The relation between tanks and trees

For survival of the traditional water management structures, one must understand the linkages between the tanks and trees

By Deep Narayan Pandey
Published: Wednesday 15 August 2001

-- Traditional water harvesting systems, such as tanks locally called "talabs", are an integral part of every village in Madhya Pradesh. Varying in size from less than an acre to a hundred hectares or more, talabs were built by rulers and communities several hundred years ago using the traditional knowledge of village communities. These tanks have served the rural society by meeting the daily water requirements of the people and their livestock and also helping in ground water recharge. Many of these tanks make an excellent network of capturing the rainwater. Water that overflows from one tank upstream gets collected in another tank placed downstream thereby reducing the incidence of flood and storing water to be used round the year. That these tanks have survived hundreds of years, is a proof that society found it useful to maintain and manage tanks collectively.

Often earthen bunds of the tanks were planted with beautiful fruit-bearing trees that one can still find growing. Many of these tanks also have traditional gardens placed conveniently up and downstream. Studies of village settlement and collective efforts to create tanks are well documented. Similarly, studies of tanks as the source of irrigation, fish, ground water recharge and other products are also available. However, what has been overlooked is the traditional knowledge of related community forestry practices such as maintenance and customary planting and sanctification of tree groves on earthen embankments and islands within the impounded area. Such groves are prominent parts of the village commons in India, and serve vital social, religious, ecological and economic functions.

From the point of view of physical structure, tanks are the common property resources that encompass the interacting web of land, water, plant and animal life. Tanks fit into the category of riparian commons too because they encompass complex issues related to ecology, economy and society on the one hand, and on the other, involve an interacting system of land, water and vegetation. These elements of the village tanks are virtually inseparable.
The inextricable link The complex web of riparian commons and the hypothesis of inextricable links among the ecology, economy and society for the sustainability of natural resources is depicted in the figure. It suggests that the elements of village tanks, such as land, water and forests and ecology, economy and society all have a bearing on the continued survival and management of the village tanks. This framework is necessary to understand the issues that are involved in our efforts to promote community forestry. The ecology, economy and society framework is dependent upon the resource. The resource in this case is not the land, water or trees in isolation, but an interacting system of all. It will be pertinent to note that any effort to revive the tank management, or craft new management regimes must rest on the understanding of these linkages. The inextricable links between tanks and trees is vital for the sustainability of the development intervention that attempts to either revive or constitute the new water management structures and community forestry regimes.

As suggested, in close association with the traditional water management, we find interesting practices of community forestry that the forest department needs to be aware of. Forest research scholars have produced vast quantum of research material for the use of forest managers. However, we have not been able to solve the problem of deforestation, primarily because we have not been able to provide the low-cost options and acceptable and easily understood technology for forest management and afforestation. What is the reason? The basic reason behind this is that we have ignored the equally immense local knowledge and local technology on forests available with the local communities.

Tanks serve various purposes including the ground water recharge by reducing the runoff and enhancing the water stagnation time. There is positive correlation between water impounding in tanks and ground water recharge. Ground water withdrawal through tube wells needs to be balanced by recharge through simple technologies, such as tanks. Since tanks are now neglected and remain devoid of water for most part of the year, recharge is a problem.

Depletion of ground water has serious consequences. It not only reduces the availability of potable water to people and their livestock but also reduces the quantum of surplus water that can be used for irrigation and enhancement of agricultural productivity.

Traditional treasure
People throughout India have traditionally been conserving and managing water through innovative methods based on repeated experiences validated over several hundred years. Some of these methods have survived the onslaught of value erosion in the society and consequential disappearance of traditional water management technologies. However, several local communities in water-scarce areas of India are still using these technologies.

Tanks indeed have elaborate physical structures that depend on an age-old institutional mechanism for management. Tanks, being the manifestation of application of cumulative indigenous knowledge handed down for several generations, have elaborate institutional arrangement to manage. Socio-cultural, religious and economic life of the village has revolved around the tanks, resulting in interesting institutional arrangements and environmental ethics that ensure the sustainability of the system.

Institutional and environmental ethics, seen from the utilitarian point of view, would mean that because tanks were an important component of economic activity, they were created and maintained.

There is another group of environmental philosophers, however, who argue that utilitarian approach does not fully explain the continuity of these useful structures, particularly in those areas where people have seldom used water from the tanks for irrigation. Rather, they suggest that tanks were created for entirely different reasons to serve the society. There are numerous instances in Indic literature where construction and maintenance of tanks has been praised as a noble goal to be pursued by the people. They were also built to earn "punya"!

The spread of Green Revolution that subsisted by guzzling water from large dams, canals and tube wells made tanks almost redundant. People no longer invested their time and effort to maintain and manage these structures. Deforestation in the catchments resulted in large amount of silt being deposited in the tanks, reducing the impounding capacity.

Under the normal circumstances of community control, people would have continued de-silting and maintenance of tank bunds to keep the structures continuously useful. However, because of the neglect, tanks went into disrepair. It seems, as Anupam Mishra of Gandhi Peace Foundation says, "While the tanks were being silted up, the communities lost interest in de-silting, which was a regular annual exercise undertaken earlier. Along with the silting of tanks, the minds of the planners and government officials has got silted up as well!"

Use, overuse and abuse of water resources that the mother earth has stored over a period of several thousand years have resulted in severe scarcity. Continuous pumping out and mining of ground water have led to the falling of ground water level by more than 30-50 meters. Such scarcity is forcing the government, civil society and communities to reinvent the role of the ancient wisdom.
Beacon of hope
It is heartening to note that the government of Madhya Pradesh under the leadership of the chief minister Digvijay Singh, started a massive innovative programme to revive the traditional water harvesting systems. Coming as it is at the most opportune time, when people are standing in long queues and walking long distances to fetch a precious pot of water, one would expect that the programme can only be successful.

Termed appropriately as "Pani Roko Abhiyan", people are removing silt from the garbage-filled impounding area, repairing bunds , outlets for excess water and other components. Massive exercise to desilt the tanks and their maintenance is useful. Indeed, more important is the change that the movement has brought about in the minds of the planners and practitioners.

The writer is an Associate Professor at the Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal

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