Vasumathi was telling us about traditional water management systems that have existed for centuries in agrarian India. She was talking mainly about south India, and the way water management was institutionalised. This is especially important as the vast majority of cropped area is dependent on rains for irrigation.
Since there is only one rainy season, lasting for about two months, a network of irrigation tanks is maintained by the farming communities. These tanks have a two-fold purpose: one is to store rainwater for irrigation till the next rains, and the other is to act as groundwater recharging stations. The tanks are located in such a way that at a higer elevation is a large mother tank, the water from which flows to one or more baby tanks located at a lower elevation. It is in the course of this flow that the water can be diverted and used for irrigation.
Traditionally, each village had three major civic officials:
The Thalayari was a sort of policeman, seeing to it that the edicts of the village council or panchayat were carried out. He also saw to the maintenance of law and order in the village. To an extent, conflict resolution to maintain the peace too was within his purview.
The Maniakarar was the revenue official. It was his responsibility to see that everyone paid their taxes and dues to the village council or panchayat. Within a larger framework, the Maniakarar was taxed with the duty of collecting revenues to be passed on to the king, emperor, or whichever feudatory lord the village paid tributes to. Within the village, the Maniakarar was often called upon to perform certain religious rituals too.
The other official in a village was a Kaavaai Maniam. This was the post of a water manager – very important, as this was the only post that had to do with the sharing of available resources. The duties of the Kaavaai Maniam were clearly defined. His main responsibility was to see that the farthest fields (from the irrigation tank, or the mother tank) were irrigated the first. Once the farthest field had enough water, the next field would be irrigated, and so on till the one nearest the tank was irrigated. The reason for doing this is that nearer the tank, the water table is much higher, and ground water is readily available. So, in the case of there not being enough water in the tank for the nearer fields, ground water could be used for irrigation. This was achieved by using a pair of bullocks to pulling a large leather bag of water from a wide well. This water could be channelled into the fields, much the same as water from the irrigation tank.
While the duties of the Thalayari and Maniakarar have been passed on to the police and the revenue officials within the modern framework, it is interesting to note that the role of Kaavaai Maniam has been largely left unfilled. Vasumathi told us that in many villages she visited in Tamilnadu and Andhra Pradesh, no one had heard of the role of the Kaavaai Maniam. When we were talking about this to Murugan, he said that in the area surrounding Vedanthangal, the post of Kaavaai Maniam was called Kambukatti, and was still functional. Like all traditional posts, that of Kambukatti is also hereditary, and passes from father to son among five families. The five families take annual turns so that each family has a Kambukatti for a year, once every five years.
Having the kambukatti from the local populace has a lot of benefits, least of which is an inherent understanding of how local affairs work. Also, since he too has fields to be irrigated, he has a stake in keeping the system well maintained.
Sheetal, who has done a bit of work on water conflicts in India, tells me that in many places, control of irrigation has been taken over by government-appointed officers. These people are not from the local community, have no understanding of or respect for local circumstances, and most important of all, have no stake in the maintenance and functioning of the irrigation system, leading to a breakdown of the traditional water-sharing methods.