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When the British disembarked on the Indian shores, they saw a land extremely rich, highly urbanised and intensely literate, with a flourishing tradition of arts, crafts and literature. The wealth of the land came from its internal resource mobilisation. The surplus generated in the villages not only supported the villages themselves, but also the cities and towns of the country. Over the centuries, Indians had learnt to use their land-water-vegetation resources in an intelligent and sustainable manner. The resource base around each village had been transformed into a complex agro-ecosystem of croplands, grazing lands (grasslands), and forest and tree lands, thus constituting an interactive multi-componential biological system that responded not only to the region's sharp seasonal rhythms, but also reduced risk by keeping the social and economic impact of rainfall variations down to a minimum. Due to the seasonal nature of rains, the people learnt to store the rainwater or the streamwater that flowed past during the monsoon season, in their own villages. When the British came, there were already thousands of water storage tanks in use across the country.
The Indian rulers preceding the British did not boast of irrigation bureaucracies or public works departments to create these structures. Referring to Rajasthan's Thar desert, traditional knowledge expert Komal Kothari says, "While collecting information from some 600 villages, I found that the state, the jagirdar (landowner) or anybody who had anything to do with revenue collection did not create any water body for the people. All water bodies constructed by the erstwhile kings, jagirdars, chiefs and chieftains were reserved for their personal use. The people largely had to fend for themselves." Though the role of the state varied from one region to another, it was nonetheless true that the rulers rarely built irrigation structures themselves. The massive Pichola lake in the city of Udaipur, for instance, was built by nomadic gypsies. However, the rulers did play an important role in encouraging people to build water harvesting structures.
The Vijayanagar empire
The famous Vijayanagar kings of south India (1336-1564 ad), for instance, placed great importance on developing irrigation facilities for agricultural improvement. Emperor Krishnadeva Raya (1509-1530), the greatest of the Vijayanagar rulers, once pointed out that the extent of a state is the root cause of its prosperity. Conversely, if the state was small, its prosperity will increase only when tanks and irrigation canals were constructed and favour was shown to poor cultivators in matters of taxation and services. The Vijayanagar kings, therefore, constructed irrigation tanks and canals themselves, though more rarely. But, more importantly, they encouraged private initiative in irrigation development in different ways.
In those days, land tax, which was collected in kind in the form of one-sixth of the produce, was an important source of revenue for Indian rulers. Thus, the rulers' fortunes depended on agriculture. The state, therefore, had a vested interest in encouraging private initiative to develop irrigation systems. The Vijayanagar kings would make dasavanda or kattu kodage grants to individuals or institutions which undertook such works. The enterprising person would be granted a piece of tax-free land watered by the tank, canal or well which he/she excavated. The extent of the grant varied with the importance of the work. Thus, when one Harinideva Vodeyar constructed a tank in Mysore district, he was given a grant by emperor Deva Raya ii (1423-1446); Vodeyar received a second grant when he enlarged the tank.
Dasavanda grants were made not just by the kings. A record of 1497 in the present Chittoor district registers a kattu kodage grant of land at Gundalahalli, made by the sthanika (manager) of a temple to one Narasimhadeva for digging a tank in the village belonging to the Kadiri Lakshminarsimha temple and for bringing the surrounding lands under cultivation.
Great religious merit was also attached to the maintenance and repair of irrigation works by the Vijayanagar kings. An inscription dating to 1413 states: "A ruined family, a breached tank or pond, a fallen kingdom, whomsoever restores, or repairs a damaged temple, acquires merit four-fold of that which accrued from them at first."
Early British observers were full of praise for the Vijayanagar irrigation works they saw. C S Crole, author of The Manual of Chengleput District (1879), said: "Almost every catchment basin, however small, still bears traces of having been bunded across and in many instances this was done in order to secure a crop of paddy on a few acres of stony ungenerous soil, to which all the fostering care of the British administration has failed to induce cultivation to return. Large and more expensive projects were not neglected. Even some of them bear witness to the enlightenment of those Hindu kings, while the absence of scientific instruments in those remote times compels the astonishment of the beholder."
Colonel Thomas Munro (the governor of Madras in 1820), noting the irrigation system in the area around Vijayanagar, said: "To attempt the construction of new tanks is perhaps a more hopeless experiment than the repair of those which have been filled up (through siltation), for there is scarcely any place where a tank can be made to advantage that has not been applied to this purpose by the inhabitants."
The Gond kingdom
The tribal Gond ings, who were great empire builders-- by the 9th century ad, the whole of the eastern section of Central Provinces had come under Gond influence and was known as Gondwana (forest of the Gonds), from which is derived the name of Gondwanaland, the ancient geological continent -- followed a similar practice of encouraging water harvesting methods. Ruins of old irrigation works dot the pre-colonial states of Patna and Sambalpur ( both now in Orissa). In the Gond empire, building of reservoirs for irrigation was the foremost duty of a village chief. Though the Gonds had a strong central government, each village was independent in its economy and governance. The village was primarily a settlement of peasants, and its assembly an association of cultivators. Its prosperity rested on proper management of land and water resources. Repairs of channels, embankments and distributaries were immediately taken up after the first rainfall. To anyone who constructed a tank, the Gond kings gave a grant of revenue-free land lying below it. Rent-free land was given to the kodas, a class of people who were experts in excavating water reservoirs and who looked after the maintenance of irrigation works; such land grants were known as sagar rakshya jagit. Agricultural prosperity increased under the Gond rulers, and great works like the Rani Talab near Jubalpur remain to this day as monuments to their rule.
British rule, unfortunately, laid this enormous heritage to waste. In their desire to rule, administer and maximise their revenues from this rich land, the British steadily impoverished the rural communities, leading to the destruction of their resource management systems, including the water management structures that had emerged over the centuries.
How the seeds were sown
Early British observers like Charles Metcalfe and Henry Maine had described India as a largely happy land of 'village republics'. What this meant, says historian Dharampal, is "that the 'village', to an extent, had all the semblance of the State; it controlled revenue and exercised authority within its sphere... The basic element of this 'village republic' was the authority it wielded, the resources it controlled, and dispensed, and the manner of such resource utilisation... Indian society and polity had basically been organised according to non-centralist concepts... That the annual exchequer receipts of Mughal emperor Jahangir did not amount to more than five per cent of the computed revenue of his empire, and that of (later Emperor) Aurangzeb with all his zeal for maximising such receipts, did not ever exceed 20 per cent, is symptomatic of the concepts and arrangements which governed Indian polity... there is voluminous data scattered in the British records themselves which confirm the view, that in terms of the basic expenses, both education and medical care, the expenses of the local police, and the maintenance of irrigation facilities, had primary claims on revenue..."
Dharampal points out that data collected by the British in the 1770s and 1780s from Bengal and Bihar showed that revenues of these areas were divided into several categories. The 'khalsa' were those sources whose revenue was received in the exchequer of the ruling authority. Two of the other categories which probably accounted for about 80 per cent of the computed revenue of an area were termed as 'chakeran zemin' and 'bazee zemin'. The former implied such recipients of revenue who were engaged in administrative, economic and accounting activities and were remunerated by assignments of revenue. The latter meant those individuals, groups and institutions which, according to the British, were in receipt of what were termed "religious and charitable allowances".
Assignments under bazee zemin were quite high. In Bengal, the British noted that "almost one half of the province is held upon free tenure" under the bazee zemin category. In many districts of Bengal and Bihar there were as many as 30,000 to 36,000 recipients per district. Even after 1750-1800, the period during which the British took control of south India, the situation in Madras presidency was not much different. As late as 1801, over 35 per cent of the total cultivated land in the present Rayalseema area and the district of Bellary came under the category of revenue-free assignments. Says Dharampal, "What was true of Bengal, Bihar and the Madras presidencies applied equally to other areas in India, whether in the areas of the Bombay presidency, or of Punjab, or in the Rajasthan states."
By about 1800, a very large percentage of these revenue assignments had been altogether dispossessed, reducing their beneficiaries to penury. Most of the remaining had their assignments greatly reduced so that they could no longer perform the educational, water management or other functions that they were expected to undertake. It was the task of Thomas Munro to reduce revenue-free assignments in the ceded districts to a mere five per cent of the total cultivated land. The revenue thus collected was drained out of the land and the country, leaving behind a devastated natural resource management system. With the destruction of the indigenous financial system, community property slowly became nobody's property.
Furthermore, what the colonial rulers could not own or earn money from, they neglected. As Arthur Cotton, the pioneer of modern irrigation in India, himself noted in 1874 about local water harvesting systems: "There are a multitude of old native works in various parts of India... These are noble works, and show both boldness and engineering talent. They have stood for hundreds of years. When I first arrived in India, the contempt with which the natives justly spoke of us on account of this neglect of material improvements was very striking; they used to say we were a kind of civilised savages, wonderfully expert about fighting but so inferior to their great men that we would not even keep in repair the works they had constructed, much less even imitate them in extending the system."
The cancer spreads
The British tried to take remedial measures when they realised their mistake, but they failed to comprehend the strength of the indigenous system completely. As a result, the measures they undertook also failed. Firstly, they created irrigation and public works bureaucracies which were supposed to own and manage the neglected water harvesting systems. When these technocracies failed to revive these systems, the British authorities in Madras presidency, in the mistaken belief that local communities would undertake voluntary labour to maintain the tanks as a tradition, enacted the notorious Madras Compulsory Labour Act of 1858. In Bengal, as William Willcocks pointed out (see box: The legacy of Bill Willcocks), the British even failed to understand the technological nature of the indigenous irrigation system.
With the progress of British rule, there was also a gradual shift in emphasis from minor irrigation works like tanks, wells, bandharas (dams) and small river channels to large dams and canals commanding extensive areas. Indian rulers, on the other hand, continued to build and maintain tanks in states which had remained free from British rule. In contrast to the erstwhile Madras presidency area, there is evidence that tank irrigation in the former Hyderabad state was of more recent origin. Under the Nizams, from 4,500 ha in 1895-96, the public works department (pwd) of the Hyderabad state reached around 45,000 ha of tank-irrigated area around the turn of the century, and between 324,000 ha and 364,500 ha some 40 years later. The fact that the pwd of Hyderabad expanded the tank-irrigated area while the British government in Madras presidency did not do so, indicates that the intensity of tank irrigation in different areas was greatly influenced by the policies of their respective governments.
Even worse, the British, in their bid to rule, educated an entire class of Indians which no longer appreciated or understood India. They were, in fact, so successful that when India became independent, the leaders of modern India also turned their backs on these systems. Indians invested almost exclusively in mega-irrigation projects, greatly influenced by the technological dreams of socialist countries like the Soviet Union.
Over time, other changes have taken place in several parts of India which have further eroded the traditional water harvesting systems. Overall, there has been a downfall in community self-management as bureaucratic intervention in village affairs has been steadily encouraged by India's political leaders. Technological changes like the introduction of tubewells means that richer farmers in the command area of a tank, who can install these tubewells, no longer have an interest in cooperating with the rest of the community in managing the tanks. The future of the phad system in Maharashtra, for instance, is now uncertain. Firstly, the government has, in its usual unimaginative manner, built reservoirs upstream to utilise the available river waters, thus affecting the post-monsoon flows downstream, where the bandharas feeding the phads with water were built. Secondly, a sugar factory has come up in the area, increasing the demand for sugarcane, a water-intensive crop.
Many central and southern Indian cities like Hyderabad, Chennai (Madras) and Bangalore grew up around traditional water harvesting systems. But in these urban areas too, these systems have either disappeared because of pressure from real estate lobbies or have become heavily polluted. As a result, traditional water harvesting systems continue to play an important role largely in remote areas where the reach of water bureaucracies remains weak, as in many Himalayan states.
A revival of these systems, however, is in the offing. Their potential is once again being recognised and debated over. This is because the large water supply systems built around mega-dams have proved to be extremely capital-intensive, with long gestation periods, and rather low returns in terms of increased crop productivity, largely because the water supplied by these systems is determined more by bureaucracies controlling these systems rather than the farmers. Irrigation efficiency of tubewells, since they are farmer-controlled, has been much better. But the rapid increase in tubewells in dry areas, without the supplemental groundwater recharge that used to be ensured by traditional water harvesting systems, is leading to a depletion of groundwater aquifers and will become a severe problem in the years to come. Rainwater harvesting systems, on the other hand, require small sums of money, a large part of which can come from local communities, thus avoiding an undue drain on the state exchequer; they can be built within months (instead of years like large dams); they will be under the control of farmers themselves; and, they can be used conjunctively with tubewells as they can recharge the groundwater aquifers.
In terms of the water they can store, their potential is stupendous. If five per cent of India's land area -- about 15 mha -- was used to store water at an average depth of five metre, India would be able to get 37.5-75 mha-metre of water annually, depending on the rainwater collection efficiency ranging from 50 per cent to 100 per cent.
There is, theoretically speaking, no village in India which cannot meet its drinking and cooking water needs through rainwater harvesting. If an average individual needs 2.5 l per day of water for cooking and drinking, a billion people India's expected population by the turn of the century, will need about 2.5 billion l per day or 912.5 billion l per year. If rain was harvested over a mere 83,000 ha or 830 sq km every year (the Union territory of Delhi alone is 1,483 sq km), clean drinking and cooking water could be obtained for the country's entire population. And if the nationwide supply of water was stipulated at 100 l per person per day, the norm used in many urban areas, then too all that we would need is one per cent of India's land area to set aside for rainwater harvesting. If the rainwater collection efficiency was only 50 per cent, the total land requirement would not be more than two per cent of India's land area. Given the already horrendous and still growing pollution of India's rivers with industrial contaminants and fertiliser and pesticide runoffs from farmlands, Indians may soon have no other option but to capture raindrops as a clean water source. The technological options to clean the raw river water from contaminants will probably be impossible for India to afford.
Thus, with about five-10 per cent of India's land area set aside for rainwater collection, most of India's irrigation and household water needs can be met. But a decentralised system of water management will demand a community-based system of natural resource management. Unfortunately, most laws that govern India's land, water and forests even today are the same as those formulated by the British. The Indian government has the unique honour of trying to deal with 21st century problems of environmental management with archaic 19th century laws and bureaucracies of a colonial ruler. The key question today is will Indian governments continue to manage the environment through their gilded bureaucracies, or will they democratise its control and leave its management to rural communities?
Down To Earth will carry more on traditional water harvesting systems in its forthcoming issues. Readers are invited to send in their comments and contributions. Those interested in purchasing a copy of the Fourth Citizens' Report may write to S Banerji, Sales Manager, Centre for Science and Environment, 41, Tughlakabad Institutional Area, New Delhi - 110 062