Resurrecting a tradition

The tank system in India needs to be revived to maintain water reserves. This can be achieved through a central body such as the National Tank Authority

By C B S R Sharma
Published: Friday 31 October 1997

-- (Credit: Ganesh pangare / cse)once a part of Indian tradition, tanks today are disappearing from the face of the country. The tank system -- which was used to store rainwater meant for subsequent use by locals --thrived during the rule of feudal lords and declined with them.

Despite their utility for drainage, storage, charging wells and reducing the havoc caused by floods, tanks were encroached in rural areas while in cities they were filled up. In order to conserve tanks, an 'ecosystem approach of management' is necessary. This can be achieved by setting up a National Tank Authority (nta) which can be entrusted with conservation, restoration, and development of all tanks in India. The jurisdiction of such an authority shall encompass the tanks of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Bihar; the coastal ponds of Orissa, West Bengal, and other water harvesting systems like temple tanks, lakes, and urban wetlands.

But, why has the tank system degenerated? Borewells sunk around tanks and operated on subsidised electricity, have greatly reduced the quantity of water in them. As tank beds remained fallow for greater durations they were gradually encroached upon.

The number of borewells, scale of encroachments and the level of siltation all depended on the intensity of the monsoons, the geography of the local catchment area and the statuses of the tank mechanisms. Sometimes, borewells are sunk in tank beds. The owner of the borewells and lands in the ayacut (irrigated area under a tank), and the encroacher of tanks is usually the same person. Thus what till then was a common resource has now become private property.

However, even today there are some 200,000 tanks in the country most of which are located in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Tamil Nadu. Tanks account for 10 per cent of the present irrigated area of the country and therefore need to be conserved by an authority like the nta .

The requirements for setting up the nta are academic, financial, and logistic in nature. These cover rainwater harvesting, storage of water, irrigation usage, potability, recharging groundwater; nature of soil, water, plants etc. The other aspects relate to animals, agriculture, aquaculture, social, and wetland forestry. Biodiversity will be naturally preserved and utilised by people residing in the surrounding areas. The history of the tanks and the perception of local people on all these is a necessary starting point.

Therefore, the existing records on tanks should be revised. Rapid evaluation techniques have to be developed. This will lead to the emergence of a value system to classify tanks and earmark them for either development or conservation, and restoration.

Tank irrigation requires a strong local authority to rally collective action. The water dynamics encompass the entire catchment, supply channels, command area and the wells. The destinies of villages are intimately connected with this web. Therefore both conservation and development have to go hand in hand, which is possible only by nucleating each tank along with the dependent villages into an eco-political unit under the local self government.

Although stressing on strong local authority in managing tanks and advocating the need for a body like the nta in the same breath may appear contradictory, it actually may not be. The nta is visualised as a body for broad policy making and channeling inputs of a scientific and financial nature so as to motivate, monitor and strengthen the local bodies in reviving tanks.

The first duty of the nta is to declare tanks as protected ecosystems and the associated groundwater as public property. The next task will be to conduct a tank census based on ground realities. By resurrecting tanks and regulating groundwater, a source for drinking water which is a major rural need will be greatly fulfilled.

C B S R Sharma teaches at the Salim Ali school of ecology and environmental sciences of Pondicherry University, Pondicherry

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