Villagers break caste barrier for water

CHENNAI: The need for water is a great leveller. So proved the residents of 12 villages in the state, who overcame caste barriers to improve irrigation tanks. Under a study on ‘Participatory management of irrigation tanks’ undertaken by Anna University and Ford Foundation, the villagers planned and executed rejuvenation measures, brushing aside all divisions.

The report on ‘Alternative Approaches to Tank Rehabilitation and Management - an experiment’ based on the Ford Foundation’s Rs 1.5-crore study undertaken by Centre for Water Resources, Anna University was released by Anna University vice-chancellor A Kalanidhi on Tuesday. And witnessing the release were the ‘grateful’ representatives of all the villages.

‘‘We are greatly indebted to Anna University and Ford Foundation for making our lives better,’’ says S K Munivel, village Panchayat president of Vengal in Thiruvallur district.

Vengal, one of the chosen villages, was allotted Rs 35 lakh for improving its irrigation tank. The Centre for Water Resources had identified 13 villages for its participatory irrigation programme – the key difference from the normal bureaucratic scheme being the involvement of villagers right from stage of planning to implementation.

The project was taken up in two phases. In the first phase, four villages were identified in 1988. The second stage of the project started in 1993, adding another nine. But due to unforeseen circumstances, the programme could not be implemented in one village, leaving the final tally at 12.

Students and lecturers of the Centre for Water Resources then undertook the onerous task of going to the villages, and enthusing them to participate in the programme. The primary goal was coax them to form ‘village welfare associations’, that would take up the work of implementing repair and maintenance of irrigation tanks.

‘‘It was a difficult proposition; we succeeded in the task nevertheless. Most of the villagers were indifferent and the tanks were ill-maintained. But after these villages reaped the benefits, neighbours too have evinced keen interest,’’ says the director of Centre for Water Resources, M Karmegam.

Even while repairing the irrigation tanks by conventional, time-proven methods like strengthening bunds and placing sluices, the surveyors enlightened the villagers on viable economic models to sustain the tanks’ maintenance.

Villagers of Kedar, 15 kms off Villupuram town, have not stopped with just rejuvenating their tanks using the Rs 27 lakh allotted to them. They have gone a step further and leased out the fishing rights of the tanks to keep a good money reserve. ‘‘Today, we have over Rs 2 lakh in a fixed deposit account of the villagers’ association. This will help us maintain the tank in times to come,’’ says R Devendran, panchayat union president of Kedar.

An even bigger success for Kedar villagers is the shattering of the caste barrier. ‘‘There were no less than 13 castes in the village. The flare-up between Vanniyars and Dalits was at its peak when the project was started. It is amazing how the differences were resolved,’’ says one of the representatives from the village.

One of the important decisions taken while constituting the villager’s association helped create amity between the people. All the castes were given representation. ‘‘Even though a particular caste had a lesser strength, a representative was chosen. This made things easier as all the villagers agreed unanimously to the decisions taken,’’ says Devendran.

One of the tougher decisions taken well by the villagers was the decision to streamline the opening of sluice gates. ‘‘If my field gets water today, I am willing to wait for 4 days for my next turn,’’ a villager accompanying Devendran says.

So involved were the villagers in their ‘own’ project that some of them even donated land for building a road along the distributory channel of the village.

Those offering felicitations for the completion of the project included PWD Water Resources Organisation engineer-in-chief P V Sahadevan, Centre for Environmental Studies director S Thayumanavan and assistant professor R Mohandoss.

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Referred by: Mukundan CM
Published on: May 31, 2001
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