By Sarkaritel August 31, 2016 11:18


Water Management


By Dr S Saraswathi

(Former Director, ICSSR, New Delhi)


The Government of Tamil Nadu is planning to revive the age-old practice of community participation (known in Tamil as Kudimaramath) in the management of irrigation and water storage structures to restore its original capacity. NABARD is said to be keen on this initiative and interested in providing funds also.

Notoriously a water-deficit State despite floods, the State government seems to be open to new ideas and also exploring possibilities of digging up old practices allowed to die by non-use. The concept of community management of water is known all over the world, and there is support for community water supply system in many countries. But its efficacy widely varies.

The National Water Framework Bill of 2016, asserting that water is a common heritage of the people of India, affirms that water, in its natural state, is a “common pool resource”. It refers to the Supreme Court’s application of the “public trust doctrine” to water to help government fulfil   the duty of ensuring water security for all people.

The Framework Bill, while providing the basic principles to ensure the “right to water for life”, provides for people-centred “water management” for both surface and ground water which will recognize, encourage, and empower local initiatives. It provides that “customary laws, which form part of traditional wisdom and practices on water management shall be given due recognition and promoted by appropriate government provided they are non-discriminatory”. Thus, Tamil Nadu government’s initiative to revive “kudimaramath” is in line with the provisions.

Indeed, many State governments in India have lost sympathy and support of the public with regard to management of water – a resource made scarce due to non-management. From storage to supply, this precious natural resource needs and deserves better management. Human failure is said to be a principal cause for drought and flood in many cases.

The old multi-lingual Madras Presidency adopted the Kudimaramath Act (The Madras Compulsory Labour Act) in 1858. Under this legislation, the Government took a series of measures to enforce community maintenance of tanks and the practice of compulsory labour.  However, the enforcement of the law depended on proving in court the prevalence of the custom of compulsory labour in the village concerned.

The Act related particularly to the maintenance of tanks by the combined efforts of experts in the work and volunteers. The law provides that where customary obligation was not discharged, necessary work should be carried out by Tahsildars and costs apportioned among landholders and recovered as land revenue. Records show that some important works have been accomplished under this system including construction of dams. The Act also faced failure in many places and was allowed to languish by non-use though it continued in the statute book.

In 1883, Tank Restoration Scheme was launched in the Madras Presidency to transfer tanks to villagers for management.  Thus, the Government had been clinging to an old dying custom as the last refuge whenever it needed. But supportive arrangements necessary to make it workable in the modern society undergoing rapid social changes were missing.

Tamil Nadu Panchayat Act of 1994 made another attempt to revive and re-kindle people’s memory by vesting with the panchayats and panchayat union councils the power, subject to prescribed restrictions, to execute kudimaramat  in respect of any irrigation source in the village and to levy fees for the purpose. This provision did not annul the Compulsory Labour Act.

To overcome problems of poor access, poor maintenance, and inadequate financial support from the government sources, community management of water is considered as the best strategy by many international organizations also. Experience in many African nations confirms that full involvement of users, who form the group of people with a common interest in the system, is essential for the success of this strategy.

There are of course skeptics who believe that this strategy cannot yield expected results in full unless the responsibility, authority, and control over the development of water supply and sanitation services are vested with the beneficiaries.  The community must take the ownership of the system; must have the legitimate right to take decisions about the system; and must have the power to implement the decisions.

International organizations that support community management want the entire system to be based on a sound footing.  Half-hearted arrangement will only lead to failure. Government-community cooperation is vital to the success of the arrangement in a country like India. No government can wash its hands after transferring the responsibility to the people. For, social and educational backwardness, and social prejudices may come in the way and have to be firmly dealt with in the interest of ensuring “water for life” for all.

Are Indian villages and villagers today equipped to undertake water supply responsibility?  The answer is “yes” and “no”. They can, provided they have official and expert support; they can, if they are allowed to function without undue interference; they can, if the feeling of community is strong enough to overcome social-economic and political differences.

Kin and caste groups should not be allowed to rear their ugly heads to revive legally banned inequalities and re-impose weakening prejudices. We cannot ignore the fact that water resource management is also an expression of power. Quantum of water available to a person is an indicator of one’s social and economic status.

The concept of community has come to play a greater role in mainstream development policy everywhere. The sentiment of “community” should evoke feelings of equality, brotherhood, democracy, and reciprocity. We witness in many States that in times of disaster, community feeling asserts itself, but not much in normal times. Community is not homogeneous, but is segmented by class, caste, and gender. Inadequate analysis of the nature and type of village community and its power relations may lead to misuse of community participation.

Last but not least, in the matter of water, there must be a general awakening that this natural resource is valuable and is not available in unlimited quantity or at all times or in equal measure in all places. Hence distribution and sharing are important features of water management – tasks that require people’s participation with full involvement with a sense of justice and fair play.

“Water commons” and “water democracy” are present day slogans raising call for “community” replacing the call for “privatization”. Advocates of “commons” are today seeking an alternative to both State and Market. Privatization cannot be the answer to serve the poor and the needy.

Community management is welcomed as the remedy for the present ills of unequal access, poor maintenance, and inadequate resources. However, it cannot thrive without the support of the public and private sectors. The voice of the “community” is necessary to achieve inclusiveness, transparency, accountability, and environmental protection.

It should also recognize women’s critical role in planning and management of maintenance.  Women’s empowerment must be both a means and an end of community management in this task. The ideal system will be public-private-community collaboration with clear demarcation of spheres of authority and responsibility. Community, for whom the system is made, has to come first and cannot be the last refuge when others falter.—INFA

(Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

By Sarkaritel August 31, 2016 11:18