Where are the panchayats?

Of the three farm water conservation programmes currently under way in Karnataka, the Jal Samvardhene Yojana (jsy) has completed a year of operation. The programme's stated objective is to demonstrate the viability of community-based approaches to tank rehabilitation. For this purpose an Integrated Tank Development Plan has been developed for each tank that is to be rehabilitated. The problem is: after a year, it is amply clear that there is no place for the village panchayat s in the process. This is typical of all World Bank aided water projects in Karnataka...

 
By Manu N Kulkarni
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Where are the panchayats?

-- Of the three farm water conservation programmes currently under way in Karnataka, the Jal Samvardhene Yojana (jsy) has completed a year of operation. The programme's stated objective is to demonstrate the viability of community-based approaches to tank rehabilitation. For this purpose an Integrated Tank Development Plan has been developed for each tank that is to be rehabilitated. These plans have to be prepared by tank user groups (tug) with the assistance of cluster facilitation teams (cfts) comprising local non-governmental organisations (ngos). The programme also has lofty aims to provide adequate representation to tribals and other vulnerable groups in its areas of operation.

The problem is: after a year, it is amply clear that there is no place for the village panchayat s in the process. This is typical of all World Bank aided water projects in Karnataka.

This author made an impromptu visit to one of the areas under jsy: Hangal taluk in Haveri district. Three cfts comprising three ngos -- Tarabalu Rural Development Foundation (trdf), Navodaya Educational and Environment Development Service (needs) and Jana Para Vigyan Sansthe -- are responsible for mobilising people into forming tugs. These ngos are still in the process of rallying people into forming user groups. And this looks to be a tough job.

For one, the village panchayats are not involved in the project. Secondly, the landless villagers are unlikely to cooperate unless they see some benefit. On a positive note, however, the trdf team has been successful in forming women's user groups in Hangul. The women I met exuded excitement at the prospect of making savings once the tanks are revived. Many of them were landless and unlikely to have direct benefits from the revival of the tanks.

Tanks are not just water bodies; they are village institutions around which are attached the sentiments of local people. For example the Kalashnath tank -- which the trdf is trying to revive -- is associated in people's mind with the submerged kalash (small urn)of a local deity. It is these sentiments that the ngos have to work upon -- reactivate this effective form of social fencing -- in order to elicit the cooperation of villagers in resuscitating the tanks.

Then there are obstacles from powerful politicians and rigid technocrats. needs, which is working to rehabilitate the Dashrathkoppa tank, is faced with such impediments. A powerful politician has encroached upon a substantial area of the tank and the users are engaged in a legal battle to have the encroachment removed.

Second obstacle The second obstacle is from the assistant engineer of the jsy in charge of Hangal taluk. He wants the desilting of the tank to be upto its waste weir outlet and not go below to provide the much needed dead storage (the water that is left unused). The tank users told me with one voice that the dead storage would be enormously beneficial in recharging the dried wells and handpumps in the village. It will also help the villagers to farm fish. Water stored upto the waste weir, on the other hand, will only help agriculture of the tank beneficiaries. The latest instructions of this assistant engineer to all tank users in Haveri is to allow dead storage up to 10 per cent of the tank's capacity. Why 10 per cent and not the entire area is, however, left unexplained. The assistant engineer's attitude is typical of the minor irrigation bureaucracy in Karnataka. It has always thought its engineering skills to be superior to the traditional wisdom of the villagers. They never maintained the sluice gates and did not provide any support to the villagers. And now, their attitude has held up the rehabilitation of the Dashrathkoppa tank. Consequently disillusionment with the jsy is setting in among the villagers. The tank user's committee (tuc) does not want to approach the legislative assembly members and ministers since they feel that "tank water is beyond politics". But the tucs have not been mandated to draw on the resources of the panchayats -- human and financial. What will happen when the ngos withdraw and the tuc s have to "stand alone"? Who will maintain the tank structures, sluice gates and silt clearance works etc?

It is unfortunate that despite the 73rd Constitutional amendments Schedule I and the Karnataka Panchayat Raj Act 1993, Section 58 (viii ) -- which specifically entrusts the construction, repairs and maintenance of drinking water wells, tanks and ponds to panchayats -- jsy excluded village panchayat s right from the beginning by forming tugs and tucs. Even the ngos think that the panchayats are corrupt and politicised. There is no use asking these local bodies to maintain these tanks after the project period since they were never involved in the planning stage.

We moved on to Byagawadi village in Hangal taluk where the Jana Para Vigyan Sansthe is the cft. On reaching the village we were delighted to see almost the entire village around the tank. Fresh desilted soil was being taken out in a tractor for distribution to farmers at a nominal fee of Rs 30 per trailer load. But, because of the drought, villagers were reluctant to pay even this small amount. Mahadevappa Bullaannavar, the chairman of the tuc of Byagawadi, showed me written instructions of the assistant engineer to not go in for dead storage in this tank. Again the villagers repeated the same arguments of good water recharge in the village tubewells and open wells if this dead storage is achieved.

Traditional wisdom has always showed the way in water conservation either through tanks, or water harvesting structures or field bunding. In the worst drought of 2000-2002, Madhya Pradesh was able to withstand water scarcity in farming by farmers re-engineering the hydrology of groundwater recharge and surface water harvesting technology. The figures were mindboggling. In the entire state 11,690 new tanks were built, 16,213 old tanks desilted, 14,385 wells dug and 17,671 wells renovated. All this without World Bank assistance!

After the visit was over, it became clear to me that the Jal Savardhan Yojana should get rid of the false mantle of technocratic superiority and engineering knowledge and skills it wears, and allow tucs to find the best local solutions from its stakeholders. The Karnataka Irrigation Act of 1965 does not envisage any role for the panchayats. It is time the tugss and tucs are linked right in the planning stage with the concerned village panchayats so that they all work together. Their combined force would have a powerful effect on water conservation activities of the village. ngos that work as cfts must facilitate this leveraging work with the village panchayats right in the beginning.

Lessons
What are the lessons to be learnt after an year of jsy's operations? The major lesson is to leverage with the resources and the legal powers of the village panchayat s and link the tucs and the tugs with the village panchayat sub-commitee on water and sanitation. In the words of Lennart Nilsson, advisor of the danida water and sanitation project in Tamil Nadu, "India is fortunate to have a panchayat raj system which provides a sound and democratic basis for development at the local level. But its potential to provide amenities in rural areas is largely untapped." In a similar spirit, the jsy should therefore rope in the village panchayat s into the tank rehabilitation project.

Then are questions related to the sustainability of the tanks and their maintenance. To ensure this, all the waterbodies of the village, and handpumps, should be maintained by the village panchayat . They have to levy water charges, user charges, and all other statutory levies, recover costs and invest them back for the well being of the villagers. This is what makes good governance possible. How long would the ngos guide the tucs and the tugs. Why not involve the village panchayat s right from the beginning.

Finally, the irrigation bureaucracy should work under the leadership of the village panchayat s. Their role should be to render technical advice to the panchayat sub-committee on water and sanitation.The Amul experiment in India has shown that the so-called illiterate farmers are willing to accept technical advice only if it helps them, and not otherwise. Tanks are not just waterbodies but are living and vital village institutions where politics, economics, culture and caste are all mixed up. They are just not cold engineering structures to be used for water storage and distribution. The sooner we understand this, the better is for our bureaucracy.

Manu N Kulkarni is senior honorary fellow, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.