Making every drop count

water wisdom
Last Updated 25 February 2013, 15:14 IST

Bhajappa, 90 years old, hunched, leaning against a crudely-fashioned walking stick, with sharp eyesight but poor hearing, says, “I am a neeruganti. For seventy years, I oversaw the maintenance of the community tank in my village.”

From Keelaholali, a remote village in Mulbagal taluk in Kolar district, Bhajappa is one among the numerous neerugantis who, for generations, have ensured that every drop of water available in tanks is effectively used. A neeruganti or a water manager controls, manages and regulates water in the community tank for irrigation throughout the year, for which he was in turn paid in grains, in the past.

Traditionally, a neeruganti, who was always from the Scheduled Caste, was one of the village-level officers, the others being a patel (village head), a toti (messenger), a talavari (security officer), an archaka (priest), a barber and a washerman.

The system ensures social integration, and needs to be preserved, observes MVN Rao of Grama Vikas, an NGO engaged in integrated rural development activities in Kolar. Though the main role of a neeruganti is to maintain and ensure equitable distribution of tank water, Madhu of O’Mittur Grama Panchayat, in his late 30s, highlights how a water manager has many more duties to perform. “I start my day at 6 am. I walk around the command area of the tank till 11 am and check if the fields need water. Once that is determined, I let water from the tank, accordingly. Post lunch, I continue to survey the fields, clear obstacles, if any, to allow free flow of water and ensure water is not wasted,” he adds.

“Apart from ensuring uniform supply of water to fields in the command area, I have to decide on the type of crops to be grown, based on water availability and also schedule a date to repair the tank canal. Informing farmers about dates and timings of water flow, pest control and maintenance of tank outlets are all my responsibilities,” he notes.

On the demanding nature of the job, Madhu says, “Being a neeruganti means being away from the family for long stretches of time. I have been away from the family for more than six months now. Added to longer hours at work, a neeruganti’s role comes to the fore during the rainy season. Whenever there is a heavy downpour and the tank is full, I have to dive deep and close the sluice gates, oblivious to crabs and snakes. Else, the fields will be flooded and standing crops will be destroyed. No matter where you are, when it rains, I have to be present at the tank.”

When asked if he would like his son to be a water manager, Madhu doesn’t bat an eyelid and says, “My forefathers were neerugantis and I am one too. I shall pass on the knowledge of tank management to my son.” In spite of the dangers replete in the job of a neeruganti, the knowledge of maintaining tanks has been passed on successfully from one generation to another, till now. Neerugantis have ensured the survival of tanks at a time when there’s hardly any recognition and agriculture itself is taking a backseat.

Drawing from experience

Melpillappa of Honnashettahalli can cast a glance at Dodda Kere from a distance and ascertain the water level in the tank. He does this without the aid of any scientific tool or mathematical calculations. He says, “The crux of a neeruganti’s job lies in experience and the art of approximation.”

He takes me on a long walk around Dodda Kere and points towards fields in the command area of the tank and says, “If water in the tank is efficiently managed, two crops can be assured this year.”

“The ability to exercise discretion is an important trait for a neeruganti. It is a job full of challenges. More so, when one has to decide on how to allocate less water to fields in a vast command area.”

At times like this, a neeruganti calls a meeting of farmers and decides on the kind and extent of crop to be grown in the fields. Just because a farmer has large tracts of land, he is not allowed to grow crops in the entire stretch. It is the neeruganti who decides on the kind and extent of crops to be grown, based on availability of water, explains Melpillappa.

In the Kolar region alone, there are nearly 2,000 tanks and 8,000 neeruganti families who are dependent on it. At a time when tanks are on the verge of extinction, is traditional water management of community tanks a dying practice?

Muniveerappa of Mallappanahalli, who is 84 years old and partially blind in one eye, says, “As a kid, I used to trail my father every morning and follow him as he surveyed the tank, gauged its water storage capacity, dug tank outlets and let water  into fields. I started to absorb his techniques. At 16, I began to manage the village tank on my own, with little assistance from my father. It is now my grandchildren’s turn to carry the work forward,” says Muniveerappa.

Position threatened

Late S T Somashekara Reddy, a research fellow at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, in his paper on ‘Neerugantis,’ mentions how even as the system of interdependence among various communities in the village ensured their mutual sustenance, the Uniform Irrigation Policy of 1962 implemented across the State dealt a blow to the neerugantis who had till then occupied a unique position in the village set-up.

Under the policy, the State government took over tanks as government property. While neerugantis attached to huge tanks were absorbed into government service as mettis, those associated with small tanks were left in the lurch.

Changes in the village administration coupled with drastic shift in cropping pattern from foodgrain cultivation to cash crops, the food security of neerugantis was destroyed. As there was more thrust on growing arecanut and coconut, remuneration in the form of foodgrains could not be fixed for neerugantis. Loss of status in the village set-up and inability to etch a place for themselves in the new political order, the invaluable wisdom of neerugantis who had been managing tanks for centuries was relegated to the background.

However, Muniveerappa is unfazed. Displaying a certificate and memento awarded by the University of Agriculture Sciences (Bangalore), in recognition of his services, he says, “We cannot give up being neerugantis. It is a tradition which has been passed on to us from our forefathers and we shall not let it die.”

Continuing the strain of Muniveerappa’s thoughts, Madhu says, “If we stop managing tanks, who else will? Moreover, managing tanks is an art and it cannot be brought to an abrupt end.”

Narayanappa of Mallappanahalli is nostalgic when he says, “Earlier, farmers who owned fields in the command area gave us breakfast and lunch. During harvest, every farmer paid us a certain share of foodgrains, be it paddy or ragi, per gunta. Even the grains left out on the ground after threshing were given to us. Our families’ food needs were taken care of.

“While we were at the tank performing our duties, we knew our family was fed. So, we did not worry. The old times were better. Our decisions were unquestioned and there was an implicit trust in us. The community respected and appreciated our work,” he says. “I can recount several instances wherein farmers who violated our decision and let water from the tank on the sly had to cough up penalty. Now things have changed for the worse. Though the amount of work remains the same, as in the past, there have been no marked changes in our lives,” rues Narayanappa.

(Published 25 February 2013, 15:14 IST)

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