The negotiators

Of India's 18 major rivers, 17 are inter-state. In all cases, the water is intensely fought over. In all cases, there seems no resolution. In such a situation, can modern India take a page or two out of the traditional water manager's unwritten manual on settling disputes? Can modern India learn a trick or two from these management gurus?

In their search for these managers, Down To Earth reporters travelled to six states. From SUTAPA GHOSH in Uttaranchal and Maharashtra, J SARAVANAN in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Ladakh and RAMYA VISHWANATH in Karnataka, a report - and some answers - pieced together by RICHARD MAHAPATRA

Published: Friday 31 October 2003

The negotiators

Neerkatti Hanumantappa of vill (Credit: RUHANI)There exist, in India today, at least two ways of resolving water-related conflicts. One is the way the conflict over river Cauvery is being managed. The river of woes for Tamil Nadu chief minister J Jayalalitha and her Karnataka counterpart S M Krishna, not a single day has passed in the last six months when both haven't worried over their rights. For the states, it is an intense three-decade old battle. The problem is as natural as the flow of the river: Tamil Nadu, downstream of the river, wants water use regulated in upstream Karnataka. Karnataka, in turn, refuses to do so, citing its primacy as the upstream user. The conflict is so overpowering that the prime minister has already called six meetings in the last six months. "Can we solve it anyway?" he asked in a meeting in August. (Good question, for at any point of time, as an official in the water resources ministry informs, about 300 government officials are managing the conflict.) Replied an official present in the meeting: "We can't reposition the states in rotation from upstream to downstream."

The other way -- far less prevalent today, but normative until the 1950s -- can be found not very far from Chennai. In Madainipatty village, Madurai district, stays A Solai, now 85 years old. For more than 50 years, Solai has been the village's water manager. He laughs at the vexed Cauvery conflict and asks: "Along a river there will be people downstream and upstream. There must be some problem with the policy makers." He doesn't remember a conflict over the tank water, shared by farmers of three villages. "If we have any problem, people have given me enough power and freedom to solve it."

In South India
In Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, the water manager is called a neerkatti . They manage traditional tanks. "Their knowledge of the terrain, drainage and irrigation needs is much beyond the imagination of the present day irrigation engineers," says Ramachandre Reddy, professor of history at Sri Venkatesware University in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. The British first codified their work in Tamil Nadu, testifying to a vibrant tradition. But today, only the Karnataka government recognises this practice and usually allots the management of tanks bigger than 40 hectares to neerkattis.

A neerkatti's role starts much before the monsoon. The tank, being a common property, requires collective action to maintain it. Neerkatti s decide the date on which residents help desilt the tank and clean the catchment. They size up the work required and divide up labour among the tank's beneficiaries. With the first shower they take stock of the water available and so decide per capita allocation as well as the kind of crops to be taken. Thus farmers are thwarted from irrigating fields at their own will; and the neerkatti ensures supply to every field on a rotational basis.

In village Pungamma Cheruvu, in Chittoor district of Andhra Pradesh, neerkatti N R Peddamiah first distributes water to fields farthest from the village tank. "The lands located near the tank will get the benefits of tank seepage water. Those located at the tail end will not, and so I give preference to the tail-end fields," she says. The duration for which a field receives water depends on the crop being grown. If a crop begins to dry, she even has the right to divert water to the dried fields by closing the diversion to all other fields.

Neerkattis like Peddamiah don't enjoy political power in the village, but are given immense administrative power by the Gram Sabha temporarily. In general a neerkatti doesn't own land in the command area of the village tank thus making them neutral to the job. "The neerkatti is to the tank what a priest is to a temple," says R Addhinarayanan, regional co-ordinator of Dhan Foundation, a non-governmental organisation (ngo) working to revive this practice. Besides managing irrigation and practical advice on crops, overall crop management like pest attacks and local remedies also forms a part of the mandate. "They are the unwritten local knowledge base," adds Addhinarayanan.

In Uttaranchal
In Uttaranchal water managers oversee irrigation through traditional water channels called guhls (unlined diversion channels from mountain streams or springs to farmlands). They are called kollalu s in Garhwal and chowkidars or thekedars in the Kumaon hills. Their primary responsibility is to ensure that a second rotation does not begin without the last farmer having got his turn. Here too, the gram sabha appoints chowkidar s and kollalu s as per the seasonal requirement of crops, usually in villages with more than 2000 residents and irrigated area more than 5 hectares. Says Umesh Singh Kira, the head of Beyala Khalsa village in Almora district, "There was no formal system of keeping a chowkidar 25 years ago; but due to constant intra-village fights over water, we now have a formal system."

In Maharashtra
Water managers called havaldar, jagliyas or patkaris manage Maharashtra's co-operative phad irrigation system. Cultivator committees appoint managers in the last week of April. The post is hereditary, to ensure loyalty to local practice. Usually landless residents are chosen. Their roles and responsibilities are formally recorded in a panchnama (a kind of 'minutes').

Each kind of manager has a different role. Usually one or two havaldar s are appointed in each village. Their job is to look after, regulate and maintain flow of water from bhandara s (diversion structures) into the main canals. Patkari s oversee water channels from the main canal to the distributory channels; they guide jagliya s, who see to the field channels and protect crops. All are appointed just before the cropping season. Generally four to eight jagliya s are selected in a village (it depends on how much land is to be irrigated). If the water flow is less, patkari s can supply water on a rotation basis to cultivators.

Scarcity of water nowadays ensures patkari s play a major role in conflict resolution, due to their knowledge of water flow in different canals. In fact in a few villages patkari s are appointed just to take care of conflicts. "Amid conflicts our job is a big challenge, but we always win," says patkari Sayeed Isak Kasam of Neer village in Dhule district.

In Ladakh, the churpun or water manager is an imposing convention. "No body can touch the canal without the permission of the churpun ," says Sonam Loldan, sarpanch of village Saboo near Leh. Perhaps the only place in India where the water manager is fully in charge, Ladakh has a system to ensure everyone learns the art.

Here, churpun s are appointed in rotation every year. Every villager must have hands-on experience; for the younger generation, being a churpun is mandatory. In Saboo, for instance, of the four churpuns appointed every year, two are from the younger generation and two are senior residents with experience in irrigation management. Indeed, even an outsider settling in the village has to be a churpun once.

The major source of irrigation in Ladakh is meltwater from glaciers ( kangri s) and snow. This is complemented by water from springs ( chumik ) and marshes ( nyema ). This water is diverted to individual fields through an intricate network of earthen channels. Prior to the annexation of Ladakh to the kingdom of Jammu, the king's edicts had defined the rights and rules governing the allocation of water within and between villages. These records were replaced by the Riwaz-i-abpashi . The Riwaz-i-abpashi , similar to the mamulnamas of the tanks in South India, outlines the rules for water distribution. Amazingly, it exists only in oral form. Churpun s use these rules even today.

The cultivation period is limited to 3-4 months of the summer, when it is warm enough to grow crops. Then the churpun swings into action, regulating water in each and every canal. In case of dried-up fields with standing crops, it is totally the churpun 's discretion to divert water and save the standing crop. "At times he will also bypass the irrigation of other fields. So his knowledge is crucial for averting crop damages," says Loldan. Wheat and barley are the two major crops grown every alternate year and any change in cropping pattern is also decided by the churpun .

Once a churpun is selected, a document called the kamgya is drawn up. It is like a contract between the newly appointed churpun and the village community, outlining responsibilities and stating his moral obligations, in that he must be impartial. The kamgya also mentions how much the churpun will receive for services rendered. In this way, a certain formality defines the process which both villagers and churpun adhere to.

Impartiality is built into the rules for allocating water within a village: a kind of lottery system is used. By this, each household's turn for receiving water is determined. This is followed most stringently, when there is scarcity of water at the beginning of the season.

Apart from supervising maintenance, the churpun mediates major disputes. According to the people, the likelihood of a dispute occurring is inversely proportional to the abilities of a churpun . Disputes are usually petty, and resolved with the imposition of minor penalties by villagers themselves. The symbolic power of disrepute is enough to prevent people from stealing water or disrupting the system. For disputes of a more serious nature, the village head also mediates. In case the problem is really serious, people refer to the tehsildar , who takes recourse to the Riwaz-i-abpashi to clarify the existing norms.

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