collection of the capital costs of such improvements for political reasons.

Tamil Nadu Pandhayat Act 1958 (as amended 1997)

35The act authorised panchayats to construct and repair minor irrigation works under the control of panchayats. The act also provides for collection of cess on irrigated lands, which is about six times that of unirrigated land. This was one of the major sources of funds for local bodies. However, cess collected from irrigated lands were not utilized for the proper maintenance of irrigation systems.

Tamil Nadu Additional Assessment and Additional Water Cess Act 1963

36Water cesses were fixed originally at the time of survey and settlements, around 1865 (Irrigation Cess Act 1865). Since then there was no revision in water charges and only in 1963 was an additional assessment made in case of wet lands and additional cesses were levied in the case of dry lands to the extent of about 50 % of the basic water cess. Thus, the act paved the way for an increase in irrigation revenues. Since then, there has been no revision in water charges in Tamil Nadu, although many states have revised the rates.

Tamil Nadu Land Improvement Act 1959

37The act was comprehensive enough to undertake conservation and improvement works on soil, groundwater and surface water in any part of the state. Thus, the act provided for drought and flood relief measures by the government and for the reclamation of wastelands. For this purpose, the act suggested the creation of boards at different levels, viz., state, district and river valley catchments areas.

Compendium of Rules and Regulations (1984): Part I Water Regulation and Part II Flood Regulations

38This contains rules and regulations passed by the government for the regulation of water distribution and floods under different irrigation projects in the state. These rules define the responsibilities of officials at different levels in water regulation, and dates of opening and closing up of sluices with specific technical parameters.

Standing orders of the Board of Revenue

39These orders prescribe different water rates (such as basic rates and additional rates) for different categories of lands (land is classified in six types depending upon the duration of water supply). The act requires users (new categories) to obtain permission from the government for non-agricultural purposes.

40On the whole, all the legislative measures outlined above were motivated with a view to raising revenue or related to the management of specific system. As mentioned earlier, there were no attempts to bring in a comprehensive legislation for the better management of irrigation, taking into account the changes in agricultural practices, changing water needs, involving water users in water management practices.

Attempts to pass a comprehensive irrigation act

41Like Tamil Nadu, many states had a number of acts relating to different aspects of irrigation, but none of them was comprehensive. The multiplicity of acts dealing with different aspects also created problems for the better management of irrigation and for the quick resolution of conflicts. The Irrigation Commission of 1972, which had gone into this question, recommended the consolidation and simplification of irrigation acts into one, which could be applied uniformly throughout a region or state. The matter was referred to the Indian Law Institute in 1977 for the preparation of a model irrigation bill to this purpose. Subsequently, a committee was constituted to examine the model bill prepared by the Law Institute and to suggest modifications. The bill was circulated among all the states for discussion. The bill, however, did not receive much attention from the Tamil Nadu government. Subsequently, as a part of the Water Resources Management Studies Project funded by the UNDP, an attempt was made by the Institute of Water Studies, PWD, government of Tamil Nadu, to prepare a draft irrigation bill on the lines suggested by the Indian Law Institute.

Salient features of the draft Tamil Nadu Water Resources Act, 1989

42With the intention of putting together all earlier attempts and of enacting a comprehensive act pertaining to water resources, the Tamil Nadu Water Resources Act, 1989, was drafted as a part of Water Resources Management Project, Government of Tamil Nadu, funded by the United Nations. The purpose of this act was to enable the state to have greater control over water resources in the state, to have a greater say in water allocation and regulation, to promote equity in water use, maintenance of data base on water resources, to promote and to make legal the conjunctive use of surface and groundwater and to adhere to strict water quality control measures.

43Article 2 of the act states, “that existing water legislation is piece-meal and inadequate to address the increasing demand for limited water resources in the State of Tamil Nadu; that water for municipal, domestic, irrigation, power, industrial and related uses is vital to the maintenance and development of the State of Tamil Nadu” (IWS 1989: 6). Further, it is unambiguously stated in the objective of the act that the water resources are property of the state of Tamil Nadu and that the state should ensure the efficient, effective and equitable development among various users. The act also indicates that the existing water rights heretofore established shall be recognized and protected. To quote from Article 4 of the act, “It is the responsibility and authority of the government in the public interest and benefit to develop, allocate, reallocate distribute, manage, control, regulate and administer the water resources of the State, in all forms, whether atmospheric, surface or underground, including its use, reuse and drainage therefrom, according to the objectives, policies and principles of this act; except that the government must recognize, preserve and protect existing water rights to the use of water subject to necessary control and regulation in the public interest according to the extent of actual and beneficial use” (IWS 1989: 10). The act also has a provision (which was absent from all other earlier attempts) for the first time to regulate groundwater extraction. It is indeed heartening that the act recognized the need for monitoring not only the quantity but also the water quality in various river basins of the state: To quote, “The State shall assess and monitor the quality of surface and groundwater, establish water quality and discharge standards, and develop plans and programmes for the improvement and prevention of water pollution”. (IWS 1989: 7).

44The draft act also prioritizes the use of water among different sectors, irrespective of whether it is surface or groundwater, but only during the times of scarcity. Accordingly, the first priority goes to domestic and municipal water users (drinking), followed by agricultural, power / energy, industrial / commercial, and all other users, in that order. Please note that the second priority users are farmers and industrial users are only the fourth in the order of priority. Several measures are proposed with a view to regulating groundwater use, such as obtaining a permit from the Public Works Department before extracting groundwater, promoting conjunctive use of surface and groundwater, adopting artificial recharge measures wherever necessary and so on. The act makes a proposal for implementing a more uniform, systematic and equitable means of cost recovery and cost sharing. This involves also the water users’ participation in the construction, operation and maintenance of a system. It is acknowledged in the Act that the existing laws relating to water pollution fail to address the means to maintain the water quality of our water bodies. The act therefore suggests the formation of river basin authorities in which the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board could work jointly with other state agencies related to water.

45Further, this draft act made deliberate efforts to involve water users in the development and management of water resources. The main purpose of the Water Users’ Association should to be the operation, maintenance, improvement and rehabilitation of canal networks within a command area, the improvement water supply conditions, and the resolution disputes. And, it discusses extensively the functions and formation modalities of the Water Users’ Association and its active involvement in water management. The draft act was circulated to all states for comments, improvements and modification. Though the draft contained many important provisions, it did not receive much attention from the Tamil Nadu government.

Farmers’ Participation Act and turnover of public irrigation systems

46Since the early 1990s, the Tamil Nadu government has been showing enormous interest in farmers’ participation in water management. This, however, seems to be a wisdom which has been received from the World Bank. Thus, the state government had issued an Order in November 1994 to provide for farmers’ participation. However, this lacked the legal sanction, although it might be held valid by judicial authorities for being a state policy measure (Raju 1994). Nevertheless, the necessity for such legislation arose from the government’s commitment to the World Bank funded Tamil Nadu Water Resources Consolidation Project (WRCP). The funding, which came as a part of the WRCP, was used for the renovation of major surface irrigation systems in the state. Further, as a part of this project, the Farmers’ Organization and Turnover (FOT) programme has been given much importance. The main objective of this programme is to shift the responsibilities of the system maintenance and water distribution to the farmers’ organizations, which have a command area of about 500 hectares. However, due to legal and other constraints, there are delays in forming a Water Users’ Association (WUA) under the present system. Hence, the World Bank has recommended the passing of an act on the model of Andhra Pradesh Farmers Management of Irrigation Act (APFMIS). The Andhra Pradesh act provides for compulsory membership of farmers coming under a water users’ area, which would be delineated by the district collector. All the landholders belonging to this area would automatically become members of the WUA by a government notification. There are three levels of associations in a project area: the Pipe Committee at the outlet level, the Farmers Council at the distributary level and the Apex Body at the project level. Elections are to be held these associations to select the management committee. According to the act, the WUA has powers to levy, collect and share the water charges. The WUA is also given financial assistance for meeting expenditures for system maintenance from a routine grant from the state (Jayaraj 1998). The Tamil Nadu government has already announced an act based on Andhra Pradesh experience. This act is said to be comprehensive enough and provides for farmers’ management of irrigation systems and other associated aspects.

Salient provisions of the Tamil Nadu Farmers’ Management of Irrigation Systems Act, 2000

47The purpose of this act is “to promote and secure distribution of water among its users, adequate maintenance of the irrigation systems, efficient and economical utilization of water to optimize agricultural production by involving the farmers and inculcating a sense of ownership of the irrigation systems in these in accordance with the water budget and the operational plan” (Govt, of Tamil Nadu 2000). The act provides for the compulsory membership of farmers in an irrigation system for utilizing water from such a system. According to section 3 and clause 1, the collector of a district has the power to delineate the command area under an irrigation system and to declare it to be the Water Users’ Association area for the purpose of the formation of the WUA. Every WUA area can be divided into a number of territorial constituencies “which shall not be less than four, but shall not be more than ten, as may be prescribed”. All the landholders or the actual cultivating tenants in a water users’ area automatically become members of the association.

48One of the important clauses of the bill is that, even if a farmer owns land in more than one territorial constituency of a WUA, he is to entitled to be a member of only one territorial constituency at his option. This is very crucial because otherwise a bigger landowner, by virtue of the fact that he owns lands in many places, could exercise power in influencing the activities of the WUA. The members constituting the general body for respective WUA, have the right to elect a president and members of a Managing Committee representing various territorial constituencies of the WUA. The district collector in the respective areas is to make arrangements for such an election. Under normal circumstances, the tenure of the president and the Managing Committee is to be five years.

49Two or more WUAs will form a Distributary Committee and the presidents of all WUAs will become ex-officio members of the Dustributary Committee, and all such members will constitute the general body of the Distributary Committee. In addition, there will be a Managing Committee for every Distributary Committee, which consists of a president and members who will not exceed five from among members of Distributary Committees. “The government may, in such manner as may be prescribed, delineate every command area or part thereof, of an irrigation system, and declare it to be a project area for the purpose of this Act”.

50Further, a Project Committee is constituted for every project area which will be delineated by the government. “The President of every Distributary Committee in the Project Area shall be member of such Project Committee, ex-officio, and all such members shall constitute the general body for such a Project Committee’. There is also to be a Managing Committee for every Project Committee, which will consist of a president and members who will be elected from among the members of such Project Committee. The number of members in this Managing Committee are not to exceed nine. Furthermore, the government by notification, may constitute an Apex Committee with a chairman and the number of members and powers as may be prescribed by the government. The purpose of the Apex Committee is stated to be the laying down of policies and guidelines for the implementation of the provisions of this act.

51A motion for recall of a chairman or a president or a member, as the case may be, of the Managing Committee of any farmers’ organization may be made by giving notice in writing and signed by not less than one-third of the total members.

Main functions of farmers’ organizations as prescribed by the act

52The following functions are some of the functions to be performed by a Water Users’ Association under this act:

  • Planning and implementation of a rotational water supply system;
  • Maintenance of an irrigation system right from distribution to field channels;
  • Promotion of economy in the use of water;
  • Assisting revenue authorities in the collection of water charges,
  • Maintenance of a register of water users;
  • Maintenance of a data base on inventory of the irrigation system within the area of operation;
  • Removal of the encroachments on canals, drains and tank poromboke;
  • Resolution of disputes among members of the association;
  • Raising of resources.

53Similarly, the Distributary Committee and the Project Committee also have a number of prescribed functions to perform. Most of these relate to preparation of a operational plan based on its entitlement, area, soil and crop pattern. And they also have to ensure the maintenance of canal networks, the proper distribution of water among various WUAs, the collection of water rates and promotion of economy and efficiency in the use of water.

Sources of funding for WUA

54The WUAs are empowered under this act to levy and collect fees not exceeding Rs. 500 per hectare per year from every water user. In addition, the WUAs will have access to funding from other sources such as annual grants from the government, or other funds, which may be granted by the state and central governments, loans from financing agencies, income from the assets of the organization and donations from any other sources. The funds thus mobilized are to be deposited in nationalized or cooperative banks. The managing committee of the farmers’ organization is to maintain a sinking fund with a view to facilitating repayment towards borrowed funding.

Government’s control over the WUAs

55Under this act, the government is to appoint officers from the irrigation department as special officers or as competent authorities for implementing the decisions taken by the Managing Committee these authorities have powers of direction or instruction in the execution of the works entrusted to them within the purview of the act. “Every farmers’ organization shall extend such cooperation or assistance, as may be required by the competent authority, and follow such directions or instructions as may be issued by the competent authority, from time to time, for carrying out the purposes of this act”.

56In order to supervise the functions of the officers, including the collectors, the government can appoint a commissioner and give him the powers required for carrying out the functions specified by the government. The government has also got powers to give directions to competent authorities/farmers associations to take such actions as may be specified by it.

Settlement of disputes

57The Managing Committees of WUAs and of the distributory Project and Apex Committees are the authorities for the settlement of disputes arising among members of the organizations and the concerned committee is to be decided by the Managing Committees of the immediately higher organizations. The concerned members, if aggrieved by the decisions taken by these committee can appeal to the next higher level committees, and the decisions of such committees will be final. All the appeals under this act shall be disposed of within fifteen days. It is necessary to underline the powers of the Apex Committee or government. The act says, “any such dispute or differences arising between members and the Managing Committee of a Project Committee or between two or more project committees shall be determined by the Apex Committee, whose decision shall be final”.

Provisions for offences and penalties and recovery of arrears

58Those who violate the provisions of this act “shall, on conviction, be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years or with fine which may extend to five thousand rupees, or with both”.

59Further, Article 39 of the act provides for the recovery of money due to fartmers’ organization as arrears of land revenue and ’for the purposes of such recovery, the competent authority (in this case, the irrigation department) shall have the powers of a Collector under the Tamil Nadu Revenue Recovery Act, 1864.

Evaluation of the Farmers Participation Act 2000

Positive Aspects

60The act no doubt provides a legal framework for better farmers’ participation in water management for the first time in the history of irrigation legislations in Tamil Nadu. The act enables farmers participation, not only at lower levels, but also in a restricted manner at the main system level. The farmers’ collective participation is enabled through the formation of WUAs, the office bearers for which must be elected through a democratic process. The act also provides for the autonomous management of the irrigation system by the farmers’ organization in their respective area, both the maintenance of the system and the distribution of the water supply. The annual grants allocated by the government for various purposes, such as for operation and maintenance, can now be better utilized by the WUAs. Also, the WUAs have legal powers to levy and collect additional water charges, which would enhance their financial positions. Hence this provision would go a long way in improving cost recovery. With regard to the settlement of disputes, since the decisions taken by the concerned committees or by the higher level committees are final, the courts are forbidden to entertain any further appeal. A major breakthrough as regards the management of the farmers’ organizations FO is that the members of the association are vested with powers to recall the committee members. This provision would contribute to the accountability of the elected leaders and restrain them from mismanagement. Further, the government as has been generally seen in many other organizations for instance cooperatives and panchayats cannot terminate the Management Committees of the WUAs.

Negative Aspects

61The act is comprehensive enough and many provisions of the act are ideal for a smooth water management system. The act ensures better farmers’ participation in water management, not only in water sharing but also in the collection of water rates and in maintenance. The intentions of this act are never in question. As discussed earlier in this paper, several legal attempts were also made in the past by the then British government to organize farmers to undertake maintenance work. But unfortunately, all the past attempts were a gross failure. It does not, however, follow that the present attempt will also result in a failure. Nevertheless, it is important to take a critical view of the provisions of the act for such a view may help to correct the inadequacies.

62Basically, the present act attempts to associate water users who are currently dissociated. For many historical reasons, even the traditional irrigation institutions are fractured and fragmented. It is sad, indeed. But, before attempting to introduce new irrigation (farmers’) organizations through legislative measures, it is necessary to examine the reasons for the disintegration of traditional irrigation institutions.

63The traditional irrigation institutions, which evolved over a very long period of time and existed in many canal and tank irrigated areas, are characterized by several social arrangements and social responsibilities. In reality, the technology of water use for agriculture has developed over a period of several centuries, and its history has run parallel with the patterns of human settlements and village societies. The social norms appear through long processes of evolution (Basu 2000). To quote Ullmann-Margalit, “Norms as a rule do not come into existence at a definite point of time, nor are they the result of a manageable number of identifiable acts. They are, rather, the resultant of complex patterns of behaviour of a large number of people over a protracted period of time” (Ulmann-Margalit, E. 1977 and quoted in Basu 2000: 123). Therefore, it follows that the traditional irrigation institutions do not have a definite time and the success or failure of an irrigation institution depends very much upon the active participation of each and every individual member of a village society. The participation of a village society, however, will be institutionalized and sustained only when a society feels the necessity for it. Under such circumstances, the principles of collective use will evolve and will be institutionalized. This is precisely what has taken place and the historical circumstances and needs associate the individual members of a village to manage an irrigation system.

64In the same way, if the traditional irrigation institutions at the moment are in the process of decay or defunct, it is because of some compelling socio-economic, technological and institutional factors, (for more details on the factors which led to the disintegration of traditional irrigation societies, see Janakarajan 1993). The hitherto associated members of a village society are currently dissociated and it is not easy to ’associate’ them, either by force or by law, which is a deliberate choice. This is simply because the fundamental motivation for ’association’ or ’convergence’ or ’meeting together’ should evolve from within, rather than imposed from above. The next question that comes to mind is whether we can inculcate motivation in their minds. This is simply unrealistic and impracticable. On the other hand, in many parts of the state, whether one likes it or not, the traditional irrigation institutions are still functioning to a reasonable degree. In such village societies, are we going to superimpose a new institution through legislation on the existing ones? Are we really empowered to alter the norms and institutionalize practices, which have evolved over a long period of time?

65Let us try to understand the relationship between law / state and the people for whom it is meant. In the present case, the act is meant for water users in a village society. As per the act, the water users have no option except to become members of the WUAs. If a farmer who owns land in a given command area does not want to become member of the WUA, he does not seem to be entitled to refuse. If indeed a farmer does not have the option, then it sounds undemocratic. Viewed from another angle, even most farmers who own wells in the command area (who actually do not want membership in the WUA) become members as required by law, but cannot participate in collective action. Indeed, such farmers do not have any incentive to participate in the “state-sponsored collective action”, particularly in a situation in which the extraction cost of water from wells is zero (due to the hundred percent subsidy extended to agricultural pump sets in Tamil Nadu).

66In the next few paragraphs, we shall look at the individual sections and various clauses in the act

67The act is called Tamil Nadu Farmers’ Management of Irrigation Systems Act, 2000, but the definition of farmers is quite narrow. According to the act “every WUA shall cons ist of all the water users in such water users’ association area as members” (Section 4.2). If one gathers from the above section that the WUA includes only those cultivators who own or cultivate land, then the act effectuates a great injustice to a village society in which water has been considered the property of all sections of the community. And, in the process, the Act excludes the landless population from membership in the WUA.

68Section 12 empowers the government to constitute an Apex Committee which will have overall control over the WUAs. But the constituent members of this committee have not been spelt out. There is in particular ambiguity as to whether the members of the Apex Committee are primarily from the WUA or from the WRO, or from any other section. This is important since most of the final decisions are taken by the Apex Committee, and if this Committee is dominated by the WRO, then the strength and autonomy of the WUAs will be diluted. On the other hand, if the members of the Apex Committee are nominated from political parties (as is the case of cooperatives at present), there is every possibility of misutilization of this provision in favour of ruling parties.

69Section 26 of the act provides for the appointment of personnel from the Water Resources Organization (WRO) of the Public Works Department of the government of Tamil Nadu as the competent authority for implementing the decisions of the farmers’ organizations, but their role is not specified. Clause (3) of Section 26 is, in fact, vague in defining the powers of the “competent authorities” of the WRO. It only says that the directions given by the competent authorities must be followed by farmers’ organizations. Section 46 (2) also empowers the government to issue any order as regards the powers of the competent authorities and requires the farmers’ organization to give effect to such orders. To quote: “The Government may issue such orders and directions of a general character as they may consider necessary in respect of any matter relating to the powers and duties of the competent authority and the farmers’ organization shall give effect to such orders and directions”. Such undefined powers given to the WRO personnel may result in the misuse of power, in which case, the whole purpose of empowering water users will be defeated. Further more giving such powers to WRO personnel may weaken or dilute the autonomy given to the farmers’ organizations. In the final analysis, the WUAs may be reduced to merely following the directions given by the WRO. This is exactly what we confront at the moment. And if so, where is the departure from the current system of water management maintained by the bureaucracy? And, what kind of powers and autonomy have we “turned over” to water users through the act? Please note that even in the case of settlement of disputes among water users, final say is in the hands of the WRO. The act says, “any such dispute or differences arising between members and the Managing Committee of a Project Committee or between two or more Project Committees shall be determined by the Apex Committee, whose decision shall be final” (Section 36.4). But currently, matters concerning water disputes are resolved through local institutional mechanisms. This is yet another example which highlights the extended role of the WRO and which disturbs the existing autonomy enjoyed by the irrigation institutions.

70Most important of all, the act discusses the formation of the WUAs in the surface water commands without taking into account the extensive prevalence of irrigation wells in the same command areas. As discussed earlier, access to private sources of irrigation (namely, wells) may provide a big disincentive for the farmers to take active interest in the WUA. At the same time, in order to make the WUA more sustainable, the well owners cannot be asked to close down their wells. The greater the number of wells in a given command area, the less effective will be collective action. Therefore, the crucial aspect of an integrated water resource management of surface and groundwater is lacking in this act. The main idea of the seventy-third amendment to the Panchayat Raj Act is to strengthen the democratically elected government in which all sections of village population are represented. But the formation of WUAs weakens this objective.

State water policy in the context of water rights

71So far we have discussed, in a more or less chronological fashion, the legislative measures undertaken by the state concerning the water sector and water rights. But we have not discussed the state water policy as such. It is interesting to note that the State never had a policy for a coordinated development of water resources until the formulation of a national water policy in 1987. The State drafted its own water policy in 1994, but then only at the insistence of government of India and the World Bank. Until such time, most of the activities of the state were undertaken on an ad hoc basis. In fact, the severity of the looming water situation was never thought of. (Government of Tamil Nadu 1994). Some of the goals of the state water policy are to establish a management information system for water resources, to give top priority for drinking water, to provide an adequate supply for industries, to maintain water quality, to promote equity and social justice, to promote users’ participation in water management and to provide a mechanism for resolving conflicts between users and between intra-state river basins.

72The approach of the state water policy has been as follows:

  • Efficient management of watersheds to minimize sedimentation
  • Removal and prevention of encroachment on water courses and water bodies
  • Restoration of the capacities of the existing water bodies
  • Modernization of the physical systems
  • Avoidance of transmission losses
  • Minimization of evaporation losses
  • Adoption of modern methods of irrigation
  • Planning of recycling and re-use of water
  • Minimization of leakages in pipelines in drinking water systems
  • Artificial recharge of groundwater
  • Interlinking the river basins within the state
  • Planning for cloud seeding
  • Rainwater harvesting
  • Desalination techniques

73It can be seen from the above account that the approach of the state water policy to water resource development is more technical than oriented towards community. Further more, the explanatory note to the water policy offers details about the methods of achieving goals but no mention has been made about people’s rights in water resource development. This also confirms our earlier argument that the traditional water rights of people have been appropriated by the state. Although the policy statement mentions farmers’ participation in irrigation management, their rights over water are not clearly defined. Water resource systems are generally identified with those who have land and those of the landless are completely excluded. Moreover, the extent of users participation is limited to the operation and maintenance at local levels. The involvement of the community in system – level designs and construction are neglected. As water policy is of great importance and spells out the development strategy of a state, such neglect is a serious flaw and deserves a thorough revision.

Analytical summing up

74The foregoing discussion demonstrates the initiatives taken by the state to appropriate the water rights which have existed with the people and the measures undertaken to give those rights back to them. Paradoxically, both attempts were through legal means. What is absorbing is the state’s adeptness in resolving “participatory irrigation management” when, after all, the management efforts of the state have failed to deliver positive results. Furthermore, the state’s wisdom of turning over irrigation systems to water users is not a “spontaneous accomplishment”, but took place at the instance of the World Bank. As a part of the Water Resources Consolidation Project (WRCP) funded by the World Bank, the Tamil Nadu Government has borrowed to the extent of Rs 1 200 crores. The implementation of the FOT (Farmers’ Organization and Turnover) programme in the state is in the initial stage in the major, medium and minor irrigation systems, with financial assistance from the World Bank. The state resorts to turning irrigation systems over to the people which are inflicted with shortcomings such as absolute deviation from the original operational rules, gross mismatch between availability of water supply and demand for it, low recovery rates, availability of very little resources for operation and maintenance, corruption at all levels, fragmented community action, and so on. In addition, there have been a huge accumulation of neglected repairs over a long period which has paralysed irrigation management in many systems. It is not clear how works undertaken to improve the systems as a part of the World Bank programme will be effective in solving such an age -old problem of neglected maintenance.

75Besides, the substantive question is how can the state impose a non-functioning or a malfunctioning irrigation system on the people through an act? Even if the state imposes through law, to what extent will the people accept it, and what kind of collective action can we expect from them?

76In addition, the state was interested mainly in the financial management, either by reducing maintenance expenditure on irrigation or by improving the financial outcomes of irrigation projects. Indeed, the Compulsory Labour Act and various other acts related to water cesses are meant for this purpose. Also, the legal provisions were related to the project – specific operation and management of the system and in that sense, these provisions were regulatory in nature. For a long time, the state played a major role in deciding the rules and regulations of water management. There were no provisions for users’ participation. Although some attempts have been made in recent times towards promoting user participation, these legislations are not comprehensive. Moreover, there is no scope for involving farmers in the plan and design of the system right from the project formulation stage. Even the existing rules and regulations of irrigation systems, which are managerial in nature, suffer from a number of problems (for more details, see Raju 1994). An important aspect of these legislations is that water rights and land rights are interwoven, posing problems of equity and social justice.

77The more critical issue of the relationship between water and water users was never a part of the state’s agenda. In the past, the farmers’ contribution to all critical functions of water management was through spontaneous community action. Nevertheless, there is a tendency to glorify the traditional irrigation practices. Those who glorify traditional irrigation institutions not only fail to acknowledge the weaknesses in that system, but also advocate revamping it. First, the irrigation institutions of the past manifested clearly the social and economic hierarchy and for, that reason, the question of equity in the sharing of water never arose as a subject matter of discussion. Secondly, no democratic norms were followed in the appointment of irrigation functionaries; and thirdly, all decisions were taken locally and the decisions of the canal managers were final. In sum, it was local irrigation despotism. Further, it is not easy to revamp the traditional irrigation institutions. There are many socio-economic and institutional factors which have contributed to the disintegration of the traditional irrigation societies, such as changes in the land control institution and the nature of changes in the control over productive resources, changes in the mode of production, changes in agro-irrigation technology and the massive development of groundwater irrigation, and so forth. All these have contributed a great deal to changes in village societies. Those who support the revival of traditional water management systems fail to understand the overall development that is taking place in the countryside. Take for instance, the development of groundwater irrigation: Can we view this development as an isolated event in a village society? Janakarajan (1993) summarizes this point in the following manner: “Land transfers from upper castes to the hitherto cultivating castes have been a fundamental change that has taken place in the villages, which in turn has resulted in the emergence of owner cultivation in the place of tenancy contracts. The changes in the mode of cultivation, coupled with the introduction of new technology, have induced farmers to go in for an extensive development of well irrigation, in particular wet lands. As a consequence of private control and ownership of irrigation water (viz., groundwater), the farmers’ interest in the collective effort for maintaining traditional irrigation systems gets weakened. Landlords who exercised a great deal of power in preserving and controlling the traditional village systems, including that of traditional irrigation institutions, have lost their glory. Therefore, the traditional irrigation institutions in their normal course got disintegrated or are in the process of disintegration....” (P. A.59).

78There is another aspect relating to state vis-a-vis community water rights which needs to be clarified. The state has sovereign rights to appropriate, control and regulate water, subject to protecting the interests of riparian right holders. The proceedings of many court cases which uphold the rights of the government as well, as the rights of the riparian rights holders, is summarized very well in the draft Water Resources Act, 1989, for Tamil Nadu. In this context one should study the Tamil Nadu Farmers’ Management of Irrigation Systems Act, 2000. This act provides for greater user participation and reduces the state’s role in water management, but at the same time legalizes only water, which is the property of landowners. In the process, the landless population, who hitherto enjoyed rights over community water resources, are excluded. Further more it remains to be seen, to what extent landowners are motivated to participate in the water management as envisaged by the government.

79Rather than the role of a provider, the state could play a useful role as a protector of water resources. This is more crucial in a context where the sustainability of water resources is at stake. It is not to deny the fact that civil society has a greater role in contributing to the sustainable development, but the state certainly has an important role in so far as implementing, for instance, pollution abatement laws, treatment and re-use of water, technology dissemination and so forth.



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He is a Development Economist working on water and related issues for about 20 years. His PhD thesis (JNU, New Delhi) is on water management in agriculture with reference to irrigation institutions. He has got extensive research experience in water management studies especially in institutional analysis, ground water studies, irrigation finance, river basin planning, coastal water management. Presently he is Visiting Professor National at the Institute of Rural Development, Hyderabad. He is working as Coordinator, Research Programmes, South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resource Studies (Saci Waters), Hyderabad, India. He has also worked as Consultant for Water projects funded by World Bank, FAO, SIDA, Government of India. He has published several papers on water management in national and international journals.

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