Tanking up on water
PARCHED brown fields, often empty,
dry paddy stalks - PanchanthangiPatti, a village 26 km from Madurai,
is a mute victim of the chronic drought that afflicts the area.
There are 30 other nearby villages cracking at the lips.
But one more year and all their troubles should be over.
There will be water, crops, perhaps a little money, and much,
In these villages in the Madurai and Ramanathapuram districts of Tamil Nadu, a dream is slowly coming true. The
much-needed renovations are being managed entirely by village-level institutions, assisted by a Madurai-based NGO,
Professional Assistance for Development Action (PRADAN).
Village elder Machanalagan is optimistic. "By the next season, the renovation of the eri (a rainwater tank built by
constructing a bund across a slope) will
be complete," ending the drought, he
explains. The eri was once the lifesource of the village. But in all his
50 years, Machanalagan cannot recall it
ever having been renovated.
The eris symbolise an old rural tradition of self- management. There are
about 40,000 of them in Tamil Nadu,
some more than a millennium old.
Together, they account for 0.9 in (million) ha out ofthe 2.8 in ha ofthe state's
irrigated area. Says C R Shanmugam,
programme officer at PRADAN, "Earlier,
there was a system of kudimarammat
(community work), which ensured that
the eris remained well-maintained. People contributed tabour
voluntarily for their repairs and maintenance."
But, as was typical of colonial administration, British officialdom sent the tradition to a watery grave by centralising
their management and forcing the villagers to work for free.
Through a series of legislations (the Kudimarammat Act,
1858; the Madras Village Panchayat Act, 1920; and the
Irrigation Voluntary Cess Act, 1942), the management of the
larger tanks (40 ha or more) was handed over to the Public
Works Department, with the Panchayat Unions managing the
20,000 smaller tanks.
As a result most tanks have fallen into a state of decay and
disrepair. Small and marginal farmers are the worst hit.
In 1992, PRAMz began urging villagers to organise themselves into water users' associations (WUA) that would maintain their tanks. Membership to the WUA is open to all farmers
owners and lessees - who have land failing under the command area of the tank.
Machanalagan is the secretary of Panchanthangipatti's
42-member fledgling WUA, which is now renovating the 3.2 ha
eri with a command area of 5.64 ha. In a little over I year, the
association has desilted the tank bed and the feeder (supply)
channels, using the silt removed from it to increase the height
of the eroded, semicircular earthen bund from I in to over
2 m. Check dams have been built across the feeder channels to
red-ace further siltation, and the distribution channels have
"The sluice channels were a mess," says Machanalagan.
"They had no proper shutters. We used to stuff coconut leaves
and stones to close them." Today, the 2 sluices have been
repaired @nd fitted with lockable shutters. "We have planted
mango and coconut trees in the catchment area so that less silt
comes into the tank," he adds.
The WUA has also dug a well in the bed of the eri to aug
ment water supply. Says Vellaswami, WUA president, "The eri
has water only for about 4 months a
year, from October to January. We can
use water from the well for the rest of
the year." The association is currently in
the piocess of constructing a surplus
weir to@nsure that excess water flowing
into the eri is safely conducted through
a chap 'net to a canal nearby, thus preemptiqg inundation.
At first, the villagers shied away
from physical tabour. "Initially, we
hired A Jbulldozer for desilting. But that
proved @ unsuccessful and expensive. We
theA.decided to work ourselves," says
The villagers are partly funding the
project. Each household volunteers
I person. Out of his wages, 25 per cent
goes towards funding the project. Some
workers contribute in cash while others donate grains.
But the main chunk of funds comes from the Jawahar
liozgar Yojana, channeled through the District Rural
Development Authority (DRDA). In addition, the farmers have
decided on a sum of Rs 5 to be paid every month to the association. PRADAN also gives crop loans to the farmers. The interest
paid by farmers is remitted to the WUA, although the principal
is paid back to PRADAN.
Water allocations depend on the amount of land each
farmer has, and the salaried neerkatti (water resource manager) is responsible for the right amount reaching the right fields
at the right time, and with a minimum ofwastage.
To ensure that everyone gets his ration, users at the end of
the canal draw first, followed progressively by those closer to
the head. So, the traditionally deprived tailenders, too, are
happy. Disputes occur, but are settled democratically.
Machanalagan walks along the newly-strengthened bund,
bubbling with plans to start fishing in the eri soon. And his
tone reflects the villagers' enthusiasm for their new experience: managing their own resources, natural and human.