Book review: Water's many nuances

The Rule of Water -- Statecraft, Ecology and Collective Action in South India By David Mosse Published by Oxford University Press New Delhi 2003 Rs 675

By Arjun Mandaiker
Published: Saturday 15 March 2003

-- David Mosse's comprehensive work studies the cultural, ideological and social meaning of water in south India. The book's amalgam of oral history, field and archival work explores the intricate connection between social and political systems and water flows.
Think tanks South India's distinctive water tanks receive a whole chapter of attention. Mosse thoroughly analyses these storage arrangements from the viewpoint of technology as well as 'landscape', concluding that social and political motivations shaped the physical dimensions of these structures.

The construction of tanks, dams and canals fuelled the growth of agriculture in south India, starting about a thousand years ago. In old Ramnathapuram (Ramnad) district, tanks have been around for over 800 years and have influenced settlement patterns, says the author. Though anicut (dam)-fed canals soon replaced them in places where such constructions could be made, catchment tanks continue to support the marginal rural areas of the region even today.

The book produces a stirring account of the interplay between water and politics over the centuries. In south India, control over water guaranteed great power. Indigenous histories pieced together from inscriptions and oral narratives tell fascinating tales about how people, primarily local elites, jostled to achieve this power.

Local chiefs controlled water rights and bought themselves personal wealth by seizing a share of the harvest. The chiefs orchestrated the construction and operation of the interlinked tank systems. The right to draw water from these shared channels was a privilege typically arbitrated by local kings to warriors, temples, Brahman communities and village headmen among other favoured patrons of the royalty.

In Ramnad and Sivaganga at the end of the 18th century, tank digging was linked to the hereditary title of karana ampalar (village headman) and provided access to rent-free lands besides a share of the harvest.

While the chiefs ruled the roost by controlling water channels, the peasants' plight in these tank-irrigated southern plains was no different from the rest of the country. In rural India livelihoods largely depend on nature's moods and are haunted by the periodic spectre of drought, when it's not floods. Apart from such natural causes, "ecological vulnerability has been historically produced by changing social and political institutions of resource control," Mosse says. The book's research lists several such debilitating evolutions: the waning of decentralised irrigation; changed property ownership under the colonial administration; the diversion of water resources from tail-end river basins by the development of upstream works and the effects of migration, rising population and intensified crop cultivation.

With respect to southern Tamil country, the author argues that the fate of tank irrigation has depended on the shifting political systems of the warrior state, the Zamindaris during colonialism and the post-colonial bureacucracy. The author says that each regime perpetuated uncertainty in its own way.
Misplaced green angst Mosse feels that today's movements to resurrect traditional water harvesting systems must begin with a "recovery of history." He finds the popular water harvesting rhetoric of the day narrow and simplistic, and berates the spouters for failing to understand the weaknesses of ancient water storage systems, and for interpreting their traditional uncertainties as the recent failure of the state. Mosse favours replacing their sob stories of tradition lost with detailed researches of political histories and social practices that have influenced resource control over the centuries.

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