In the midst of a drought and a looming water crisis, the Tamil Nadu government has set the stage to rejuvenate defunct small water bodies by reviving the age-old practice of ‘Kudimaramath’. Having witnessed the deleterious effects of the decay of innumerable small water bodies over the years, this timely initiative is better late than never.

At an estimated cost of ₹100 crore, ‘Kudimaramath’ envisages the rejuvenation of 1,519 out of 16,098 Public Works Department (PWD) tanks in 30 districts. Farmers across the State have welcomed the move on ‘Kudimaramath’ work of deepening of tanks, strengthening bunds, desilting supply channels and repairing sluices; they hope such an initiative will help store more water in tanks and ponds and will ensure adequate water supply even during drought.

However, farmers in the delta region are sceptical and wonder whether the exercise would deliver the desired results. The delta farmers allege that they were neither consulted on the works to be undertaken nor were they discussed at the gram sabhas. Farmers are also unhappy with the decision of the State government of taking up the repair works of PWD tanks and not considering those owned by panchayat unions.

Amidst such mixed responses from farmers, certain questions remain unanswered. Is the allocation of ₹100 crore enough to bring back small water bodies from the days of decay? Given the fact that during the past two decades several attempts have been made towards rejuvenating tanks, is this scheme worth the hype?

Rise and fall of Kudimaramath

Studies have shown that in ancient India water was managed through a system of patronage and community control through village councils in most parts of the country. This has been in vogue as a tradition at least in the southern part of the country for over centuries.

Historians have recorded that in Tamil Nadu, during the rule of Chola King Karikalan, certain parts of the Grand Anicut canal system were maintained by the government and were known as ‘sarkari’ and the lower parts maintained by farmers which were known as ‘Kudimaramath’ (people’s maintenance by donated labour).

Under the principle of ‘Kudimaramath’ the users were expected to contribute labour for the upkeep and repair of irrigation facilities from time to time. However, the institution of ‘Kudimaramath’ witnessed a gradual decay with the advent of the British rule as the management of tanks went from the knowledgeable neerkatti (or rural water managers) and a concerned community to a centralised channel namely PWD.

Post-Independence too, successive governments failed in their attempts to revive the ‘Kudimaramath’ works as they kept asserting their own powers and villagers’ obligations but not their rights.

Tanks and Tamil Nadu

Tanks have existed in India from time immemorial and have been an important source of irrigation especially in southern India. Tanks are less capital-intensive, capture the run-off resulting from the unpredictable monsoon rains, conserve water for multifarious uses like irrigated agriculture, drinking water for cattle and domestic uses and augment groundwater resources through sub-surface recharge.

However, over the years, tanks have been shrinking in size and number. Rapid urbanisation over the years has converted these community resources into dumping grounds in many places. Most of them have also been encroached, especially by municipalities and panchayats, as underlined in 16th report of the Standing Committee on Water Resources (2012-13) on “Repair, Renovation and Restoration of Water Bodies” published by the Union Ministry of Water Resources.

This report has also highlighted that out of 5.56 lakh tanks in the country, only 4.71 lakh tanks are in use. This implies a loss of about one million hectares of irrigation potential. Tanks irrigated more than 50 per cent of the agriculture lands in many States in India until 1950s.

However, the area irrigated by tanks fell drastically from 4.63 million hectares in 1960-61 to 1.98 million hectares in 2013-14. The scenario in Tamil Nadu is equally depressing. The state is home to about 41,127 tanks.

However, with the decline in the community maintenance of small water bodies, a large number of these tanks are silted up and supply and distribution channels are chocked. With the financial assistance of the European Economic Community (EEC), Nabard, Ford Foundation and World Bank, tank rehabilitation works have been carried out at different time points in the state.

But, unfortunately, the area under tank irrigation in the state has declined significantly from about 9.36 lakh hectares in 1960-61 to less than 5 lakh hectares in 2013-14. So where lies the problem?

Key to restore tanks

Climate experts have predicted that there will be fewer rainy days but in those days it would rain more, increasing the chances of flooding. Therefore, it is imperative to develop the capacity to store more water.

Some estimate suggests that the water storage capacity of about 40,000 tanks and other small water bodies is about 17 lakh million cubic feet, which is more than the storage level of all dams in the state.

Therefore, the cost-effective method of repairing, renovating and restoring the age-old tanks and other small water bodies should be given top priority.

The herculean task of infusing life to these ancient water storage structures can yield fruitful results only when the responsibility, authority and control over the development of water bodies are vested with the beneficiaries or the panchayats.

Most initiatives taken to renovate the tanks without the participation of farmers have miserably failed so far. When the responsibility of renovating tanks is given to panchayats, the accountability will be better as well.

Narayanamoorthy is Professor and Head, Department of Economics and Rural Development, Alagappa University. Alli is Senior Assistant Professor, Department of Economics, Vellore Institute of Technology