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The kuhls of Kangra by J Mark Baker

Book>> the kuhls of kangra by J Mark Baker Permanent Black New Delhi, 2005

Published: Thursday 15 March 2007

Irrigation systems have long been a productive field of inquiry for social scientists. Social organisations that sustain such systems have been critical in understanding power, hegemony and hierarchy. Anthropologists have had a strong fascination for locally crafted and extremely durable irrigation methods.

Development theorists often see such systems as results of the 'inherent human tendency' to minimise cost--rational choice theory in economics jargon. Other scholars look at community-managed irrigation systems as products of local genius. The book under review is a departure from this trend. Its a study of the remarkably resilient kuhls in Himachal Pradesh's Kangra region.A densely interlocked network of irrigation systems, kuhls range in size from a few hectares to those that irrigate thousands of hectares. The institutional arrangements for managing them range from simple collective arrangements among agriculturists with little role specialisation to elaborate systems with sophisticated ways of measuring water.

J Mark Baker uses an inter-disciplinary approach. The kuhls compel such an approach. Baker explains "The kuhls... reflect and indeed help create community, economy, political authority and culture in Kangra. Only an interdisciplinary lens would reveal their full complexity and multi-dimensionality". So the author wears many hats that of historian, ethnographer, political scientist, economist and geographer.

He pays close attention to Kangra's unique physical terrain as a flood plain river valley, "unusually large for a mountainous region" (p 200) and dependence on snow melt during the crucial pre-monsoon sowing season. He also accounts for the heterogeneity within Kangra's ecology. This understanding is combined with a study of the evolution of Kangran culture.
Down to Earth Rich data Baker draws on a rich set of historical and contemporary data on the kuhl systems, including the first edition of the 19th century treatise Riwaj-i-Abpashi. He locates the irrigation systems within political and economic changes that occurred during pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial, independent India.

Some of the largest kuhls, sponsored by Katoch rulers as far back as 1690, and several smaller ones built by village communities constitute matter for Baker's study. By the beginning of colonial rule in Kangra in 1850, local communities were responsible for managing and repairing the irrigation system.

In the majority of them, the kohli (water master) mobilised communal work parties necessary for maintaining and repairing the system, supervised water distribution and resolved conflicts between farmers over water use. The kohli was also responsible for negotiating water sharing with other kohlis.

Over time, collective action has been in jeopardy due to increasing non-farm employment and frequent destruction of the kuhls by floods and earthquakes. It has become a threat not only to the management of irrigation systems but to farming as a whole. The penetration of the market and the increase in non-farm employment has upset the balance. It has become hard to mobilise labour to manage and maintain the systems.
Markets and the state The author illustrates varying degrees of solutions adopted by the communities in response to such stresses. Some kohlis have begun hiring migrant labour or lobbying for state grants for maintenance.But as households participate in the market economy, the authority of kohlis has diminished. In many respects, kuhls and their customs are part of old Kangra, says Baker. Most people would now prefer working at a government desk over slogging in knee-deep mud.

State intervention has had mixed results. While it has reduced the effectiveness of the networks by undermining local motivation, different entities within the government often play a supportive role for the irrigation systems.

There has been growing emphasis on local management of resources--in academia and among policy-makers. This book will help those trying to understand how local resources can be managed even under market stresses.

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