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Eaux, pauvreté et crises sociales

Habib Ayeb
Thierry Ruf

Atelier 2. Dynamiques de la représentation selon les contextes hydropolitiques

Unrestrained quest for groundwater: what about the more vulnerable?

Cases from Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry, South India

I. Prabhakar et Olivia. Aubriot

Texte intégral

1Two thirds of the population in India is still engaged in agriculture which has irrigation as its central factor, especially since the 1960s with the Green Revolution policies putting great efforts in developping it: construction of dams supplying large irrigation systems and incentives to use groundwater through the electrification of the countryside and various subsidies. The conjunctive use of high yield varieties, fertilizers, and new irrigation techniques has helped the country in rapidly attaining food security and within 20 years to double its grain production (Dorin and Landy 2002: 53).

2Groundwater (GW) irrigation has been rapidly adopted by farmers as it has many advantages: it releases the farmer from the climatic constraints and from the collective constraints of irrigation systems; it lets him free to extract and use groundwater as he wants as the resource is owned by the well owner; and it enables farmers to intensify the cropping pattern up to three crops a year. As a consequence, the irrigated area with groundwater has increased and this irrigation method has become the most predominant one in India: “three fourths of the irrigated area in the country is through private sources – mostly groundwater”. India is the largest user of groundwater (200 BCM) followed by the United States (100 BCM) and China (90 BCM). (Government of India, Planning commission 2000). In Tamil Nadu, since the mid1970s groundwater irrigation has become the prime source of irrigation (compared to tank and canal irrigation). In 2003, 1,6 million of wells supplied water to 1,3 million of hectares, that means to 60% of the irrigated area of the state (GoTN, 2004: 11).

3There is in fact a real quest for groundwater among the farmers. The causes for this quest range from economic factors to social and symbolic ones. As this quest is generalized and seen as the only solution by farmers, there is then a stress reflected as competition among them to have access to irrigation, especially groundwater. And this competition now has to face a new problem: groundwater level depletion.

4“Groundwater resources are either overexploited or are in the critical zone in certain pockets – Tamil Nadu, Haryana, Punjab, Gujarat, Rajasthan.” (Government of India, Planning commission 2000). “Due to large areas being irrigated by groundwater, overdevelopment and depletion of aquifer systems are becoming common. (…) The process transferred many regions from water abundant to water scarce areas in just four decades” (Prakash, 2005: 1).

5Sufficient irrigation water is indeed not always secured, as temporal fluctuations and inconsistency in water availability (surface and groundwater) between years, between seasons and even within a season can exist and push farmers into vulnerable conditions. A recent issue in India is the suicide of farmers, with the root cause to be found in water scarcity and indebtedness, and which transcends into socio-political issues. Such an outcome could define one aspect of water-poverty: dependence on expensive practices with insecure access to the production factors. We will present here some other examples of waterpoverty that neither reach this extreme level of water crisis nor belong to the more water-deprived regions of India, being in areas where irrigated lands represent 40 to 80 % of the cultivated area whereas rainfed conditions occur in 62% of the country (GOI, 2000).

6Groundwater irrigation is seen by policy-makers as a way to provide water to people who cannot benefit from irrigation systems. Indeed, “it creates democratic access to water for all, particularly for small farmers not able to benefit from water in the canal irrigation schemes. For all these reasons, groundwater irrigation is a potentially effective vehicle for poverty eradication. But, without proper management, farmers’ need for water for irrigation will destroy the resource which brings them rich agricultural and economic rewards in the short term.” (IWMI-TATA, 2002)

7We will discuss this “democratic access to water” and see if the vulnerable people have access to groundwater in the selected study villages. In this context of quest for groundwater, who are the people affected by the water depletion crisis? What are the resulting eventualities and social crises due to unequal social and economic status in the access to groundwater? We will discuss these points through examples taken in two different types of access to GW based on geological characteristics: in an alluvial area, villages have a “good” or “easy” access to the groundwater (we will have to define these terms), whereas in a rocky zone, the access to groundwater is difficult.

8In the first part of the article, we give a brief description of the two irrigation types encountered in the sites. In the second part, we specify the question of access to water and water poverty in the two geological contexts. Then, in a third part, we have chosen to focus on one type of social crisis, that of the encroachment of the tanks.

Irrigation in the study areas

9In Pondicherry Territory and Villupuram district in Tamil Nadu, where the study sites of SOR, VAD, TIR and SRVP are located, two types of irrigation structures coexist: tanks, as an old collective irrigation technique using surface water, and wells or borewells as an individual technique using GW.

Tank irrigation

10Tanks are lake-reservoirs that can be rainfed (then totally dependent on rain for their filling) or linked to a river (and then called system-tank). But most rivers are nonperennial in Tamil Nadu so that they are more or less also dependent on rainfall. Rainfall is then a determinant factor as a source for the filling of the tanks.

11India is characterized by a monsoon climate with a 3-4 months rainy season. But the climate of Tamil Nadu is different from the rest of the country as it is under the influence of two monsoons: the South West monsoon (June to September) and the North East monsoon (October to December), the latter bringing 50% of the rain. The rainy season lasts nevertheless mostly from August to December (76% of the rain, or 856 mm in Villupuram) (WRO, 2002).

12The tanks can then get water, in the best conditions, from August to December. For irrigation purpose, the water is distributed by gravity through sluices and canals, from September-October to February-March, according to the storage capacity. The traditional agricultural calendar was: in rice fields (nanjai or “wetlands”, with clay soil), rice irrigated by tanks from August to January, followed by pulse using the moisture of the soil and the remaining water; in the dry land (punjai), rainfed crops are grown. In regard to irrigation by tank, the Green Revolution has modified this calendar through two aspects: the use of short-term varieties of rice and a more secured supply of water for system tanks that can benefit from dam construction (case of SRVP in the study area).

Irrigation with groundwater

13Irrigation with groundwater is done through the use of wells and motor pumps. Wells are of different shapes according to the pedology and geology.

14In the rocky zone characterized by granitic gneiss, where the village of SRVP is located (South West of Villupuram), the wells (also called open wells) have a diameter of 10 to 15 meters and a depth of 9 to 15 meters. They collect the seepage water from the ground above the rock (about 5 meters) and from the cracks in the rock. One of these huge wells allows nevertheless irrigation of small areas, from 1 to 1.5 ha of sugarcane or paddy during the rainy season, and then progressively decreasing to an average area of 2,000 to 4,000 m’ during June–July.

15In alluvial areas, where the villages of SOR, VAD, TIR are located, the open wells whose shape was of 2 m diameter and 13m depth with some brick construction, do not exist anymore as such: they made the wells deeper with a tube, down to 20-25 m of depth. A motor is placed outside the well during the rainy season, or inside the well when it is dry, pumping the water from the tube. Tube wells exist also: they consist of a tube placed in the ground, from 20 to 130 m depth, with a submergible motor inside of it. These tube wells and wells cum bore – will be called henceforth by us respectively as deep and shallow bore wells – allow irrigation during the dry season, which can be divided into two cropping seasons: from January to April and from May to September, for short-term crops. Groundwater irrigation enables farmers to diversify and intensify the cropping pattern as cultivation can take place during the dry season. This concerns especially sugarcane which is one-year irrigated plant. Farmers can also grow crops such as paddy and sugarcane that have an interesting high minimum selling price. These agronomic and economic reasons are one part of the underlying entities that stimulate the quest for GW. Others relate to causes such as groundwater status, differential access to groundwater, the existing policies and the linkage between these entities amongst the practicing farmers. The quest could be defined in two aspects: the aspiration to reach groundwater at any cost and the competition amongst the needy to access it.

Water poverty in two geological contexts

16The Green Revolution made groundwater the first source of irrigation in India and in Tamil Nadu, and agriculture mainly dependent on this resource, explaining the farmers’ quest and stress for GW. We have therefore decided to look at water poverty in two situations according to the access to GW. Geology is a determinant factor in this GW access and availability, and then in determining agriculture possibilities.

Rocky zone

  • 1 Gounder are also called as vanniar and padaiyatchi, whose traditional occupations was soldiers, bu (...)
  • 2 They are farmers or agriculture labourers, according to the 1991 census.

17In the village of SRVP, of more than 3,000 inhabitants mainly composed of Gounders (1,500 persons) caste of small farmers1, Mudaliars (800 pers.) caste of landowners and weavers and of SC – the Scheduled Castes, previously called Untouchables (800 pers.), agriculture is the main occupation in the village (79% of villagers2) even if the Mudaliars practice also weaving. Ricefields (nanjai) occupy 123 ha: the first crop is irrigated with the tank water followed by rice again using both tank and wells irrigation (from Jan. to April). At times, due to insufficient rains and consequently insufficient water in the tank, cotton would be planted during this second season instead of rice. During the third cropping season, the fields are empty. The “dry land” (punjai) of 145 ha is characterized by mixed soil and crops such as sorghum, millet, groundnut and cotton are cultivated from September to March. Those who have wells (only 13 persons) can also grow sugarcane and rice.

  • 3 3 bores of 70 m depth exist nevertheless, but their flow is said to be small.

18Even if surface water is available and irrigates 45% of the cultivated land, SRVP is perceived locally as a “dry” village, because it has bad access to GW and cannot be cultivated during the dry season. The available GW in the wells is indeed in meager quantity and the drilling of a bore in this rocky area is too expensive for the villagers3. The villagers then attribute their low socio-economic status to a lack of water, and consequently to lack of local work in agriculture from April to September for women, and from January for men specific activities. As most of the villagers are landless (60% of villagers and 80% among SC) or marginal farmers (75% of farmers have less than 0,80 ha), they are dependent on the work they can find in the village as agricultural labourers. But agriculture cannot meet the needs of all villagers, and many of them go for seasonal migrations, mainly during the agricultural off season. These migrations concern 20% of the villagers (landless and marginal farmers) and 35% of the families. They go to towns such as Chennai or Bangalore or for the harvest of sugarcane in Tamil Nadu or Andhra Pradesh (Girard & Guillet, 2000).

19Even if the villagers perceived the problem as due to a lack of GW access during the dry season, other factors have also to be taken into account: the population density is very high (850 hab/km’), and the landless people and marginal farmers represent a large percentage of the population which depends on labour wages. Within this socioeconomic context, the water scarcity can be here defined as a lack of water over the year. The physical scarcity of GW and the economic scarcity – poverty – of the farmers, who cannot afford to drill deep bores or even to dig large wells, lead to a lack of access to GW. This in turn leads to seasonal rural out-migration.

20We still need to analyse if the prevalence of poverty in the village is due to lack of access to GW – as the villagers claim – or if it is a historic situation from which the village was not able to escape even with the Green Revolution. The Green Revolution had nevertheless some positive impacts on the village agriculture. The construction of a dam on the Ponniyar river secured the surface water availability and the short-cycle varieties of paddy have been cultivated. These two factors increased the intensity of paddy cultivation from 1 to 2 crops a year.

21Another question that arises is the link with the proximity of the alluvial area where three crops of paddy are grown: is this perception of water scarcity linked to this proximity with a rich zone where seasonal migrations seem to be less prevalent?

Alluvial area

22In the alluvial area between Pondicherry and Villupuram, the perception of water scarcity does not exist as the countryside is green all through the year, with up to 3 seasons of paddy cultivation in wet lands, and various crops in dry lands, due to GW use through shallow or deep bore wells. But this apparent abundance of water hides three facts:

  1. The farmers without bore well are dependent on the bore well owners. Well owners are then in a monopoly position (Janakarajan and Moench, 2002: 34). And this dependency is not new in some places such as VAD, SOR and TIR, where the tank has not been used for irrigation for the last 20 to 30 years. That means that farmers are dependent on bore well owners not only during the dry season, when tanks are dry, but even during the rainy season.
  2. If today, there is no physical lack of groundwater, there is a water level decline. This GW depletion leads to some new socio-economic differentiation as those who cannot afford to deepen their bores have become dependent, during the dry season, on deep bore well owners (see below).
  3. This apparent profusion of water is due to technical advances. During the 1960s and the 1970s, with the use of motors and their great pumping capacity, the farmers deepened their wells progressively in order to increase the water availability in the well and to address the incipient decline of GW level. But for a few years in the 1970s, when the water level was below the depth of the wells (20 m, which was the depth of pumping capacity of the motors then available), the villagers faced a water scarcity. No agricultural activities could be carried out. In 1980, when the submergible pumps arrived in the countryside, the farmers were able to tap the deeper aquifers, by drilling bores (40 to 110 m) and by using these powerful motors. And since then the issue took a different turn, from a water scarcity affecting everyone to a situation of lack of water in which the owners of the deep bore wells are not affected at all. Nowadays, farmers drill bores at the depth of 130 m (and even 160 m in the South of Pondicherry). See graph 1.

Graph 1. Evolution of groundwater use in VAD, Pondicherry. Data generated by a group discussion with five farmers, I. Prabhakar and O. Aubriot.

Graph 1. Evolution of groundwater use in VAD, Pondicherry. Data generated by a group discussion with five farmers, I. Prabhakar and O. Aubriot.

23In the three study villages, by controlling the GW access, bore owners control the access to a precious productive resource. This leaves the other farmers dependent on them, especially as the tank water has not been used for irrigation. How can this non-use of the tank water be explained? The central arguments cited by the bore well owners are twofold: 1°) the availability of water is not secured, the tank having received water only 10 times in the last 30 years; 2°) water in the tank would not suffice for a whole season, rather at the transplanting time and in the end of the season the farmers have to depend on groundwater, that means on the supply of bore well owners. An underlying reason lies in the social relation between the bore owner and waterbuyer which shows the power of the bore well owners. The supply of water is based on an informal agreement that is taken for granted for the entire season. It seems difficult to break or modify this agreement: despite the opportunity to use the tank water, the water buyer would not break the agreement for fear that the bore owner would not supply water to him for the next season. The water buyers are thus forced to depend on the water sellers and to use underground water, even if free water is available in the tank. Some bore owners nevertheless reduce the cost of water if the water buyer used less water because of good rain.

24In VAD for example, 72 bores deliver water to more than 120 farmers: 40% of the farmers are hence completely dependent for their agriculture on the bore owners. And since the water table can reach deep depths during the dry season (more than 50 m), bore owners whose bore has failed (about ten) have also to depend on the deep bore owners. In SOR, where marginal farmers are numerous (492 in number, 73% of farmers), the difference is bigger: 142 bores have to supply water to 670 farmers.

Graph 2. Water buyer dependency in alluvial area, in three neighbouring villages

Graph 2. Water buyer dependency in alluvial area, in three neighbouring villages
  • 4 The price of water is based on the area and the crop irrigated: it is paid in a fixed number of pa (...)

25By controlling the GW access, the bore owners gain substantial local power. “It is the ownership of wells along with land, which determines one’s status” (Janakarajan and Moench, 2002: 8). An economic survey to analyse the economic gain of bore irrigation was not undertaken, so we can only suppose that there could be some socio-economic advantages pertaining to the differential status in the exploitation of GW for irrigation. But the situation here could be as that described by Kumar et al (2004) in north Gujarat, where the need to deepen the bore brings the bore owner into more economic difficulties than the water buyers. Such situation can occur as, for example in VAD, the price of water4 did not change despite the depletion of GW level and the need of deepening the bore, whereas the investment cost increased severely these last years.

26The decline of the water table is to some extent related to the irrational management of water: surface water is not used when there is water in the tank, and there is an abuse and misuse of groundwater. Paddy is indeed cultivated during the dry season using huge amounts of groundwater. At times motors run even if plots had received the minimum water requirement, leading to the wastage of water. Despite the knowledge amongst farmers of various aspects regarding groundwater as its presence in different aquifers, water depletion due to overexploitation of groundwater, and the cost of deepening the bore wells, the bore owners continue to want more and more water in order to cultivate water-intensive crops. Such practices will almost certainly lead to an unconditional water scarcity that could impinge on the economic returns of the agricultural produce, and could also result in putting their livelihoods at risk. We can interpret it as a short-sighted behaviour of the bore well owners, linked to some fatalism.

27As for the GW depletion issue, it is due (with reference to the dimensions of water scarcity listed by Molle and Mollinga, 2003) to :

  1. managerial scarcity, as the aquifers are overexploited and the water sometimes wasted;
  2. institutional scarcity, as the society failed to preserve the environment and there is a lack of collective institutions to manage GW collectively; such institutions could be crafted at least at the village level, with some apex body at the scale of the extent of the aquifer;
  3. political scarcity, as no strong political will exists to limit the use of GW; and we would add
  4. legal scarcity, as GW is perceived as a private resource, owned by the bore owners.

Irrigation, landless people and marginal farmers

28The villages situated in the two geological zones face two different types of water crisis: limited access to GW, and GW depletion. In the rocky zone, due to the limited availability of GW and because the villages are inhabited by large numbers of landless or marginal farmers, seasonal migrations affect 1/5 of the population and 1/3 of the families in SRVP. Lack of production factors such as land and GW in a context of great population density explains this vulnerability.

29But these migrations are not specific to rocky zones. Some migrations also take place in the alluvial area. This is mainly due to the large percentage of landless agricultural labourers that live there, most of them being SC. For example, SC from SOR work during 3 months in various parts of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh to harvest the sugarcane. (see Table 1)

Table 1. Irrigation and agriculture data for SRVP and SOR, characterized by completely different access to groundwater due to geology

Table 1. Irrigation and agriculture data for SRVP and SOR, characterized by completely different access to groundwater due to geology
  • 5 See map of Atlas of South India, Oliveau, 2003.

30One of the pertinent characteristics that prevails in the Indian context and especially in the study areas is the large percentage of the population (20 to 30%5) from the scheduled castes, most of them still being landless agricultural labourers (NCRWC: 45). The ancient irrigation (here tank irrigation) may explain this situation as irrigation implies a high agricultural intensity (Oliveau, 2003). As a matter of fact, agricultural labourers are depending for daily wages on agricultural work or unskilled labor. To the question why they do not go for jobs in industries in the neighbouring city of Pondicherry (25 km), labourers from SOR explain that they do not have any connections there, the employment being the result of a social network and political connections.

31Landless labourers do not have independent access to water but are still dependent on agriculture. This means that they are not completely out of the social crisis related to water and socio-economic status. In wet areas, they could benefit to some extent from the Green Revolution, as the intensification of the cropping pattern gives them more employment opportunities, especially for women (Marius-Gnanou, 1991). But the Green Revolution didn’t solve the problem of unemployment in the countryside, as the agricultural labourers increased by 42% between 1961 and 1981 (ibid). As Rajuladevi (2000) points out “green revolutions in wet areas are not plentiful” in the sense that everybody did not get the same benefits from the Green Revolution. Because of the growing demand of skilled and unskilled labour in the town as well as the increasing unpopularity of the agricultural labour, most of the young generation of the landless people try to move out of agriculture, leading to some other issues that are not necessarily linked to water.

32As far as water poverty is concerned, the well owners are not only big farmers. In Tamil Nadu, marginal and small farmers own 60% of the wells. But with the GW decline, this ownership does not mean greater access to groundwater resources. “Growing inequity in access to GW leads to a process of continued social differentiation, which results in deprivation, poverty and the consolidation of inequitable power relations within local communities” (Janakarajan and Moench, 2002: 8). As the water keeps depleting, investments on rigging more bore wells and deepening the existing bore wells take place that would deteriorate the conditions of the farmers who are completely dependent on agriculture for their livelihood. The farmers who were able to increase their income in the late 1980s through bore irrigation, especially marginal farmers who became food self-sufficient (Marius-Gnanou, 1991) will certainly suffer from this water depletion. As Janakarajan and Moench (2002: 2) have shown, the degradation of the GW resource through over extraction is increasing rural poverty, social inequity and conflict in parts of India, particularly in Tamil Nadu.

Encroachment in the tank as a social crisis around water

33Because of water depletion, bore owners are interested in the recent Tank Rehabilitation Project in Pondicherry, viewed as a way of recharging the groundwater. They are interested in using the tanks as a storage lake, and to evict those who encroached on the tank beds. The resulting social crisis involving the landless people, especially in SOR, is the subject of this last part of the paper.

  • 6 A tank is composed of bunds on three sides of it, delimiting the tank bed which on the fourth side (...)
  • 7 Command area is the spread of agricultural fields that are irrigated by the water stored in the ta (...)
  • 8 Public Works Department (PWD) is the Government department that has the control over the maintenan (...)

34Many accounts about the cultivation in the tank beds have been attributed to the weakening of traditional irrigation institutions, particularly in South India (Guhan, 1984; Janakarajan, 1991; Vaidyanathan, 2001 ; Palanisami & Easter, 2000). The cultivations in the tank-bed were in retrospect termed “encroachments” and those who were cultivating were labeled as “encroachers”. The individuals cultivating inside the tank neither had any legal status over the land nor any usufruct rights. In 1971 the government legalized the cultivation of foreshore6. This led to tensions between the farmers of the command area7 and those who were cultivating inside the land (Mosse, 2003: 38). There are many accounts of farmers cultivating inside the tank and who do not let the water to be stored in the tank in order to save their crops from water logging. They take extreme steps like breaking the tank bund while the water is getting filled in the tank, breaking the surplus weirs, and opening the sluices. They even bribe the Public Works Department8 officials to not let the water flowing through or to delay the opening of the vent that supplies water to the tank.

Encroachment process

  • 9 The ‘patta’ is a legal document that counts as proof of legal ownership.

35Cultivation in the tank bed increased in the study area because the yield inside the tank was higher than that in the command area of the tank. Those who started cultivating in the tank bed areas were the farmers who had land in the fringes outside the foreshore area of the tank and who extended their cultivated land inside the tank. Distribution canals were made in the foreshore to bring water from the bore well situated in the legally owned lands (patta9 land) to the lands cultivated inside the tank.

36Hence the bore well owners of the neighbouring land were the pioneers in cultivating the land inside the tank. Later, others followed suit utilizing the water of bore wells situated nearby. Mostly they were the ‘permanent’ farm labourers of the landowner who initially started cultivating inside the tank. These farm labourers were mostly landless. The cultivation inside the tank flourished as many other landless families as well as the rich farmers cultivated inside the tank. Amongst the villagers, the landless (of any castes) and the SCs are called “illathavanga” (people with out) and those with land and bore wells are “irrikapattavanga” (people who have), when describing the cultivation inside the tank. The following are specific cases that illustrate the crises that arise amongst the ‘people without’ and ‘people who have’ as well as between them, resulting from the encroachment and the differential access to groundwater in the study villages.

  • 10 Village panchayat is the bottom most administrative unit in the state.

37In VAD Tank, until late 2000, out of the total 106 ha of the tank more than 80 ha were cultivated. This tank catered a command area of 165 ha owned by farmers from two hamlet villages, VAD and PSP, constituting one village panchayat10. The people from the two hamlet villages carried out cultivation inside their respective boundaries that were demarcated by a physical boundary mark that divided the tank bed area into two. The landless – that included the scheduled caste – cultivated inside the tank, using the bore well water for irrigation from the adjoining bore owners. During 1975, 100 families from the 170 SC families of PSP along with other landless and landed began cultivating inside the tank, and also similarly a majority of the SCs from VAD village. When in VAD a few families started cultivating in large areas at the expense of others, the village elders intervened and allotted land inside the tank to all the landless who wanted to cultivate inside the tank.

38The landless who cultivated inside the VAD tank were dependent on 14 bore well owners in the adjoining ‘patta’ fields from four villages. These lands were owned by the backward castes and high castes. It was reported that during the initial stages the selling and buying of water for irrigation were easy and cordial, even if the price for the water that was supplied inside the tank bed area was higher than that for other irrigated areas. But later on the bore well owners in due course managed to acquire the land that was under their ‘water-control’. Owing to the fertile nature of the fields, the bore well owners tricked the supply of water to the other landless cultivators who depended upon them. At crucial times of water need, the bore well owner would not supply water, pushing the landless to a situation where they had to forego the harvest seasons. And for the next season, the dependent farmers were forced to ‘sell’ the land by receiving a nominal amount from the bore well owner and hand over the land to the bore well owner. The other aspect that explains why the landless families had to give up cultivating inside the tank is their financial dependency. At times of financial crisis, the landless would borrow money from the bore well owner. The agreement would be that the bore well owner would cultivate the land until the landless repays the money, and that only after repayment the landless would be allowed to cultivate. In many cases the landless were not able to repay the money. This explains why over a period the numbers of landless who were cultivating inside the tank decreased. In VAD, there were none at the time of encroachment eviction in 2000, whereas in PSP there were only 4 to 5 families of the SC that were cultivating inside the tank.

Eviction of encroachers

39With the advent of the state’s intervention in the form of the Tank Rehabilitation Project in Pondicherry (TRPP), tank associations (TA) were formed in 2000, governed by an Executive Committee (EC). The irony here is that a few of the EC members who were instrumental in evicting the ‘encroachers’ from the VAD tank, continue their cultivation inside the tank-bed area of the adjoining tank of TIR, that falls under the administrative jurisdiction of Tamil Nadu State boundary. The area of this latter tank is 300 acres and only 10 acres are left uncultivated. In the 290 acres of encroached land, farmers from the adjoining foreshore area of the tank – that falls under the limitation of Pondicherry state boundary – are cultivating over 100 acres. In TIR, ‘watercontrol’ and ‘power’ of the bore well owners (as in VAD) over the landless cultivators inside the tank also exist.

40The contention of the land owning castes in the study villages is that the landless families cultivating inside the tank were not only depending on the income generated from the land. Rather, it was an additional income apart from their regular occupation as wage labourers. However, it is a fact that the landless especially the scheduled caste who cultivated in the tank benefited from food security in the form of grains from the harvest that would suffice them for the year. In the case of one SC family in SOR, they were cultivating 40 cents (160 m’) of land for 40 years in the tank. The two sons after marriage divided the land into equal halves amongst them. When all the members of the family work on it and if the yield was good (with proper supply of water for ‘rent’), it was said there would be a harvest of 10 bags of paddy excluding the price for water. They had been also cultivating millets, groundnuts and cotton. With the advent of the tank association and the process of eviction of encroachers, this practice was stopped, and the family members had to search for work elsewhere. There are only very few cases of the SC acquiring own land in the tank command area (nanjai) or in the dry land (punjai) from the earnings that were made from cultivating inside the tank. Most of them were denied the privilege of cultivating due to the ‘power’ of water exerted by the bore owner. The land per se inside the tank has no monetary value. It is presumably the bore well owners who benefited the most since they could invest in buying legal land from the profits they made from the encroached lands (through the production and the selling of water).

41In SOR village, where there are three tanks, cultivation was carried out in all tanks. There were 34 SC families that were cultivating in one of the tanks (5.2 ha) for more than forty years. Even after the implementation of the TRPP in the tank, the ‘encroachers’ of that tank have not been evicted. Ever since the formation of the TA in 2002, the cultivation has been stopped but de-silting and deepening of the tank are not carried out by the project nor the tank association. In the other two tanks works have been carried out.

42The tank under ‘dispute’ is situated in SOR near the SC colony. The SC argues that initially it was the Gounder caste adjoining the foreshore area of the tank who was using their bore well to also cultivate inside the tank, and who later encouraged the SC to cultivate. The EC of the TA includes two members from the SC colony who have been cultivating in the tank. They, along with other members of the colony, are opposing the ground works being undertaken in the tank. Amongst the families that have been cultivating inside the tank there are two factions: one wants to use the land in the tank for cultivation, whereas the other group wants compensation and then could carry out the desilting of the tank. At some point, the head of TRPP administration accepted to provide compensation, but then has reverted the commitment, as the Project has not provided any compensation to the other tanks. The SCs suspect that the caste people in the village are responsible for not providing them with the compensation. The contention of SC members is that the Gounder caste, who is the majority in the village and is managing the affairs of the village, does not wish them to develop. The other castes counter these accusations. This example highlights the problems in caste relations that rural India has to face.

43To conclude briefly, we showed that the water issues in these two neighbouring areas are of different kinds: in the rocky zone, there is a groundwater scarcity, leading to economic deprivation even if tank irrigation is available. In the alluvial zone, the political and managerial scarcity leads to some vulnerable conditions: dependency on bore owners because of non-use of tank water, high cost involved in deepening the bore, environmental deprivation due to water depletion. Consequently the affected people are marginal farmers without bore and bore owners of shallow bore wells.

44These two areas have in common that they are inhabited by a large number of SC who remain the deprived section of the population, still dependent on others through daily wage labour or through water markets while encroaching on the tank. The eviction of the encroachers becomes a social issue in tanks where landless people occupy a large part of it and could see their income increase due to this illegal cultivation. But they are not always the major part of the encroachers (see VAD).

45Agriculture is facing a great crisis due to low returns, lack of interest among the youngest generation and issues concerning water. But, despite this, farmers still invest in wells and bores, having no other choices, and their quest to groundwater is being nourished. In the absence of a firm policy to manage the GW resource, the current usage patterns leave the resource in an unsustainable situation from which not only the poorest people will suffer.



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1 Gounder are also called as vanniar and padaiyatchi, whose traditional occupations was soldiers, but later became tenant cultivators and now they are small and marginal farmers as well.

2 They are farmers or agriculture labourers, according to the 1991 census.

3 3 bores of 70 m depth exist nevertheless, but their flow is said to be small.

4 The price of water is based on the area and the crop irrigated: it is paid in a fixed number of paddy bags for paddy cultivation, in money for sugarcane, groundnut and cotton. In many other villages, the price of water for paddy is equal to 1/3 of the harvest. For this transaction, the water is “rented” and not sold to the user in the local conception, as the well owner will still have water after the transaction.

5 See map of Atlas of South India, Oliveau, 2003.

6 A tank is composed of bunds on three sides of it, delimiting the tank bed which on the fourth side is let open. The foreshore defines this part of the tank bed, without physical boundary to delimit it from the adjacent fields or forests.

7 Command area is the spread of agricultural fields that are irrigated by the water stored in the tank, through canals from the controlled sluices in the bund and the flow is by gravity.

8 Public Works Department (PWD) is the Government department that has the control over the maintenance and management of system tanks or tank whose command area is above 40 ha.

9 The ‘patta’ is a legal document that counts as proof of legal ownership.

10 Village panchayat is the bottom most administrative unit in the state.

Table des illustrations

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Titre Graph 1. Evolution of groundwater use in VAD, Pondicherry. Data generated by a group discussion with five farmers, I. Prabhakar and O. Aubriot.
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Titre Graph 2. Water buyer dependency in alluvial area, in three neighbouring villages
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Titre Table 1. Irrigation and agriculture data for SRVP and SOR, characterized by completely different access to groundwater due to geology
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Economist. Institut français de Pondichéry, Pondichéry – Inde

Anthropologist. CNRS, Villejuif – France

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