Participatory Irrigation Management (PIM) may seem to be a new buzz word in the field of irrigation in India today but the community based system of managing water resources in villages existed centuries ago. It was systematically dismantled during the British Raj that controlled and regulated water use right upto the last point so as to collect revenue from the irrigation. Unfortunately, the Independent India too blindly adopted the same British system.

“No organizational or systemic changes in irrigation administration were included and the social objectives of the water management and the social aspirations have not been properly taken care of by the current Acts” observes renowned water sector expert Dr.Madhav Chitale. Thus, irrigation policies and interventions were directed towards making water available for agriculture as per geographical patterns and chronological schedules with no concern as to which communities or social groups need access to water.

However, the heavily invested major irrigation system’s utter failure to serve benefits right up to the tail-end of the canals in an equitable manner seems to have prompted state governments to encourage going back to the age-old system of community managed participatory irrigation systems. The last two decades saw various efforts in this direction and the time is ripe to take stock of the situation in the field of PIM.

Old systems still alive

Few evidences of centuries old community managed irrigation systems still exist like autonomous bodies of irrigators called ‘Phads’ across the rivers like Panzra, Kelzar, and Haranbari in Dhule and Nashik Districts of Maharashtra which not only efficiently manage their irrigation system but also settle disputes, penalize defaulters, set rules of water distribution and crop rotation etc. This centuries old tradition of unity among the water users also successfully overcame the risk of break-up from ‘party politics’. In south India too, examples of autonomous management of tanks for the benefit of entire village can be found even now.

The control of WUAs and their federations over the irrigation system does not mean doing away with irrigation departments but complimenting each other.
Some recent examples of such cohesive groups of irrigators are found at the Katepurna irrigation project in the Akola district of Maharashtra – which was declared as a “sick” project for long but turned out to be a success story attracting international appreciation and an international prize for outstanding performance from the International Commission on Irrigation and Drainage. The awardee was Katepurna project’s executive engineer Sanjay Belsare who initiated and catalyzed the process of PIM here. The PIM system at Ozarkhed in Nashik district of Maharashtra proved that except the storage dam, the entire irrigation system can be taken over by a federation of such irrigators groups organized in the canal service area. However, so far there are just few such examples of Water Users Federation taking over the entire irrigation system except the dam.

Maharashtra to adopt PIM laws

Encouraged by such successes, the Government of Maharashtra recently adopted a policy to allocate irrigation water not to individual applicants for water but only to irrigators’ formalized groups – registered as cooperative societies and so far some 2500 such societies have been formed in Maharashtra. Only about 600 are fully functional while the state needs about 10000 such groups ultimately. Thus, increasing the participation of users has become an important issue in Maharashtra’s new water policy agenda.

Compelled by scarcity of water despite huge investments in major irrigation projects, the state government is encouraging involvement of water users in taking over the distributaries serving the groups. It is assumed that if people pay for the water, irrigation efficiency would improve thereby decreasing wastage of water. The saved water could then be diverted for other uses. The Government of Maharashtra is ready with a draft PIM act awaiting legislative approval.

PIM in other states

Since the eighties, the concept of PIM spread to all states in India with Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Orissa enacting legislation making PIM a statutory requirement to access irrigation water while Maharashtra is awaiting the Act as mentioned above. Thus, PIM seems to have two approaches – the legislative and the motivational. Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh first enacted legislation and went in for fast and extensive introduction of PIM i.e. going in for a top down approach. As against this, Maharashtra and Gujarat adopted the motivational strategy i.e. a bottom-up approach.

While the legislative strategy achieved widespread coverage of PIM but the performance has been poor with lot of problems. “The reforms have never been able to make a dent in the anarchy of the system of water distribution that was prevalent in the pre-reform era” observes Jasween Jairath in a study on PIM in Andhra Pradesh. True, the irrigation water has been subjected to heavy and unjust political interventions and vested interests all over India and is a major challenge to PIM initiatives and its ultimate success.

The motivational strategy, on the other hand, in Maharashtra and Gujarat may not have achieved quick spread all over the state but the inspired water users groups showed spectacular success like at Mula Minor 7, Katepurna, and Ozar in Maharashtra and some societies formed by Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) in Gujarat. Considering shortcomings of both the strategies that complement each other, the right strategy would be to take into account the experience and learning of motivational strategy and integrate that into the legislative measures, the route Maharashtra has now taken, observes the Society for Promoting Participative Ecosystem Management (SOPPECOM) in its recent study on PIM.

United, WUA members stand

However, the formation of water users’ association by itself does not solve farmer’s problems. It needs a consistent effort to first motivate the communities to unite and to operate their systems consistently after they register the society under the cooperative society’s act. Often the communities have different groups with vested interests and simply forming their association does not end the internal conflicts as it happened in Andhra Pradesh where the groups formed under the statutory requirement of the law broke down under the anarchy of big land holders and politicians so much so that these water users’ associations (WUAs) were taken over by the state government.

On the other hand, the Ozharkhed in Nashik district of Maharashtra mentioned above achieved commendable success with all the WUAs along various distributaries of the Waghad irrigation scheme joining together in true democratic spirit.

Irrigation officials’ outlook

Another issue faced by the WUAs is that the government functionaries from the irrigation department more often develop negative attitude. ‘Why should we look into canal management etc, now that the WUAs are managing their systems?’ is the question raised by the irrigation staff. Besides there is a fear of redundancy lurking among them and attitudinally the government officials resist reforms that would threaten their importance. Irrigation officials may welcome minor level WUA control but oppose any transfer of real power. So PIM efforts and legislation need to provide for progressive transfer of the system at the higher levels to the federation of WUAs.

There is also apprehension about semi-literate simpleton farmers managing highly technical issues of canal management etc. SOPPECOM suggests that the WUA level operation, maintenance and management can be a preparatory ground and a few among them can certainly get competent to handle technical matters at the higher levels. In fact, right now WUAs are not involved in the planning process but the local practical knowledge in conjunction with the official technical know how would bring forth the right solutions. Since the PIM is still much at the exploratory stage, various options are possible like the WUAs learn the essential principles of various aspects of irrigation while requisite calculations are done by the technical people from the department whom federation of WUAs may consult or employ.

In other words, the control of WUAs and their federations over the irrigation system does not mean doing away with the irrigation department but complimenting each other. Other than highly technical dam management which remains with the government, water users apex body can take over system from the main canal onwards and further relegate suitable powers at the distributaries and minor level water users’ bodies.

Political Interventions?

Any cooperative movement has inherent element of politicization. Such possibilities are also being highly debated in the field of PIMs. While some rule out the adverse impact of political interference because of the vigilance and democratic structure of WUAs, some observers feel that WUAs are still under formative stage and no one is much concerned about politics entering into it. But futuristically it can not be totally ruled out and it would be quite exciting to observe how political process develops in PIM, says Ganesh Pangare, who is working on PIM and watershed development.

Landless & Women

The draft PIM legislation in Maharashtra does not have space for the landless and women. Only landholders are registered as WUA members and hence women who more often do not hold title to the land as also landless persons have no right over the water. SOPPECOM has suggested changes in the draft PIM Act to include these entities through three points. The first relates to membership of the WUA for women and landless and their representation in the decision making process, the second relates to entitlements over water for these groups, and the third relates to a future review process.