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Declining traditions of water management in India

“In spite of surplus water, and one of the world’s richest traditions of managing it, India’s water crisis has reached critical levels. This, according to Nitya Jacob, is because inherited knowledge regarding traditional methods of managing and maintaining water resources has been consistently ignored.”

Of course, the condition of our water resources – traditional as well as new – is not a national secret. A walk through town, near the banks of rivers that have been converted to sewers, around lakes and tanks encroached upon to build colonies or past the dried up wells now functioning as garbage bins is sufficient to reveal the state of affairs. It was not always like this – till a few decades ago India had a rich and vibrant community managed water system that catered to the material requirements of water for drinking and agriculture, and were centres of the community’s social and cultural lives.

India has a vast heritage of highly evolved and diverse water management systems. Each system was different from the other as each had been shaped by local topography, climate, vegetation and other factors. These systems were not merely technologies or techniques but had their own complex management structures rooted in the social organisations of the community. These were both, managed by and accountable to the local population.

From the coastal areas of Goa to the hills of Meghalaya, from Chambal and
Shekhawati in Rajasthan in the west to Uttarakhand in the North, to Bundelkhand in central India and Tamilnadu in the south, traditional water systems evolved in sync with the local geo-climatic conditions, and the intricate management institutions that developed simultaneously. But interference by the British and then our own rulers led to the slow but steady deterioration of these systems.

Among the root causes is the alienation of the systems from the local communities by taking away their control on them, at the same time, by promising that the government will take care of their water needs, relieve local communities from the sense of responsibility that was the key to keeping these systems running. The result is decay and degeneration.

For example, the eris of Tamilnadu – the cresecent shaped water tanks … built against the slope of the land … earthen walls, sometimes lined with stones, making up two-third the sides…one-third … open, facing the slope from where rainwater flows to fill it. The overflow of one eri fills the next and the next one’s overflow fills the next.” These eris have been recorded as early as 3rd century BC and their average age is 700 years! These eris, and tanks, ponds and dugouts have provided irrigation and drinking water for people and animals and have recharged groundwater in vast areas of Tamilnadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

The neerkattis are the water keepers who manage these eris. These neerkattis, appointed by the gram sabhas, are mostly from the so called lower castes, and once appointed, the job is hereditary. Since the so called lower castes have not owned  land, they are expected to be unbiased in their decisions regarding the management and distribution of water.

This is important as India’s traditional water systems – and the principles on which they have been organised – are among the elements that hold greatest promise to provide answers to modern India’s water problems, water needs and water crises.