Indian farmers use irrigation techniques to subvert power relations
The design of irrigation reservoirs in India is largely shaped by local
power relations. However, technological designs are contested, challenged
and changed, which makes them a potential tool for democratisation. PhD
graduate Esha Shah found examples of poor farmers who managed to influence
the design of reservoirs, thereby securing more water for their fields.
In the southern state of Karnataka in India, fields have been irrigated for
thousands of years using water that is collected behind small dams. The
reservoirs were given the name ‘tank’ by the British colonisers, and the
name is still used. Esha Shah’s thesis discusses how power relations within
a specific agrarian, historical and social context shape tank technology,
which in turn institutionalises a discriminatory method of water
distribution. Usually the farmers closest to the dam are the richer farmers
of a high caste, and those at the tail-end of the system are the poorest
and of a lower caste. The rich farmers generally determine who much water
they use for themselves, and therefore how much is left for the poorer
downhill neighbours. They use various strategies, including removing canals
that help water rotation. Generally speaking, only after the upper fields
have been irrigated do the lower fields receive any water.
According to Shah, the power of the head-end farmers is frequently
contested, and sometimes this leads to other patterns of use of the tank
irrigation system. In one case, tail-end farmers managed to reverse the
rule that allows head-end farmers to make use of the water first. They made
a new rule apply, based on an unusual interpretation of how earthen canals
function, giving tail-end farmers priority. Water was no longer given
separately to high and lower fields, but at the same time. Water was
discharged at full capacity to the lower fields first. Because the dams of
the canals are made of earth, there is a lot of seepage, in sufficient
amounts to irrigate the fields of the head-end farmers. Shah describes this
as a redefinition of how a canal functions which has radically changed the
internal power dynamics among the users.
However, this is a single example, and most of the time it is the more
powerful head-end farmers who win the conflict over water. Shah’s study
shows though that unequal distribution of water among local users should be
taken seriously by policy makers. As elsewhere in the world, the Indian
government is trying to delegate responsibility for the management of tank
irrigation to local Water Users’ Associations. This policy is based on a
premise that local communities are better managers of natural resources.
Shah points out however that if power relations are not fully understood
and dealt with this is unlikely to be the case, and the powerful will
maintain and institutionalise the unequal distribution of water.