Collective spirit an Indian myth or policy failure?

By Videh Upadhyay
Published: Sunday 15 October 2006

Collective spirit an Indian myth or policy failure?

-- I met an angry farmer recently in the interiors of what a brown paper calls a 'back-of-beyond' state. He was angry because the tube-well from which he used to draw water for his paddy crop has been dysfunctional for the past nine years. Seeing the officials of the irrigation department with whom I was travelling, the old farmer could not control his outburst while saying repeatedly that none of the officials have cared to repair the tube-well all these years. On inquiry as to what exactly the source of the problem was, the farmer said that somebody had filled up the pipes with stones and soil. The operator of the tube-well -- its official caretaker -- naturally had to confront the next obvious question where was he when this happened? It was clear that he had failed in his job and thus a senior official from the department with us lost no time in castigating him, and, more to appease the angry farmer than anything else, threatened that "action" would be taken against the operator.

However questions from the incident remained with me. Was this operator the real culprit or a mere scape-goat? The operator's defence threw more light. He was the only person responsible for tube-wells separated by more than two kilometres and in two different villages. How could he possibly monitor and oversee what's happening with these pipes 24 hours a day? He had an easy-to-see point.

This is where I thought that operation, maintenance and monitoring of the tube-wells and lift irrigation units are best done by farmers themselves, especially when the department cannot do it -- a department mostly high on numbers but always low on motivation. But then how do you go about ensuring this, is then the next question. First, I asked the angry farmer himself would he along with other local farmers agree to take care of the tube-wells. He paused and then did not care to answer which I took as no. One could understand that in a culture where invariably success is ours and failure that of the government.

Nevertheless, what is good, or thought to be so, by policymakers has to be engaged with and knowing this I began thinking about how the farmers could be brought together to do the needful. While having a farmers' body for each lift irrigation and tube-well unit would be administratively unviable, putting them together as one body for units placed few kilometres apart could lead to the same problem the operator faced. But on re-thinking I felt that the two situations were not similar and the capacity of one individual could not be equated with a group of farmers. So one farmers' body for a cluster of schemes could work, but again -- perhaps not!
Group action I began to think further. The farmers' body could surely work on one condition if true group action is understood and undertaken by the farmers. Apart from the larger question of whether they have the 'collective spirit' or not, the question as to what would be the right institutions facilitating collective action would need an immediate answer. Collective action is a function of a collective sense of ownership which is founded upon a collective right to enjoy what you have and to exclude all others who interfere with it. Unfortunately existing formal institutions today --whether they are panchayati raj institutions or user/beneficiary groups -- do not recognise such collective or group rights. Thus, if one thinks of a farmers' organisation to be made responsible for tube-wells and lift irrigation units in its area one is not sure whether that responsibility would be backed by the requisite rights, power and authority. The trouble is that even if you are not sure whether robust farmer entities can be carved out today, you cannot wait for tomorrow because as the outburst of the angry old farmer suggested, the time has run out. I would thus go ahead and suggest an institutional model for the problem, as immediately desired by the state government, sacrificing the search for the ideal with the justification to myself that 'the perfect can be the enemy of the good'. Meanwhile, I have a sinking feeling that the sophistication of the nuances involved in my head may eventually matter little to the farmer's sadness under the veil of his anger.

Videh Upadhyay is a New Delhi-based lawyer and consultant

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