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The Hindu on : Water as a community asset

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Wednesday, April 19, 2000

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Water as a community asset

By Mahesh Vijapurkar

SINCE 1991, Hirve Bazaar, a village in Maharashtra's Ahmednagar district has been self-sufficient in foodgrains though it gets no more than 450 mm of rainfall annually. It also produces 400 to 450 tonnes of potatoes and onions a year and about three truckloads of vegetables and 1,500 litres of milk daily. The secret of its prosperity is the ability to harvest and use water judicially though there is no canal flowing in the region. One index of wealth coming from equity in water use: farm labour gets Rs. 150 a day.

The story does not end here. Hirve Bazaar's commitment to efficient water use is so strong that bananas and sugarcane, two water guzzlers, are allowed by the community to be grown only if the landholder opts for drip irrigation. So entrenched is the view that land and water's optimal use leads to prosperity that the entire village has decided that land, if sold by anyone at all, should not go to outsiders. Wealth and the means to it, the community there has decided, should remain with the locals. For, outsiders may not be true to the village's philosophy. Villages like these help wells recharge and do not mindlessly exploit what is available.

Even if outsiders are kept at bay, the village remains wired to the world. From just one set, in nine years, 95 per cent of the housholds have got TVs, as many as 118 two-wheelers churn up the dust in the village and eight tractors ply the farmlands and haul away the harvests. According to the key leader of Hirve Bazaar in this community enterprise, Mr. Popatrao Patil, prosperity brought in other good practices: family planning, spacing of children has led to schools slowly emptying out; there are fewer children there threatening closure of some school rooms.

There are many such examples - Adgaon Khurd in Aurangabad, Raleganshiddi, famous more for Anna Hazare than its water management; Ozar in Nashik. In Ozar, sugarcane was abandoned recognising water scarcity and farmers moved to floriculture and now, as Mr. Bharat Kavle from there points out, ``migrants who had gone for other livelihood elsewhere, have returned''. All this, it must be recognised, is the effort of the locals in tune with forward-looking NGOs who are seldom seen or heard about outside their own small domains. They are not high-flyers nor flush with funds.

On the other hand, there are a number of societies (around 200) set up by the officials of the Irrigation Department which are supposed to help farmers locally work out water-sharing formulae but they are apparently riddled by problems. It is another matter that a few successes may have drawn Mr. Chandrababu Naidu to replicate them in Andhra Pradesh, but by and large, they are more on paper than on the ground. At a recent conference on water in Pune, complaints were heard that officials chase targets but do not involve farmers.

Going by what Mr. Bharat Kavle says, and this is not denied by officials, the beneficiaries have no role in such canal-level official societies. ``Officials want to register them but leave out the people's participation,'' he laments. By themselves, farmers seem to be able to understand how to deal with land and water. Engineers and officials as an a intervening mechanism seem to sap them of that drive. Success stories are where the Government is absent.

Says Dr. Dwarkadas Lohiya who has worked on similar projects in Marathwada: ``the farmer understands and speaks to the land'' which officials cannot, in their rush to meet statistical deadlines which are more often, experience reveals, on paper alone. He should know; his efforts have seen about 6,000 families get a new lease of life with community wells. People there who did not know how to cook wheat into chappathies now have enough wheat to make it a staple. ``They are themselves the best social engineers. Leave them to do their work. Support them, do not interfere,'' is the philosophy he backs.

What strings these projects and their successes together is the fact that they focus on sustainable harvesting of groundwater, by appropriate treatment of land contours with bunds and sinking of community wells, which brings about a sea-change in the economy of the villages in drought-prone areas of Maharashtra. In areas such as Adgaon Khurd, where farmers once went to work under the Employment Guarantee Scheme (EGS), it is difficult now to find enough labour for the farms which have come to life under the water management programme. These boroughs recognise that water is a community asset.

Well water, NGOs working in this domain insist, should be treated as community water by law and the gains made in a few villages across Maharashtra would then get easily replicated. Possibly, farmers with excess water in relation to their land holding could share it for the common good of the community. But it is recognised that this idea of water as a common asset cannot be easily sold.

In Maharashtra, where the gross irrigated area in 1999-2000 was 33.7 lakh hectares and the net remained at 25.7 lakh hectares, the same as in the previous year, this concept has tremendous significance. Especially since of the 25.7 lakh hectares, 14.1 lakh hectares were fed by wells and not expensive canals systems with poor irrigation efficiency. But studies quoted by Government speak of the possibility of bringing 84 lakh hectares - 42 per cent of all cultivable lands - under irrigation using surface water.

If the examples of Hirve Bazaar and a few others are not replicated, it is because work at the micro-level is not adequately recognised at the macro-level by decision-makers and officials. Even as the farmers themselves strive to do something for the community, official neglect has seen an enormous quantum of harvested surface water in dams lost due to siltation. Officials say about 17 per cent of all dam capacities in Maharashtra have been lost to siltation, a slow but sure death for the expensive dams. And when water from these major surface sources reached the villages, it brought inequity.

The community has no say in deciding the command nuances of its lands and he who has most stands to gain most by indiscriminate use of the resources when others who are next-door neighbours, with no access to the same water, are worse off. Even when dams were built, it took years for the water to flow to the lands and the Government never ensured that when it laid down a command nuance and cropping pattern, it was enforced. Corruption has been one cause why the cropping pattern is distorted by greedy farmers and conniving officials and the farmers as a community have no say in what affects them all the most.

The example of villages which have taken to water harvesting should force a change in the mindset of those who manage larger banks of water. Mr. Vilas Salunkhe, a pioneer in promoting water as a community asset at the village level, speaks of treating an entire watershed as being a community asset where each and everyone should have a proper share. If he had been heard earlier, the story would have been different; villages like Hirve Bazaar would not have been mere dots on the irrigation landscape.

Not only do more of them have to emerge, but canal societies have to be forced to become truly autonomous bodies where farmers decide and busybody politicians and officials have little role to play. Says Mr. Salunkhe: ``even if these watershed efforts of farmers are not found everywhere, they are successful in their own right when it is realised that they are on their own. Canal societies, however, have unfortunately not been that successful.'' But of late, Mr. Sudhakarrao Naik, former Chief Minister, who now heads the panel monitoring these NGO-led effort says: ``all is not roses there. Corruption is rampant in such bodies as well.''

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