It is well known that more than one lakh villages of Indian do not have even drinking water sources. The National Technology Mission on Water is to spend Rs. 2000crores in providing drinking water to nearly one lakh villages. The major source of water is to be ground water. However, there seems to be no clear idea as to how all Otis poundwater is to be continuously extracted. There is no understanding of how provision is to be made for the recharge of all groundwater.

It is not clear why the Technology Mission has not considered surface water as a viable and relevant source for the provision of drinking water. As compared to groundwater, surface water is a renewable resource. And surface water storage reservoirs play a very important role in the recharge of groundwater. Hence even if groundwater is to be used on a sustainable basis, the surface water storage reservoirs became very crucial.

It is in this context that traditional storage reservoirs or Erys become very relevant. Traditionally Erys have played a very important role in irrigation and in the local ecosystem in areas with relatively low-rainfall, such as most parts of Kamataka, Andhra and Tamil Nadu. Even today about 1/3 of the irrigation needs of these areas are met by Erys (See Tables -2, 4 and 5).

The following article attempts to bring out the current relevance of the Ery systems of South India. Although the importance of Erys in irrigation in South India is generally panted, the notion that this technology is somehow "backward", "primitive" and is eventually to be got rid of in our quest for advancement, is quite prevalent amongst the intelligentsia of our country. Modem agriculture after the introduction of "Green Revolution' has become heavily dependent on large quantities of water for irrigation in addition to large doses of fertilizers and pesticides. However, this strategy seems to have backfired in paddy production.

Paddy is a highly location-specific crop, which is the reason why there were perhaps a couple of lakh paddy varieties all over India. Data from different parts of Tamil Nadu for the late 18th and early 19th centuries reveal that under Erys the productivity of paddy was considerably high and in fact higher than the yields in the 1960's. It is important to understand how this was possible and not merely dismiss Erys just because they have been around for more than a thousand years.

The first section of the article attempts to explain the technology of Erys, how Ery systems work and their role in the ecosystem. The second section goes into the history of these Ery systems and the scientific knowledge which has gone into their design. The third section deals with the arrangements for management of Erys in the pre-British South Indian society. The next section deals with the rapid decay of these massive systems under title British rule. The fifth section deals with the attempt of the British state to shift the burden of maintenance of Erys on to the village communities without providing them the necessary resources for doing so. This 'myth' of Kudi Maramath has been taken up by succeeding generations of officials of the Indian state so that it has become today a by-word in academic and official circles, used in order to blame the village communities for not undertaking the maintenance of Erys.

The sixth season describes how community management of Erys takes place today. This section is based txt field data from several parts of Tamil Nadu. The situation is that, today, most village communities manage their own Erys through informal organizations of all cultivators. Resources are raised voluntarily from within the community. The village community is of course not in a position to take up major repairs to the Ery which involve large expenditures and often the use of heavy machinery. However, these informal irrigation organizations receive no recognition or support from the state. For all practical purposes they remain as underground organizations. Any book at the indigenous management of Ery should serve to dispel (he pervasive myth of Kudi Mammoth and help in seeing how functional the village community is to this day.

Lastly, there is a brief description and evaluation of the 'Modernization of Tank Irrigation" scheme undertaken by the Tamil Nadu Government. This scheme which focuses on the "efficient" use of irrigation water from Erys and "equity" in the distribution of water has turned out to be a failure and has so far been treated as an irritant by the farmers. The evidence for this has been gathered from a couple of villages in the Chengalpattu District of Tamil Nadu.

Not only are Erys marvelous examples of indigenous engineering skills and ingenuity, they also illustrate an understanding of nature and an ecologically sound intervention in nature. An understanding of this technology and its relevance for today will go a long way in providing ecologically sustainable alternatives to the current mode of modernization and development in agriculture, modeled after the West.


Tank" is actually a misnomer for the artificial reservoir known as Ery in Tamil.

Tank normally refers to a dug-out reservoir which has steps on all sides reaching down to the water. The best examples of such tanks are the temple tanks (Kulam) of South India. An Ery, on the other hand, is a reservoir of water contained behind earthen bunds or embankments. Here the bund surrounds the water on three sides. The fourth side is open to the catchment from which water flows down to collect in the Ery. Normally the middle of the bund is the deepest portion of the Ery and the depth decreases as we go away from the middle of the bund to the sides or flanks of the bund.

One of the main functions of an Ery being irrigation of fields for cultivation, each Ery is designed to irrigate a certain extent of agricultural land known as the ayacut of the Ery. The water reaches the fields by gravity flow, across (below) the bund through openings or valves called sluices (modify in Tamil). Normally, there are fairly elaborate arrangements for opening and closing the sluice which can be operated from the top of the bund. Once the sluice is opened, water flows down channels and is distributed all over the ayacut. An Ery has, depending on its size, a number of sluices. Sluices are located normally at different levels so as to be able to supply water to fields at different elevations.

Another important feature of an Ery is the arrangement for overflow of water, for which one or more overflow weirs (kalangals) are provided, normally on one of the flanks of the bund. It is important that this weir is fairly precisely placed and designed to allow overflow of excess water beyond a level which is the maximum level of water the bund may safely hold without breaching. Accumulation of water beyond maximum level will result in the water overflowing the bund and eroding and breaching it hence the overflow arrangements are very important from the point of view of safety.

Although isolated Erys which are fed by the run off waters from their own catchment do exist, k is more common to rind even today, Erys as part of an inter-connected chain of Erys, wherein the surplus waters of one flow down to the next Ery down the line and so on Erys which are fed by channels diverted from rivers are known as "System Erys".

Ery irrigation accounts for about 4 million hectares in India. (See Table - 1). This is perhaps the total area irrigated by officially recognized "irrigation tanks". Hence, other estimates - which also take into account Erys in areas such as Bihar and Rajasthan which do not come into official estimates - suggest that the area under Ery irrigation may be 5 million hectares or even more. On the whole, nearly 2lakh Erys, mostly in parts of India which receive annual rainfalls of 1,000 mm or less, provide irrigation to these 5 million hectares.1


In India agriculture depends upon and closely follows the monsoons (South-West and North-East) which are regular occurrences. In normal years, monsoons are predictable and sufficient for all the irrigation needs when supplemented by artificial irrigation. Traditional water conservation and irrigation technologies such as Erys, took on precisely the supplementary role of adding to the sufficiency, certainty and predictability of water availability for agriculture.

Traditional cultivation practices were so chosen as to adjust themselves to the supply of water available. Preparation of the soil, selection of seeds and implements used, mixture of crops cultivated and the crop calendar - all these reflected a minute and comprehensive understanding of the relationships between terrain, soil, rainfall, water, crops, human labor and livestock. Such an approach resulted in an optimal utilization of resources such as water. For example, depending on the rainfall and the availability of water in the Ery, different crops (millets instead of paddy, for instance) and cropping practices such as mixed sowing are adopted. Similarly, the area irrigated is altered from crop to crop, depending on the water available, to ensure it is adequate.

Since Erys arc local resources, estimates of water available in the Ery are constantly made by the village communities and such estimates are used to make sure that the most efficient use of available water is made. In addition, folk-knowledge is able to predict rainfall quantities reasonably in advance depending on the observation of other natural phenomena, so that cultivators are prepared in advance for shortage in rainfalls.

Modern agriculture, especially with the advent of "Green Revolution" cultivation, has one great obsession, namely water. Massive irrigation schemes and enormous quantities of water are said to be necessary in order to produce large yields. However, the traditional Indian approach to the question of water, like the approach to every other natural input into agriculture, has been one of making very minute observations of what nature provides and to make optimal adjustments with nature. There seems to have been no obsession to use water in large quantities or to consider areas which do not receive, through rains or irrigation, large quantities of water, as "dry" and somehow inferior. Where rainfall was relatively low, every effort was made to retain all the water that fell on the ground through appropriate water-retention and conservation
strategies such as Erys.

Traditionally, Erys seemed to have played several roles:

(1) As appropriate irrigation devices in the cultivation of paddy:

In areas, such as the Chengalpattu District of Tamil Nadu, which are completely dependent on rains and water stored in Erys, during the first crop season called samba which begins in the Tamil month of Adi (July-August), the paddy crop was traditionally a rain-dependent one and was cultivated practically as a dry crop. This was a long-term crop, the traditional samba varieties being of six month duration. Towards the end of this crop, Erys were usually full or at least contained enough water to provide irrigation to bring the paddy crop to maturity. In this instance, Erys served as supplementary sources of irrigation to aid the rain dependent crop. Normally, if rains were sufficient to fill the Erys, there was a second crop of paddy. This crop was completely irrigated by Ery water and cultivated in standing water and puddle.

(2) As a system which acted as a flood control device, thus preventing soil erosion and wastage of runoff waters during periods of heavy rainfall:

Erys, (particularly connected chains of Erys) play a very important role as flood control devices. But for the presence of a very large number of chains of Erys in Northern Tamil Nadu, very large quantities of water, particularly during the North-East monsoon season, would run down from the Eastern ghats to the sea, causing a great deal of soil erosion and other damage. Here the rivers are not perennial streams (like for instance the Palar) and carry a heavy supply of water in a flash flood during the sudden bursts of heavy rain during the North-East monsoons. Erys are ideal foils for such streams since the water can be diverted away through anaicuts (diversion structures) into "system" Erys.

However; the effectiveness of Erys as flood control systems is determined by the existence of a well-maintained system of Erys linked together as chains; the overflow from one leading to -the next lower Ery, trapping the maximum possible amount of water and allowing excess water finally to flow down smoothly into the sea. This would mean that if Erys are not properly maintained and are allowed to silt up, chaotic consequences could ensue during periods, of particularly heavy rainfall. An Ery which is silted is liable to fill up far too rapidly and overflow. It also has a high chance of breaching, in the event of a sudden onrush of large quantities of water. And the breaching of a single Ery in a chain of Erys can cause the breaching of all the Erys lower down, thus leading to the rapid flooding of a vast area. Hence the need to keep Erys desalted and in good maintenance at all times.

(3) As storage devices which acted as insurance against low rainfall periods and also recharged ground water in the surrounding area:

According to their original design Erys were perhaps meant to contain water at all times. Even as recently as the end of 19th Century, the North Arcot District Manual noted that the Dusi-MamandurEry in North Arcot District of Tamil Nadu stored water for 15 months. This was at a period when Erys were already on the decline due to poor maintenance and consequent silting. So it may be safely assumed that a wefl-niaintained Ery would have stored water.

The disastrous consequences of allowing Erys to silt up without proper maintenance were experienced during the last two-three years in Chengalpattu District of Tamil Nadu. In 1985, due to very heavy rainfalls during the North-East monsoon, a number of Erys breached. They were badly silted and could not handle the heavy inflows of water. Even the many Erys which did not breach could not retain much water. 1986 was a year of very poor rainfall and immediately there was a severe drought and water scarcity in Chengalpattu District This would have seen the country through periods of low rainfall even if this occurred every other year, without leading to an overall drought and water scarcity, as is happening today. As water-storage devices Erys also play a very important role in recharging groundwater.

Traditionally complementary use of Ery and well water was an important feature of cultivation under Erys. With the atomization of village communities and modernization of agriculture, use of well water has increased enormously and wells have become independent sources of irrigation as it were (See Table - 5). However, Erys are absolutely essential for recharging of wells.

(4) As a device which was crucial to the overall eco-system:

An Ery is not merely a reservoir of water for irrigation. The presence of Ery provides an appropriate micro-climate for agriculture. It also has an important role in the ecology of the surrounding area.

Catchment areas of Erys contained village forests and grazing pastures (known as Gomala in Karnataka). Trees, growing here were useful as timber for making ploughs and other agricultural implements. In the forest, farmers collected green manure and other organic matter used as manure. Rain waters washed this organic matter down into the Erys. Hence Ery water contained sediments which fertilized the fields.

Trees were also grown on the bund or on its outside slope. These trees were useful to the village community and they also strengthened the bund.

Foreshore areas where normally soil erosion was high contained small ponds. These ponds were so located as to minimize soil erosion and consequent siltation of Erys. Ery ayacuts normally contained a number of percolation ponds. These ponds also minimized soil erosion during times of heavy rains and flooding. The mud from these ponds was used as manure.

Desalting of Erys was connected to certain economic activities in the village. Mud was used in pottery and in construction. It also provided mud known as Vandal for use as manure.


This brings us a consideration of the original scheme of these systems of Erys. It is conceivable that when the area of Northern Tamil Nadu known as Tondaimandalam (comprising the Chengalpattu and North Arcot Districts of Tamil Nadu) was first settled, an extensive network otErys was also thought of, to be compatible with the overall ecology of this part of Tamil Nadu. Although inscriptional and other evidence indicates that Erys continued to be constructed over a long historical period, the original plan seems to have certainly been a grand one, which considered a large network of interconnected chains of Erys, running all the way from the Eastern Ghats down to the Bay of Bengal. It is difficult to imagine that Erys would have been constructed one by one and at some point would have formed perfectly connected systems.

A British expert writing in 1850’s observed:

"The extent to which it (irrigation works) has been carried throughout all the irrigated region of the Madras Presidency is truly extraordinary. An imperfect record of the number of tanks in 14 districts (of the Madras Presidency) shows them to amount to no less than 43,000 in repair and 10,000 out of repair or 53,000 in all It would be a moderate estimate of the length of embankment for each to fix k at half a mile; and the number of masonry works, in sluices of irrigation waste weirs, etc, would probably be not over-rated at an average of 6. These data, only assumed to give some definite idea of the extent of the system, would give close upon 30,000 miles of embankment (sufficient to put a girdle around the globe not less than 6 feet thick) and 3,00,000 separate masonry works. The whole of this gigantic machinery of irrigation is of purely native origin, as it is a fact that not one new tank has even been made by us, and the concurrent testimony of those best informed on the subject shows that a great many fine works of the kind have been allowed to fall into utter disrepair and uselessness".2

In order to construct an Ery or a reservoir a modern Engineer would first make a topographic survey in order to study thoroughly the catchment area, site of the reservoir and the land to be irrigated. The rainfall and hydrological characteristics of the area - how water flows down in its minutest detail - must be well known in order to design the bund, the overflow structures, the sluices and the channels to carry the water, the exact location of the fields, and to determine the area of water spread and the area to be irrigated. It is very important to know through a topographic survey, the precise topography over a fairly extensive area (in the case of large Erys) to be able to locate precisely the overflow structures with respect to the embankment or bund. There are some ancient Erys where the overflow structures are located as far away as two miles from the bund. This means that the entire topography must have been thoroughly understood over such a wide area, since the location of the overflow structure is absolutely crucial to the safety of the Ery. The design of the bund and sluices and their actual construction is another formidable engineering task.

The famous Poramamilla (Cuddapah District of Andhra Pradesh) Ery inscription of 1291 AD provides some insights into the method of construction of the Ery and the technical complexities involved. It appears that the science of Hydraulics or Jala sastra and hydrology or Pathos sastra were important branches of study and professionals, learned and competent in these sciences, were engaged in the construction of Erys. According to the Porumamilla Ery inscription

(i) a king endowed with righteousness, rich, happy (and) desirous of (acquiring) the permanent wealth of fame (ii) a Brahmana learned in pathas-sastra (Hydrology) (iii) a ground adorned with hard clay (iv) a river conveying sweet water (and) three yojanas distant (from its source) (v) the hill, parts of which are in contact with it, (the Ery) (vi) between these (portions of the hill) a dam (built) of a compact - stone wall not too long (but) firm, (vii) two extremes (Srimga) pointing away from fruit (giving) land (Phala-sthira) outside, (viii) the bed extensive and deep (ix) and a quarry containing straight and long stones (x) the neighboring fields rich in fruit (and) levels (xi) a water course (i.e. the sluices) having strong eddies (Bhrama) on account of the position of the mountain (adri-sthana) (xii) a group of men (skilled in the art of) its construction - with these twelve essentials an excellent tank is easily attainable on this earth".

"While (i) water coming from the dam (ii) saline soil (iii) (situation) at the boundary of two kingdoms.(iv) elevation (Karma) in the middle (of the tank) bed (v) scanty supply of water and extensive stretch of land (to be irrigated) (vi) and scanty ground and excess of water: (these are) the six faults in this connection".3

Such technical skill, perfected over the centuries, won the admiration of some British officials and experts writing in the 19th Century. Sir Arthur Cotton, writing in 1874 noted that, while the British had been cautious about laying a foundation in shifting sand for the Ganges Canal, the "natives" had proceeded with "boldness and engineering talent" to build weirs. These were built in "sandy beds of rivers without any rock or sound stratum to found them on". In fact, adds Cotton, "the natives have constructed tens of thousands of tanks in almost every kind of soil with earthen bunds without the puddle bank which English engineers have fancied necessary...".4 Horsley, engineer of the Pandyan Canal describes how, in carrying out his works he felt "contented and fully satisfied to follow in the footsteps of those whom I cannot but consider to have been masters in their art..."5 It seems odd, therefore that a prevailing modern view would state "Initial construction of Ery required no special technical knowledge; simply an eye for the lie of the land and a lot of humping of the earth" (Baker, 1984, p. 466)6.

Only recently, modern irrigations experts have begun to consider an entire drainage basin as an appropriate unit for designing irrigation systems. This was an established practice in ancient times. Besides, it is now lawning on many experts that the curvature of the Ery bunds, for example, do not follow any random configuration but were designed to be elliptical to give maximum strength to the embankment. Similarly, the stone facing on the inner wall of the bund is dressed in such a fashion as to minimize the action of waves - which are the most dangerous sources of erosion and damage to the bunds. The ancient sluices are another outstanding example of the engineering ability of Indian builders. A Srilankan expert has suggested that the ancient sluices be preserved just as any priceless artifacts of the ancient times are. He warns that international agencies be not permitted to intervene and destroy these marvelous structures and replace them with crude cement substitutes.7

Closely related to the engineering design of the Erys is the social organization necessary to maintain and manage this vast network in the Northern Tamil Nadu area. Two aspects of the Ery system are important in order to comprehend the related social organization: (i) Each Ery irrigates, usually, fields lying within one village (The larger Erys are exceptions to this). Hence, each Ery needs to be locally managed (ii) Where Erys are interconnected, which is usually the case, integration of supra-local or supra-village localities must be possible in order to be able to maintain and manage the entire connected chain of Erys. The data currently available on the local and supra-local administration of pre-British Indian society does indeed suggest that the social and political organization of pre-British India were designed t6 meet this need.8


Several inscriptions give a picture of how Erys were constructed, maintained and how the water was managed in the ancient times.

It was considered an act of great merit for an individual to construct and maintain works of irrigation, and a part of the duty of the state to undertake such .works. Inscriptions still to be found on many Erys quote verses from ancient treatises extolling the merit of construction of such works. The famous inscription from Porumamilla Ery referred to above quotes "As the water of a tank serves to nurture both movable and immovable creations on earth, even the lotus-seated (Brahma) is unable to recount the fruit of merit (attaching to it)".

In other inscriptions, Ery construction is looked upon as one of the seven meritorious acts which a human being ought to perform during one's lifetime.

Generally, the agency responsible for maintenance Work was the local governing body.
Often, there was a committee called the "Committee for Supervision of Ery" (Ery Variyam). This
Committee functioned as a committee 6f the village assembly. The famous Uttiramerur inscriptions (from the village of Uttiramerur in Chengalpattu District) give an, elaborate description of the rules regarding the composition of this committee.9 This body consisted of six members who held office for 360 days and then retired. (If anyone who served on the committee was guilty of any offence he was removed at once). This committee was in the main, concerned with rising of resources and their utilisation for the maintenance of irrigation works.

Inscriptional evidence shows that grants of land called Many am, held rent-free in hereditary and perpetual occupation, were made for the purpose of irrigation. Grants made for the construction and maintenance of irrigation works such as Erys were termed Dasabanda Manyams. (The evidence for those manyams is available from 9th Century AD onwards.10

The grant of such manyams continued to the end of the 18th Century in some parts of South India. In certain cases Voddars or tank diggers were directly given such manyams. Usually the recipients of these manyams were under obligation to maintain the works of irrigation in due repair. In certain cases, separate manyams for the repair of Erys, for the maintenance and upkeep of Erys and for constructing sluices to Erys were also made, i.e. land was assigned and earmarked for specific pieces of work in connection with the upkeep of an Ery.

Another source of funds to the local bodies for maintenance work was the income from the Ery itself. This income was in the nature of rents for the right of fishing in the Ery. These funds were utilized for deepening of the Ery or repairs.

The arrangements described in the inscriptions of the earlier periods seemed to have persisted well into the carry British period. A survey undertaken in the 1760's of all the villages of the then Chengalpattu District gives an indication as to how resources were mobilized and utilized locally in the maintenance of irrigation works such as Erys. About 4% - 5% of the gross produce of each village seems to have been allocated for the maintenance of Erys. Other allocations were made for the village servants who were in charge of water distribution, management etc.11 That share of the produce was allocated locally for the maintenance of irrigation works is borne out by several accounts of the period. According to one British observer The pagodas and Brahmins have a share of the produce of the lands; if 1 am not mistaken, the church has its share in the first instance. A certain proportion is allotted to preserve the tanks and water courses, and this is taken out of the gross produce of the lands, before any partition is made between Government and the inhabitants and it appears the free-gift (Manyam) - lands paid greater share for the repair of tanks than the drear (rent-paying) grounds".12 That maintenance work was done by means of granting Enams or revenue assignment to the persons who built and maintained these irrigation works, becomes clear by the accounts of several British collectors in the 18th century*.

However, despite all this evidence describing the traditional arrangements for the maintenance and management of Erys, modern myths seem to persist. Take for instance W.H. Moreland's statement that in South India in the first half of 16th- Century, there were no arrangements "for keeping existing works in proper repair".13

Given this evidence, speculations such as "maintenance of many Erys had probably once depended on forced labor” seem ridiculous.

It is also sometimes assumed that in the allocation of water the "powerful" in the village played a "dominant" role and managed the water allocation to their benefit. However, data regarding the Kaniatchi system and the nsamudayamn villages in Tamil Nadu present a different picture. For instance the Collector of Tinnevelly and Ramnad Pollams, (in his report to the Madras BOR dated 29th December 1800) said "from year to year, each ryot cultivates his own land, unless distress come upon him or the supply of water be partial. On the latter (in the case of Nunjah [wet] land) all the inhabitants of the village assemble and having determined the extent of land that may be cultivated from the quantum of water in the tanks, it is apportioned out and to each inhabitant according to the extent of Nunjah land possessed by him in the village. When the crops have been cut, every inhabitant again returns to his own land".15

Similar is the system of land rotation among cultivators known as Kararyeedu, which was prevalent in the Tamil Nadu.16 Land was allotted to the cultivators in a way that ensured a fair distribution of water collected in the Ery.

The historical material on irrigation organization and structures and some recent data on the local and supra-local organization of the pre-British Indian society together underline the fact that the Indian civilization placed a great value on decentralization of resources and political power which automatically set a limit to the size of irrigation structures. Large-scale systems such as modern Dams would not have been compatible with the values and goals of the Indian civilization. The traditional irrigation technology of Erys, anicuts etc were also ecologically the optimal solutions for the natural conditions obtaining in some parts of India. In this sense, traditional irrigation technology is certainly "modern" as well as sophisticated.

It becomes important, therefore, to recapitulate the history of the decay of Ery irrigation systems. Much" of our modern misconceptions regarding Erys stem from (a) our incomplete knowledge regarding pre-British Irrigation Systems and their management and (b) from the state of these systems as they survive after colonial intervention.


Arthur Cotton wrote "When I first arrived in India, the contempt with which the natives justly spoke of us on account of this neglect of material improvements was very striking; they used to say we were a kind of civilized savages, wonderfully expert about fighting, but so inferior to their great men, that we would not even keep in repair the works they had constructed, much less even imitate them in extending the system".

When the British first came to India, they were, naturally, totally ignorant of the traditional irrigation technology, in particular of Erys, and their management. In the Northern Tamil Country for instance, the initial years of the British rule saw drastic changes in the land tenure system, in the quest for more and more efficient ways of extracting larger revenues. The enormous drain of the village revenue by appropriation by the state led to the disintegration of the traditional society and polity. At the local level, allocation for infrastructural arrangements such as irrigation systems - for their maintenance and water management etc - was stopped.

Under early British rule, Erys were brought under the management of revenue officials. Subsequently civil engineers from the army were brought in as "experts" to deal with Ery irrigation. By early 19th century a Department for Tank Repairs was created, staffed by civil engineers. It was impossible for this centralized system, managed by engineers unfamiliar with the indigenous irrigation structures and organization to take care of the Erys. In addition, the financial allocations made by the State for maintenance of Erys were negligible. Erys were not considered useful since it was felt then that investments made for the upkeep of Erys would not yield sufficient revenues to cover the investments.

Large areas under Ery irrigation did not begin to be deserted by cultivators who were left with no resources to maintain the irrigation systems nor could they pay the high revenues on irrigated lands. Data on Cuddapah District for 1822-31 reveals that revenue on account of repairs to Erys and water courses rises from 15% to 21% of total land revenue, whereas a very small share of 2% or less was spent on repairs. The public expenditure on works of irrigation for the same area went down from Rs. 47,452 during 1816-1821 to Rs. 23,545 during 1846-1851. Consequently the number of Erys in operation declined from 8,650 in 1840 to 5,447 in 1856.18 This state of affairs seems to have been typical of the Madras Presidency at this time. As revenues began to be adversely affected, the government responded by appointing various committees and commissions to look into the "minor irrigation works" as the Erys came to be termed.

In 1851, a commission was appointed by the Government to enquire into the system of public works (including Erys) in the Madras Presidency which submitted its first report in the year 1852 and the second in 1853. The first report of the commission said "... the annual outlay for repair and preservation of the work amounts, on the average of the last 10 years, to only about Rs. 7,00,000. Cost of repairs - is less than l 1/2% on the assumed original cost of the works, under 2% on their gross yearly proceeds and 42/3% on the annual revenue derived from them to Government -11/2% on original outlay must be too little to maintain in an efficient state, works designed for retention of water, consisting in a great part of earthen embankments and loose stone revetments... In England, canals and other works in which water is retained require annual repair to the amount of, from 3% to 4% on their original cost... those canals are not exposed to the damage of a sudden and large influx of water like the tanks of this country, nor are their banks exposed to the action of waves raised by a gale of wind"...

"Prima facie, then there is a presumption that the sum annually expended in the maintenance of existing works is too small and this is confirmed by a reference to the actual results. To whatever part of the country we turn, we find the vast majority of tanks, even in a good season, watering far less land than they once did and far less than they could now irrigate if kept in proper repair, and there is abundant evidence to show that if the existing tanks were generally restored to their original capacity or efficiency, a very large increase of cultivation and
revenue would be the result".

This commission thus concluded that practically all the irrigation works in the Madras
Presidency were operating below their state of full efficiency and were incapable of yielding then proper amount of irrigation. The commission reported that in 1850, the total extent of irrigated lands actually under cultivation was about half the total area and that it was believed that almost all of it had been formerly cultivated.

That by the mid-19th century the vast and complex indigenous Ery system had been reduced, as a direct result of the British rule, to a ruinous state is confirmed by the reports of other contemporary observers. Things had reached such a pass that in 1881 the Collector of Chengalpattu, JJF. Price proposed the total abandonment of a target proportion of the small tanks in his district and went on to recommend that their bunds should be leveled and their ayacut and water-spread alike given over to dry assessment.20

By the end of the 19th century it came to be generally recognized that the irrigation Erys in Madras Presidency were badly in need of repair and maintenance and their poor condition was closely linked to the series of famines witnessed in the late 19th Century with a consequent loss in revenue to the State. (Some recent research reveals that tank construction under princely rule - as in Hyderabad State - experienced a major spurt after the turn of the 20th Century.21 The famine commission of 1878-1880 recommended that a scheme be framed for systematically putting the tanks in repair so as to bring them to their "original" efficiency. This recommendation was accepted by the Madras Government and a Tank maintenance scheme which later on came to be called a Tank Restoration Scheme (TRS) was introduced in 1883. The intention was to conduct a systematic survey of every minor basin and restore the Erys to their standard level of storage. The famine commission also recognized the impossibility of the PWD being able to maintain such an extensive system of Erys. Erys were classified in terms of their ayacut and it was recommended that only Erys that have an ayacut of more than 200 acres "possessing some other special importance" should remain in the hands of the PWD. The commission also recommended that smaller Erys irrigating not less than 50 acres, should "after being brought up to the standard", be handed over to the villagers to maintain and that Erys watering less than this area should be handed over as they were to the villagers to keep up Although Erys were initially "transferred" to ryots, the village communities were not given sufficient grants nor any remissions in revenue for them to be able to maintain the Erys. Hence this scheme was a failure and was discontinued, and Erys continued under Government control.

In August 1889 the Government of Madras informed the Government of India that as "where the experiment has been tried, the ryots refuse to undertake the maintenance of the restored tanks under the conditions imposed, and as in the absence of a customary labor law it is impossible to enforce the obligation, the experiment cannot be initiated and must be given up, and Government must therefore undertake, under the most economical arrangements possible, the duty of maintaining the tanks".22 As a response to this Government of India, asked the Government of Madras if it was advisable to continue the TRS operation on such an extensive scale, (Letter No*. 1431 dated 9th August 1890). It proposed to the Government of Madras that Erys irrigating less than 50 acres be abandoned.

This TRS scheme resulted in the preparation of a Tank Memoir" for each Ery taken up for restoration, in which hydrological details such as capacity, standard levels etc. for that Ery were recorded. Also the estimates for the repairs to be executed were prepared in detail. 'Incidentally, this tank memoir forms a major record, which even to this day is the only record that the PWD possesses regarding most of the Erys under its jurisdiction.

The famine commission was followed by the irrigation commission of 1901-1903. This commission estimated that by 1901, less than 1/3 the area irrigated by Erys had been covered by the investigation Under the Tank Restoration Scheme recommended by the famine commission. It was also estimated that at the rate*of investigation and restoration then in progress it would take another 40 years to complete the work of tank restoration in Madras Presidency. The Commission said:

" Outlay on Tank restoration is but a small portion of the expenditure annually incurred
on the maintenance of these works. During the ten years ending 1899-1900 it averaged Rs. 4,76,000. During the same period, the annual expenditure on ordinary repairs averaged over 13 lakhs, of which Rs. 2,66,000 was incurred in the Revenue and the balance in the PWD. This outlay is incurred mainly on works which have not been restored. If therefore, tank investigation and restoration work were altogether discontinued, there would still be an annual expenditure of not less than 18 lakhs on ordinary tank repairs, but the operation would be carried on without system and the annual outlay would steadily rise. If on the other hand, the present rate of progress and expenditure on tank restoration be increased and the works are put into thorough repair on a systematic plan, there will be a diminution in the cost of ordinary repairs, and a gradual reduction in the total annual expenditure on tank maintenance to the amount required for the upkeep of works which have once been restored or put into thorough order". "We strongly recommend that the work on tank restoration should be more vigorously prosecuted and that the grants for maintenance of minor works should be increased until it has been completed. The Board of Revenue has pointed out that within the last ten years 9 to 10 per cent of the demand (revenue) on the land irrigated from these works was remitted on account of defective supply, and that a very large part of these remissions was necessitated by the fact that the works were not in a state of thorough repair and efficiency. We think that an annual expenditure on the works of not less than 26 lakhs, which is less than one-third of the net revenue derived from them should be contemplated, of which about half would be available for investigation and restoration work which should then be complete within 15 years".

Thus the irrigation commission recommended that the work on tank restoration be more vigorously pursued and completed. The commission recognized that in the case of Erys "Government undertakes restoration in the interest of not only the ryots but of itself; and as the only means of preventing serious loss of revenue".23


As described earlier, the village communities lost their ability to maintain Erys with the draining away by the state, during the British Rule, of revenue which left the cultivators in an impoverished condition and broke down the system of allocations made at the local level for maintenance and, management of irrigation structures and systems.

During early British rule, basing itself on the European experience, the British official view insisted that Erys had always been maintained by some form of forced labor. White the land tenure and revenue policy of the British state took away all surplus resources from the hands of the village communities and asserted that common resources such as the Erys belonged to the state, in actual practice it was impossible for the PWD to maintain the Erys without any cooperation from village communities. And as Erys systems became more and more dysfunctional, revenues started falling and there was an urgent need to take care of the Erys in the only way in which this could possibly be done - by moving the village communities in some manner. But by then the impoverished village communities had become thoroughly disrupted and turned into what the British (and even today's Westernized elite) termed is "apathetic". Given this context, about the only way the British state could think of making the village communities take any responsibility for maintaining Erys was through some form of coercion. Hence the need to build a myth about Awn" Mararnath and equate this to voluntary labor" "customarily" undertaken by village communities in maintaining Erys and other irrigation infrastructure. And since this labor was not voluntarily forthcoming, the attempt to enforce this by means of legislation became the automatic choice for the state.

It was unlikely that at any period prior to the arrival of the British, when the village society was functional, the cultivators, either under coercion or voluntarily, donated their labor for the routine maintenance of Erys without the necessary funds provided by the village level and the larger economy as regular allocations. It is likely however that on certain festive occasions cultivators came together to desalt inlet channels to Erys but such occasions should have been merely symbolic and not actually events where the desalting of Erys was routinely carried out. The desalting and maintenance of Erys was paid for from the allocation at the local level and such desalting was done by groups of professionals who specialized in earth work.24 To this day,' .there are, in many parts of South India communities which specialize in stone work and earth work.

Due to collapse of the system of local level allocations it was no longer possible for village communities to support these professionals who performed the service of desilting Erys. This, then, was the situation that gave rise to the propagation of the myth of Kudi-Maramath. Since then this myth has been picked up by administrators and historians alike.

From time to time in the last hundred and fifty years, legislation has been introduced to enforce Kudi-Maramath; the purpose of such legislation 'being, to coerce the cultivators into "voluntarily" undertaking maintenance work. However, every such attempt by the state met with complete non-cooperation on the part of the people. The chequered history of Kudi-Maramath legislation tells its own story about the conditions to which Indian village communities had been reduced by British rule, the relationship of the cultivators with the state, and the struggle, veiled and open, between the two.

In 1858, Madras Compulsory Labor Act was passed with the specific objective of enforcement of "customary" labor. This act legalized the "customary obligation" (of Kudi-Maramath) and penalized its non-performance. It declared "Wherever by local custom any work for the purpose of irrigation or drainage, or connected herewith, is usually executed by the joint labor of a village community, any person bound by such custom to contribute labor to such work, who neglects or refuses without reasonable cause to comply with a requisition for such customary aid made to him by the head of the village under the orders of the Tahsildar or other superior Revenue officer, shall be liable to pay a sum equal to twice the value of labor which he is bound to contribute". The mode of determining the amount so payable was left to the decision of (local) irrigation panchayats.

So, like elsewhere during British rule, here too was an attempt by the state to coerce the
people by defining what the "custom" was and to enforce this "custom" through legislation. The people responded to this legislation by "evasion" and "dereliction" of their "customary obligation" and demanded remissions of revenue where cultivation suffered as a result of lack of

The community of Voddas specialize in such work. Vodda is derived from the word oddu in Telugu meaning a Bank. This community should have specialized in doing the stone and earth work in building Ery bunds, excavating Erys and desalting them maintenance of supply channels and Erys. They seemed to look to the state to maintain irrigation sources in good order. When this act failed to achieve its goals, the administrators sought to introduce fresh legislation by tightening the earlier legislation. Such legislation was repeatedly recommended-by the Public Works Commission of 1870, the Famine Commission of 1879 and the Irrigation Commission of 1901-1903.

The Public Works Commission of 1870 recommended the ascertainment by local inquiry, of the description of the work which it had been customary for the ryots to execute in each district and its enforcement by legislative enactment. This Commission also advocated the transfer of the ordinary repairs of agricultural works to the landholders whose crops depended on them, and a remission of assessment not exceeding the estimated annual cost of keeping the works in repair after deducting the value of customary labor being granted at the annual settlement.

A Bill was drafted to legalize Kudi-Maramath and was introduced into the Legislative Council of Madras in June 1883 but it was subsequently dropped.

The Irrigation Commission (1901-1903) talked of the "Cultivators losing all sense of responsibility for the maintenance and upkeep of tanks, which custom had formerly imposed on them" and recommended that all routine maintenance work be handed over to the ryots after persuading them to undertake Kudi-Maramath. The commission further recommended that if Kudi-Maramath could not be enforced without legislation, then legislation should be undertaken. If Kudi-Maramath did not work, then legislation should provide for a cess on land irrigated from tanks whose funds would be administered by local panchayats.

In accordance with the recommendation of the Irrigation Commission, attempts were made again and again to bring in legislation for enforcing Kudi-Maramath or for imposing an irrigation Cess in its place. But all these attempts proved abortive. The irrigation Bills of 1906, 1922, 1924, 1928 and 1934-1936 were all such abortive attempts.

The 1924 Bill made it mandatory for 'every occupier of land irrigated by any irrigation work" to perform Kudi-Maramath work in respect of certain specified items such as (a) filling up gullies, creeks, nits and holes (b) removing prickly pear and other rank undergrowth (c) clearing away under wood (d) clearing the silt from sluices and channels (e) replacing stones displaced from revetments (stone facing of the bund) dams, etc. (f) keeping clear the space between the upright stones of the calingulas (overflow weirs) and (g) any other labor which might by notification, be declared by the Government as customary labor (Notice how the Government has arrogated to itself the authority to pronounce what is "customary). Those cultivators who refused to contribute labor were to be liable to a fine not exceeding four times the value of labour. But a cess would be imposed in lieu of labor where the majority agreed to pay it. The performance of customary repairs to tanks and channels and the settlement of irrigation disputes were to be left to irrigation Panchayats wherever possible.

The 1928 Bill declared and defined the duties of the occupiers of lands in almost the same terms but it provided that, where a cooperative society or village Panchayat had been legally constituted for the execution of Kudi-Maramath, work in respect of an irrigation work, the irrigation officer might, at the request of the owners of a major portion of the lands served by such work, hand over the execution of the work to such a society or a panchayat and empower it to recover the cost from the owners of all the lands proportionately. It also enabled the Government to levy an annual cess in lieu of Kudi-Maramath work from persons bound to contribute such work wherever the owners of the major portion of the lands served by such work
so desired.

By the time the 1934 - 36 Bill was drawn up there seems to emerge a slightly changed outlook. An opinion gradually gained ground that such legislation was neither justifiable nor desirable. Some administrators began to urge that Kudi-Maramath had never been either a universal or a voluntary institution. They said that, whatever legislation might be introduced to make it so, it would ultimately result in coercion and opposition. One British civil servant declared 1 cannot accept the position that it is impossible for the Government to look after the tanks and I think it is their duty to do so. If, in fact they cannot do so, and the very small tanks go
to ruin, it will not be an unmixed evil, for many of these little tanks are mere evaporating pans and they intercept and diminish the supply to larger works lower down the barrier. I would not do away with these but I would not foster their existence".25 clearly, the concern of these crimes was not the regeneration of Erys and the welfare of the cultivators who depended on them.

The growing consciousness that Kudi-Maramath was unworkable in practice and could not-be imposed, made it necessary for administrators to think of other alternatives. The collectors' conference of j1933 favored the extension of irrigation cess fund system - a system which, by then, had been voluntarily resorted to in some districts in lieu of Kudi-Maramath - to the whole of the province. And in 1934-36 the Board of Revenue and the Government considered the passing of a special Act for that purpose; they drafted a special Bill in which they proposed to take power to levy an annual cess from the owners of the lands served by an irrigation work whenever the owners of not less than two-thirds of the lands served by such work so desired. And, they declared, the proceeds of the cess would be utilized for the maintenance of the works and the ryots thereby relieved of Kudi-Maramath.

After 1935, the state gradually took over at least nationally works that until then had been considered normally to be done by Kudi-Maramath.

What is important, from the present day context, is that the attitude of the British state towards the cultivators had been internalized by generations of Indian elite, and such attitudes remain to this day amongst our ruling elite. A senior administrator writing in 1949 on the failure of the Kudi-Maramath legislation lamented thus: "...It was, besides, an age of enlightenment, when forced labor - for so should this so called voluntary labour be actually termed - could not be enforced with harshness, as of old".26 Here was a post-independence administrator lamenting that the state could not take recourse to harsh measures, to coerce people to comply with legislation, all this presumably in their own interest.

Another senior administrator in 1947 suggested that one of the reasons for the failure of
the policy of enforcing Kudi-Maramath was the "Policy of spoon-feeding and benevolence practiced by the Government".27

The attitude that the villagers have "lost all sense of responsibility" prevails among large section of our elite even today. For instance, the Committee on Plan projects reporting on Minor Irrigation Works in A.P. in 1960 referred to the lack of timely repairs to Erys as a result of neglect of "customary repair work to be done by ryots" (i.e. Kudi-Maramath). It strongly recommended the effective implementation of the Madras compulsory labor act, 1858 and even got a copy of the Act appended to the Committee's report.28

After 1947 irrigation was put under the control of the State Governments, bat the Central Government provided much of the financial support for irrigation development.

In Tamil Nadu, Revenue and PWD Departments initially shared responsibility for Erys. In 1958, the local panchayat Unions and BDO's were given responsibility for some aspects of the operations and maintenance of Erys.

After the reorganization of the panchayat system in 1958, groups of up to twenty village panchayats were joined into panchayat Unions. Each representative panchayat Union was associated with a BDO Officer of the Community Development Scheme. The BDO was assigned a staff of administrative and technical personnel employed by the state, including an extension supervisor-cum-junior engineer who is responsible for Ery maintenance. The Block Development Offices were placed under the supervision of District Development Councils.

At present, the engineer in the Block Development Office is responsible for the maintenance of Erys with an ayacut of Jess than 40 hectares if they are not directly linked to a river system. The circle system of inspection and maintenance is used. Under this system, one-fifth of all Erys in each panchayat Union are inspected each year, a system which is supposed to ensure that all Erys are inspected once in each five-year cycle. In cases of emergency such as flooding or breaching of a bund, a Ery may be inspected and repaired out of its turn in this cycle. After inspecting each tank, and noting needed repairs, the engineer prepares an estimate of the cost, submits it to the Highways and Rural Works Department for approval, then opens the job for local contractors to tender bids. After the job is completed, the engineer again inspects the Ery to ensure that repairs are done correctly.

The Public Works Department (PWD) is responsible for maintaining all river irrigation systems, all Erys with a command area of 40 hectares or more, and all Erys connected to river systems, regardless of command area. Although as Table -3 shows there are fewer of these types of Erys than Panchayat Union Erys tanks in Tamil Nadu, these Erys are important because of their size and/or because, as system Erys, they have the most reliable water supplies. The PWD does not use the circle system of inspection; instead, an engineer inspects an Ery when a need arises and the farmers in command bring it to the attention of the PWD. Except in an emergency, an Ery mil not be inspected more often than once in three years. After the inspection, the procedure for repair of an Ery tank is much the same as for the BDO engineer, an estimate is prepared, sanction given by higher officials in the PWD, and the contract given out on bid. The work is carried out by a private contractor and is inspected upon completion by the engineer, (continued on next page).

Both the BDO and PWD are responsible for the beds] bunds, sluices, and waste weirs of the Erys in their charge. The PWD is also responsible for weirs on rivers and for major man-made channels connecting the rivers and system Erys. The responsibility of both agencies stops at the bunds; neither is responsible for distributaries and field channels feeding into the Erys are also outside the purview of both agencies.

The Revenue Department is in charge of collecting land revenue-and any extra water cess charges. It is officially responsible for auctioning the annual rights to the fish and trees in the Erys. The Revenue Department shares responsibility with the panchayat Union for non system Erys of less than 40 hectares command area. Those Erys that have been surveyed since the beginning of the Tank Restoration Scheme have been handed over to the panchayat Unions. The income from fish and trees in these "transferred" or "vested" Erys is credited to the panchayat Unions Erys in the former zamindari areas that have not been surveyed are termed "no transferred" or "no vested" Erys, and are officially under the Revenue Department. These are particularly important in areas such as the Ramanathapuram District of Tamil Nadu. The BDO maintains the "no vested" ErysxmdtT a special grant, but the Revenue Department, rather than the panchayat Union, receives the incomes from the fish and trees.

Authority over water regulation is also shared by the PWD, the Revenue Department, and the Panchayats. The PWD controls water along with the river system and issues water from each anicut, or river weir. Officially, the Revenue Department is responsible for water regulation in Erys with a command of 40 hectares or more, and the village panchayats for regulation of water in Erys of less than 40 hectares of command area. However, water regulation from the Erys is generally left to the farmers themselves, without any official interference.

The involvement of one other Government agency in Ery irrigation should be noted the Forest Department is responsible for planting trees on any public or peromboke land. Since 1963 it has been particularly active in planting karuveUm (Acacia Arabica) trees on the foreshores of Erys under a social forestry project.

While it is true that there is a general sense of apathy amongst many sections of our people in the rural areas, the reason for this has to be sought in the total disruption of the village society and economy during British Rule, the subsequent disintegration and atomization of the village society and the perpetuation of the same relationship between the institutions of the State and the village communities in the post - independence period.


After independence the intervention of the state and the consequent weakening of local institutions and the discouraging of local initiative continues perhaps as a hangover from the period of British rule the same institutions of the state continue to operate and under the same norms.

The Erys continue to be neglected under the PWD since the Ery system is so vast and extensive that there is no earthly possible of the PWD maintaining these Erys. In fact the PWD does not even have any reliable data on the states of the Erys under its jurisdiction. Even today, the only information the field staff of the PWD have is from the tank memoirs prepared in most cases some 75 years ago. There is no effort on the part of the State to involve local communities in Ery maintenance work, nor is there any recognition or understanding of the fact that it is the village communities who are still responsible for irrigation management in most villages. The response of the officials when confronted with this fact of traditional irrigation management still being alive is to simply deny that such a thing ever existed. And when confronted with the most essential need today of the Erys, namely desalting, the PWD claims that its resources do not permit it to undertake such a mammoth task. One scholar reports after a study of the Andhra Pradesh situation that "the financial stringency for minor irrigation works in general and their maintenance in particular has been one of the important reasons for the decline of the area of irrigation under the tanks".29 However it is the community management of Erys which continues to this day in spite of the hostility which the state continues to evince (again a colonial hangover) for any form of peoples initiative.


Modern irrigation structures are of two kinds. (1) Dams/Canals - these are highly centralized structures which can be controlled by a handful of officials in a central place. (2) Borewells/tubewells etc - which are completely privately owned and managed leading to un-restrained exploitation of resources (ground water).

As a contrast to these two, Erys can neither be centrally controlled, since they have highly dispersed structures nor can they be normally privately owned since they are far too large for this. An Ery has to be managed by a community of users.

It is important here to take note of one significant fact. During the entire British period, while the Ery system was forced into a state of neglect and disrepair due to the Governmental policy, Erys and water distribution and management in particular were in the hands of village communities. And these communities did manage irrigation according to their traditional methods, norms and practices. Although the state had formal control of Erys, the writ of the state ran only upto the bund of the Ery and no further. It was the village community which decided what to do with the water that collected in the Ery. Details such as when to open the sluices, how long would the sluices be open, how much water was to flow to each field and how, what particular crops would be cultivated in which part of the ayacut, which cultivator could cultivate and what eta, were all worked out by the community of cultivators, decisions usually arrived at by consensus. However, none of these organizations existed "officially'' and there was certainly no recognition that very sound principles were involved in arriving at these decisions. These traditional irrigation organizations continue to exist, as virtually underground organizations, receiving no official recognition or state patronage. And practically all the cultivation under Erys - except for a handful of very large Erys - is even today managed by village communities along traditional methods of management. In fact, for irrigation to go on at all, there must be an organization at the village level to manage the irrigation. And irrigation under Erys is indeed going on with no assistance from any outside source in all villages where Erys exist.

There is a great variety in the features of irrigation organizations depending on the supply of the water to the Ery, the size of the Ery, number of sluices etc. as well as the particular cultural, soda! and political history of the area and the composition of the castes that live in the village. But the general principles governing these organization are the same - the way the organization is constituted, the relationship it has to its members and employees, the mode of payment of the employees, the mode of mobilizing funds, and the manner of distribution of water etc.

Here we shall see some features of traditional irrigation management as it is found even today in many South Indian villages.

Community management of irrigation is undertaken by various types of organisations (1) Kutam or Joti panchayats (2) Village based organizations such as Oor (village) panchayats (3) Macro-level organization which take care of supra-local level management, for example, different reaches of a river. Or there may be a specific water users' association consisting of all cultivators under the Ery or other irrigation source concerned. Hence, often the office bearers and the head of the irrigation organization are village elders, who are also members of the (informal) caste or village panchayat organization.

Irrigation associations and office bearers represent a wide cross section of castes and all religions. A study from the Tirunelveli area of Tamil Nadu reveals that the irrigation associations consist of members from a number of cases such as Vellalas NadarsjMuppan, Konar, Asari, Maravar, Harijan Sambadavar, as well as the three religions namely, Hindu, Muslim and Christian.

These "water users" associations consisting of all cultivators under the Erys and the "office bearers" of such associations are normally elected by consensus at a meeting of the association. The number of office bearers depends on the size of the ayacut i.e. the number of members of the organisation. The distribution of water is handled by village servants known, variously as, Kambukatti, Neerkatti, Neerghanti, Neerpaychi, Neerani, Madayan Thotti etc. in different parts of Tamil Nadu. The irrigation servants are "employees" of the water users' association and these employees as well as the office bearers may be removed by the association if the members are not satisfied with any of them. Irrigation servants are almost always drawn from the Harijan Community. Often this position comes down hereditarily in the same families. For their services, these Kambukattys receive wages in kind still in most villages. (In some Chengalpattu villages, their wages amount to 6 Kg. of paddy per acre per crop per Kambukatty). Kambukatty are respected in the community and their word is strictly obeyed by all cultivators in matters relating to irrigation and water distribution.

Where the Ery is a "system Ery" i.e., where the supply to the Ery is from a Channel from an anaicut (a diversion structure) on a river, there may be village servants who are responsible for bringing the water to the Ery. They patrol the channel from the anaicut to the Ery, checking against potential water theft or damage to structures. (In some parts of Tamil Nadu these functionaries are called Neeranis). Since several Erys are involved in receiving water from an anaicut, often conflicts arise in the sharing of water. Conflicts are normally resolved at the level of the village servants or if that is not possible, by the office bearers of the respective water users' associations involved.

The Neerghantis or Kambukattys are next responsible for opening and closing the sluices of the Erys for irrigation. In the first crop season, known as Samba in Tamil Nadu (normally August-January) the sluices are opened towards the end of the season when the rains no longer provide sufficient water for the paddy crop. The date of first issue of water is decided normally by the office bearers of the association, and an appropriate and auspicious date is chosen. In some Erys, all the sluices may be opened simultaneously and each sluice irrigates a specific portion of the ayacut. In others, the most elevated sluice may be opened first and allowed to irrigate all the lands. After this sluice is exhausted, the other sluices are opened, one by one, in some pre-determined sequence, until the deepest sluice is exhausted.

Before the second crop (called Navarai in Chengalpattu) is started, the irrigation association considers the amount of water in the Ery and, based on the estimate of the quantity of water, decides how much of the ayacut should be cultivated, what crop/crops ought to be cultivated (i.e. whether the water is sufficient for the cultivation of paddy or not) and if the entire ayacut cannot be cultivated, even details such as which of the cultivators ought to cultivate which plots etc.

If the water availability is such that the entire ayacut cannot be cultivated, then the irrigated areas are restricted to a part of the ayacut. Here, this decision like all other decisions is arrived at by consensus. Hence, there is a good deal of give and take and use of discretion taking into consideration the situation of each cultivator as far as possible. For instance, water scarcity normally implies that cultivation is confined to the part of the ayacut closest to the bund or only the head-reach, but if a tail-reach or far away farmer has to cultivate and he is poor, either he gets a special allotment of water or he is given a plot in the head-reach through exchange of plots with another cultivator and asked to cultivate the head-reach plot. This kind of a transaction takes place in the village meeting of the irrigation association and it is mediated by the head of the association. In some parts of Bihar, plots under the Erys are so owned and distributed that each cultivator has plots near the bunds as well as far away. Thus the benefits of irrigation are distributed fairly evenly among all cultivators.30

Similarly, water scarcity may compel the association to decide that members (cultivators) should not cultivate any paddy and cultivate only crops which have relatively low water requirements such as millets ground nul etc. Or, different crops may be allocated for different parts of the ayacut, e.g. paddy in the head-reach and dry crops in the tail-reach etc

The Kambukattys are the only ones normally authorised to open and close the sluices. Once the sluices are opened, they are kept open until the entire ayacut is irrigated according to the rules followed for such irrigation. Normally, the fields are irrigated sequentially from the head (nearest to bund) to the tail-reach (farthest from bund) of the ayacut. There are Erys where the reverse sequence Le., tail-to-head irrigation, is followed. Once the entire ayacut is irrigated, the sluice is closed by the Kambukatty in charge until the next round of irrigation.

In larger erys a 'Kambukatty may be in charge of one specific sluice. When the ayacut is divided and each sluice is assigned to irrigate a specified portion of the ayacut, each Kambukatty in charge of a sluice will have to make sure the specific portion of the ayacut under his charge is completely irrigated. Each Kambukatty personally diverts the water into each plot under his jurisdiction and shuts off the plot when the requisite amount of water has been let into the field. The judgment of the Kambukatty regarding the amount of water let into each field is trusted and accepted by the cultivators.

If any Kambukutty loses the trust of a number of cultivators, he may be removed and another appointed in his place. This can be done at an annual meeting of the association where such decisions fare taken. The role of Kambukkatty is important since it minimises conflicts between cultivators over water distribution.

The other important functionary is the head of the Irrigation Organisation. The head of the irrigation organization has two important responsibilities. He supervises all the activities of the association and he serves as a link between the association and the world outside, be it other associations or the bureaucracy. Although he receives no salary, his position is socially very prestigious. In the case of system-Erys there is a need to coordinate activities related to the supply of water into the Ery, with other Ery-associations in the system, resolve conflicts etc His role is important from the .point of view of the PWD as well, since he is the only source of information to the PWD regarding the status of the Ery concerned. In situations requiring quick mobilization of the cultivators, such as closing and opening the overflow weirs, the head of the association has to mobilize the help needed.

The concern of the community irrigation association is to maximize the efficiency of water use by making the best possible use of it. Hence, often during water scarcity, cultivation is restricted to the head-reach. Of course, discretion is used in exceptional circumstances. But normally, a head-reach first policy maximises overall production. This made eminent sense in a society where all the produce was pooled together out of which deductions were made for all the inhabitance of the community, as it used to happen in the pre-British Chengalpattu villages and perhaps elsewhere in South India too.31

The only maintenance undertaken by the irrigation association is to keep all the channels in the ayacut clean. This is enforced by the association and each farmer is expected to dear the channel passing next to his fields. If the cultivator fails to do this, the head of the irrigation association may get this done through hired labour and charge the cultivator the amount for this labor.

The major and often the only source of funds to the association is the income from the sale of fish in the Ery. This fund is used in all the minor repair and maintenance work, as well as in the maintenance of temples and for conducting temple festivals in many villages. In other words, irrigation related expenditure is only one part of the total expenditure charged on this fund. Much more needs to be mobilized very often and this is done by collecting a contribution from each cultivator.

There are instances where, when PWD is unwilling to undertake repairs to the Eryy the association mobilizes the requisite funds and undertake the repairs on its own. A study has estimated that one association managed to mobilize as much as Rs. 250 - 350 per hectare per year locally through voluntary contribution from the cultivators. This study concludes that cultivators who are members of an active Ery organization contribute much greater financial resources for Ery management than (what) the PWD spends for repairs. (See Table - 6).

Thus the presence of the informal irrigation association provides several benefits to its members, the cultivators, namely -

(i) Reliable water distribution;
(ii) Minimizing of conflicts - The role of Kambukattys and the mediation by the head of
association, all these serve to minimize conflicts.
(iii) Better maintenance of the Ery, since PWD is not able to attend to all repairs. When
emergency repairs are needed, such as temporary closing of breaches to the bund, the association normally mobilizes the members to attend to the work;
(iv) Better organization and maintenance of the Ery and other resources, such as fish, trees etc. and a capacity and confidence to deal with the Governmental machinery.

It has also been argued that the functioning of irrigation associations is associated with better distribution of water and higher yields.32

As mentioned earlier, in the governmental view these traditional organizations simply do not have any status. As an illustration, consider the proposal for the pilot projects of the Tank Modernization programme, drawn up by the Tamil Nadu PWD (1979).

It states "Presently there is no defined and recognized authority for water regulation from the tank, as well as within the command area. However, in order to ensure smooth and efficient functioning of this regulation, it is proposed to constitute two committees comprising of official and non-official members".

The first committee, responsible for water distribution from the sluice to 10 hectare blocks in the ayacut, was to include the assistant executive engineer of the PWD, the district agricultural officer and three "progressive fanners" nominated by the engineers. The second committee for water management within the 10 hectare blocks was to include the panchayat president and three "progressive farmers'1 nominated by the district agricultural officer.

There are many obvious problems with this suggestion. The major problem is of course, the attitude reflected here of the tank modernizers towards our people and their traditional modes of organizations. At least in one of these Erys where the pilot project was implemented there was the traditional village Nattamai which was in charge of the irrigation management. That the PWD did not take this into account is perhaps not surprising. But to insist the committees made up of Government servants and their nominees among the farmers would be able to ensure "smooth and efficient functioning" of the irrigation seems utterly ridiculous.

One feature of this committee is that the farmers nominated are expected to be "progressive". This normally means that they are economically well-off and are open to taking up modern cultivation i.e. they are open to the ideology of modernization. These committees are merely extensions of the PWD and the rest of the Government machinery and are in no way responsible to the cultivators.

While it is true that in some villages the irrigation organization is less "organized" than in others, it is inconceivable that in any village it is entirely absent - since Ery irrigation and cultivation have to go on and without some such organization it just cannot. The major reason for the weakening of the traditional organization is the taking away of that resource base, a process which began in the period of British rule and which continues to this day. Perhaps the Indian state today is not as conscious as the British state was in depriving the village institutions of their resources, but since the same state institutions and norms operate, the process of weakening the institutions of the people continues unabated. For example, the revenue from fishing in the Erys used to belong to the village communities historically (as described earlier) and this revenue was used to maintain Erys and generally finance the activities of the irrigation organization. Now there is an attempt to take away this source of revenue from village communities and not allow village communities to take the fishing rights in auction. This will destroy what could perhaps be the last available resource of the village communities. In fact, the fishing rights ought to belong to the village communities as a right.

The process of modernization has transformed not only the agriculture and irrigation requirements but has also led to the state directly intervening in the villages. In the following section, an example of such intervention can be seen in the programme for "Tank Modernization" introduced in Tamil Nadu.


In Tamil Nadu, within the last several years, a situation has been reached, where there was hardly any scope for new major irrigation projects. So, the focus shifted to minor irrigation works.

In the late 70's under a scheme funded by the European Economic Community (EEC), the PWD initiated a Programme for Tank Modernization". Under this programme, the following factors were identified as impairing irrigation efficiency o(Erys: (1) Reduced inflow into tanks, mainly due to the silting up of feeder canals (2) Siltation of Ery bed leading to reduced capacity of the Ery (3) Weak bunds leading to breaching and loss of water (4) Sluices needing major repairs and design changes (5) Surplus weirs needing redesign and repairs (6) Siltation of the water distribution system (7) Seepage losses in the water delivery systems (Le. channels) (8) Lack of equity in water regulation (9) Field-to-field irrigation.

Although the "reduced capacity due to siltation" of Erys is one of the stated concerns of the programme, desalting was not to be among the items of actual work undertaken. The actual work of "modernization" is carried out by two departments of the Government, the Public Works Department and the Agricultural Engineering Department (AED). While the PWD is concerned with the repairing of bunds and sluices, overflow weirs etc the AED handles only the "On-farm Development" (OFD) works - Cement lining of channels and construction of the necessary infrastructures for implementing "rotational irrigation" to ensure technologically that each cultivator receives the same quantity of water at regular intervals. These are aimed at preventing seepage losses in conveyance and bringing about "equity" in water distribution respectively. Betterment levies are collected from the farmers for the OFD works.

In an earlier section, the proposal of the pilot study was briefly mentioned in connection with the committees for irrigation management. In Chengalpattu District a pilot study was launched in 1982, in one Ery as part of a pilot study involving eight Erys all over Tamil Nadu.

The following is a brief evaluation of the Tank modernization scheme, as observed in two of the Erys, in villages PP and PN in Chengalpattu District where this programme was undertaken.

The most striking fact that emerges from the study is that there are two different views confronting each other in the context of the modernization programme. One is the official view which emphasizes factors such as reduction in losses in conveyance and "equity" in the distribution of water (i.e., each farmer gets an identical measured quantity of water, no matter which part of the ayacut he cultivates). In fact, as will be explained below, the emphasis of the PWD has been on more "efficient" use of water and to this end "On-farm Development" (OFD) works have been undertaken as the major component of each tank - modernization scheme. On the contrary what the farmers are interested in is in augmenting the supply of water to the tank and effecting repairs to the tank bund and sluices.

Farmers are primarily concerned about the desalting of the tank bed. They are unanimous in asserting that this is the single most important task that needs to be undertaken. Often farmers remarked "Only if there is food in the vessel can it reach the leaf - meaning that the capacity of the Ery should be first increased before undertaking the cement-lining of field channels etc. which seeks to minimize the wastage of water.

Further, there has been no involvement of the farmers in planning and execution of these schemes. While the consent of farmers is sought at the beginning of the project, subsequent designing, construction and implementation of the works are carried out without any discussion with the farmers. In PN a committee to represent the farmers was formed and fanners from all reaches of the ayacut were nominated to this committee. However, this committee was not a popular one and hence not truly representative. Although several meetings were held between the implementing agency and the committee, farmers in general and some committee members themselves took no interest in these meetings. Another reason for the failure of the committee who was that one of the leading fanners in the ayacut was also given the contract for the On-Farm Development works. This created a great deal of distrust among the farmers, damaged the credibility of the committee and completely vitiated the functioning of the committee.

In PP, the Nattamai which is the existing village institution managing the irrigation, does not seem to have been involved in the planning and implementation of the scheme. Perhaps the PWD was not even aware of the existence and the importance of Nattamai at the village level. This neglect ruled out any meaningful interaction between the PWD and the community of farmers.

Farmers accept only their own-system of water distribution as fair. Traditionally certain equilibrium prevailed among water users which took into account various concerns of farmers and their needs - such as head and tail each cultivation. An attempt, by an external agency such as the PWD, to impose a new order, in the name of "equity" is not going to make any headway especially since the supply has not been augmented and the new system tends to adversely affect the quantum, time, timeliness and reliability of the water supplies to users who are traditionally used to a certain pattern of water supply.

Further, this approach creates new expectations among tail-end users and creates new conflicts between head reach and tail reaches farmers and even between villages. Head reach farmers seem to insist on the first claim to the water and assurance of a minimum supply, equivalent to earlier use.

In many traditional systems, custom establishes that some sections of the command area have superior right and have first claim over available supplies. This seems to be the case under Erys in PP and PN, where the head reach villages have the first claim to water as compared to tail-reach villages. It is not only from the point of view of the custom or tradition that the "head-reach first" system ought to' be considered. The head-reach first system uses water best in times of scarcity and also helps fields lower down by seepage so that water is most efficiently used and gives the maximum total yield.

In PP, farmers also pointed out as to how the system of rotational irrigation makes the whole process of irrigation slower as compared to their earlier method of irrigating directly from main channels. Thus farmers lower down wait for their turn for longer periods, often when timely irrigation is fairly critical. This also increases the possibility of conflicts among farmers'

Although some tail-end farmers were happy with cement lined channels and the idea of rotational irrigation, only through increasing capacity of the Ery by desalting can the tail enders receive an assured supply of water without threatening the interests of the head-reach farmers.

The concern of the PWD regarding the wastage of water by seepage during conveyance is based on unsound reasoning and not relevant in the cultivation of Paddy. Seepage does not seem to be a problem in cultivation of paddy under Erys. All the water that seeps into the soil must go either towards recharging the ground water in the ayacut or in providing moisture to the fields further down. Hence there seems to be no need to worry about the "wastage" of water through seepage. Often design features were very unsound and pointed to the lack of familiarity of the engineers with the system.

In PP, the new cement-lined channels at one end of the ayacut carried far too much water during heavy rains and used to flood part of a village nearby. The villagers have broken the channels to allow flood water to go away from their village and to save their homes from flooding.

A new sluice which was built in PP was located at a vulnerable spot. When the new sluice was being planned, farmers seem to have objected to its location. The sluice was also located too close to the bund, thus weakening the bund. Subsequently the sluice gave way and the bund breached during heavy rains.

Cement lining of channels makes channels inflexible from the point of view of deepening them when it is necessary to draw water into them as the level of water goes down in the Ery. Cement lining also makes it impossible for bullock carts to cross the channels. This has compelled farmers to break the channels to make room for carts to pass through, Unlined canals were useful in several ways. Seepage is useful for plant growth and canals were also used for catching fish.

Often the new field channels were constructed at such a high level that as water went down in the Ery these channels could not draw any water. Farmers in PN had suggested to the engineers that these new channels ought to be constructed at lower levels.

In PN, after repairs, the tank bund was left too vertical without a sufficient outside slope to carry away rain water smoothly. Farmers pointed out that this increased the chance of the bund getting washed away.

As it has been described here, considerations such as 'equity’ and 'efficiency’ in the sense in which they seemed important from the PWD point of view did not seem significant at all from the farmer's point of view.

The PWD has never demonstrated in practice the superiority of the new system over the existing system of water distribution. No cost benefit analyses seem to have been done to show that the expenditure on OFD was indeed justified in terms of saving of water or the increase in over-all productivity. In the absence of such demonstration, particularly when water level of the Ery is low, the farmers are naturally suspicious of the claims of the implementing agency. Any attempt to change the existing scheme generates resistance since the users are not sure of the overall benefits from change and are in fact likely to be apprehensive about how it would affect each one of them.

Farmers do welcome efforts on the part of the Government to augment the water supply and repair the facilities such as the Ery, bund, sluice and Kalangals. The "On Farm Development" work did not seem to them to be necessary. Often this led to resentment and silent non-cooperation from the farmers or even active sabotaging of the OFD works. In PP, in about five years, almost all the cement-lined channels have been either broken or abandoned and the farmers have reverted back to their old system of irrigation. In PN, quite a number of the cement lined channels are damaged and the new irrigation system has not been adopted.

If we examine the background to the modernization programme, the conflict between the Government and the village community and the reasons for the rejection of the Programme become clearer. The modernization programme is funded by the EEC. A similar scheme is also to be funded by World Bank in the near future. When international agencies fund these projects, it appears that they direct the State Government to prepare the proposal according to the funding agency point of view.

The countries funding these "modernization'' schemes have historically no experience and; understanding of Ery irrigation or for that matter any traditional irrigation technology and its management. Their idea of the Indian village community is derived usually from 19th Century view of the "natives". Hence the basic premise of the modernization programme is that the village community is unjust and unscientific and that methods of modern science and technology have to be used to break these old ways. The technocratic solutions proposed also basically aim at attaining the goal of all modernization - that of shifting the control of water management from the village to the government.

The two aspects of "On Farm Development" works - cement lining of field channels and implementation of rotational irrigation - aim at controlling the last drop of water that reaches the fields of the farmers, in the interests of a so-called "equity". It is this attempt by an outside (Governmental) agency to control the water that is resisted by the village community. And then-response is to completely ignore OFD works and in fact break up the works, if possible, when they interfere with their usual ways of irrigation and go back to their old ways.

The village community is in favor of the repairs to the bunds and sluices but they seem to
want to have nothing to do with any tampering of irrigation beyond the sluice, into the ayacut. The "authority" of the Government up to the bund is granted under the present circumstances - in fact, this is expected as shown by the attitude of the village community towards desilting of Ery. In their rejection of the "modernization" scheme, the village communities seemed to be unanimous. The poorer farmers seemed to reject the scheme more emphatically - denying that there were any benefits to them at all some of the better off farmers wanted to see how the OFD works would be useful to them, wherever possible they utilized the cement-lined channels as part of the irrigation. But even they did not see any overall benefits from the scheme. Even the farmer in PN who was given the contract for the OFD - works and who stood to gain from the scheme could not whole-heartedly support the OFD scheme.

The demand for desalting the Ery was also quite unanimous from the whole community. Whereas in their proposals the Government recognizes the need for desalting in practice only the "modernization" of irrigation and "rationalizing" water distribution are undertaken, presumably strictly in conformity with the guidelines of the Western funding agencies.

In the Kudi-Maramath issue, the British state tried to coerce the village communities to do desalting of the Erys without providing them the material resources to make this effort possible. In the modernization scheme once again there is an attempt to compel the cultivators to "economies" on water use, without deepening the Erys and making the capacity of Erys larger. And once again the Government has met with a similar response from the cultivators. In rejecting the "modernization" of Ery irrigation the village communities seem to be telling the state - This far and no further".


The National Technology Mission on drinking water (NTM) is to spend Rs. 2000crores in the 7th plan period for providing drinking water to nearly one lakh villages, at the rate of 40litres per capita for human consumption and 30 liters per head of cattle per day. Ground water is to be the source for providing all the drinking water. Under this mission, out of five "sub-mission", one is concerned with "conservation" of water and recharging of Aquifers". However 4 out of the 5 submissions are devoted to removal of various contaminations and impurities in water through high technology means.

And further the methodology lists various steps such as, "Improvement of traditional methods", "Improvement of maintenance methods" "Community involvement - village panchayat" - etc. Since these different components have not been elaborated, it is not clear what exactly will be the outcome of each.

In Tamil Nadu the "mini-mission districts" chosen are Ramanathapuram, South Arcot and Salem. Of these, two districts Ramnad and South Arcot have had a very large number of Erys which have been instrumental in the storage of rain water and charging of groundwater. So, if the technology mission is relying on "conservation of water" and "recharging" ground water, in such areas, the Erys will have to be first brought to their original condition and modalities will have to be worked out to involve the community in maintenance of the Erys. Without such measures to bring in traditional methods of water conservation, the problem of providing drinking water to villages in low-rainfall areas may become only a distant dream.

The spokespersons for Technology Missions often speak about the Missions as if only high-technological solutions are going to be useful in solving the drinking water problem. However, areas such as Ramnad district have become "drought-prone" only because all traditional water-conserving technology such as Erys have been allowed to become dysfunctional.

In order to be able to do justice to the objectives of the Mission, a very detailed and large scale analysis of the hydrology of various water-deficient regions of the country as well as a database on all traditional water-conservation resources in these regions need to be made immediately. The centralized planning authority under the Government ought to be able to at least build up the necessary data-base. It appears that such an exercise has not been conceived of under the NTM. Only a detailed understanding of the traditional water conserving resources will provide meaningful ideas on way of extracting ground water to provide drinking water to all the villages in these regions. Merely proposing imported high-tech solutions under the erroneous impression that groundwater can be extracted freely without worrying about recharge at the outset itself can only make the crisis worse.


It has come to be widely acknowledged that decentralization of water management is an important issue today. For such decentralization to be successful it needs to be based on the existing irrigation or water control institutions or organizations at the village level. Among the most important of such organizations are the traditional village administrative institutions (such as the Nat-tamai) which have been briefly described in this article.

It has already been described how during, the British rule of India, local communities and their participation in the local management of water resources were seriously disrupted. The mechanical continuation of this approach of the colonial period during the post-independence period has succeeded in further alienating the people and their institutions from the state. Irrigation development has remained the purview of engineers whose concern has been merely with quantities and structures and that too only as given in old reports. The consequences of such a dichotomy between the institutions of the state and those of the people are reflected in the ridiculous nature of schemes, such as the modernization of Ery irrigation. While the government and its agencies complain about the lack of participation of farmers in Governmental schemes, and lack of initiative on the part of village communities, there has been no attempt by the State agencies to' understand this from an indigenous perspective which takes into account the shifting of the control of resources from village communities into the hands of the State during the British rule,

The introduction of new technology of cultivation under "Green Revolution" based on the new HYV - seed varieties in paddy which claim to increase the productivity of a given amount of water have further helped only in putting more pressure on the village communities through the accentuation of economic disparities in the communities and creation of vested interests. The effect of "modernization" of Erys is bound to be similar - since it aims at some abstract "equity" which implies that all the users are to have a one-to-one relationship with the governmental agency implementing the scheme, and ignores the popular water sharing arrangements. This would only help in further atomizing the community and creating conflicts among users. Hence, the efforts to modernize the village economy have only succeeded in further destroying the village community and stifling its initiative in the management of irrigations. In fact, every. Governmental intervention seems to accentuate this process.

What the situation demands is a major restructuring of Indian pality among indigenous lines. The village institutions which are reasonably functional even today, ought to be fully involved in any plan to improve irrigation management. Not only this, resources which are essential for the healthy functioning of these institutions need to be restored to them. Once their role and importance in the functioning of irrigation system is recognized, resources must be appropriately allocated to them to enable them to function effectively. In the absence of such resources, merely appealing to or exhorting the village communities to undertake voluntary action to maintain Erys will have no impact, as is evident from looking at the Kudi-Maramath issue. The state should seriously consider modalities through which Erys once again become the property of village communities! Given the complexity of the legal system and the reality of the
vested interests created through the history of State intervention this may not be a simple task. However, without somehow creating in the people of the village a sense of "owning" the Ery, i.e., the feeling that the Ery is theirs, it would be impossible to maintain the Erys in a proper working condition.

In the old Mural (water distribution rights) systems, for example, in the Tambraparani area of Tamil Nadu, water was defined as a customary right of village communities. In countries such as Japan collective rights of communities to water is granted even today.

Recent research has also pointed out the tremendous scope for extending Ery construction to areas where potential exists - in the form of appropriate landscape, rainfall and so on. The efforts of the state Governments in this respect so far have been very ill-conceived. For example,

Karaalaka Government has spent crores of rupees in constructing new Erys in areas where all that was necessary was to repair and revive old Erys. The first effort must be to revive all the old Erys which are gradually dying and disappearing into urban extensions, and building sites. Such bund expansion of urban areas needs to be hated with immediate effect.

It must be still be possible to harness the run off waters from a large portion of the semi-arid tracts of India by a proper extension of the indigenous Ery technology. Without a proper study and understanding of the Ery technology, the modern civil engineers will not be able to play any innovative role in providing water to regions in India which have become perennially "drought - prone".

In order to be able to effectively rejuvenate and extend the Ery system the most basic requirement is a data base. The data currently available with the PWD and other Governmental agencies is far from reliable or adequate. (For instance, even the District Census Handbooks have no useful information on Erys). There is no reliable data as to how many Erys actually exist in our country and what the status of each Ery is. Appropriate agencies must be created to generate this data and such data can be generated only by involving knowledgeable individuals from each village which has an Ery.

Erys have always existed for the benefit of the people whom they served. And history shows us that it is the innovation and genius of our people that has given us this technology and the social and political organisation responsible for maintaining the Ery system in good condition. This extraordinary indigenous technology can once again play its historic role in the welfare of our people only if we once again find ways to give full scope to the innovation and creativity of our people and our village communities.


  1. Ninnal Sen Gupta, "Irrigation: Traditional Vs Modern", EEW_ Special, November 1985.

  2. R. Baird Smith: "The Cauvery, Kistnah and Godavery: Being a report on the works constructed on these rivers", London, 1856 (p.136).

  3. Epigraphica Inida, Vol. XIV, p. 97.

  4. Sir Arthur Cotton - "Irrigation Works in India" (1874), Lectures, Uddaraju Raman, Vijayawada, 1968.

  5. Quoted in A. Appadurai (1936), "Economic Conditions in Southern India, 1000-1500. AD", University of Madras, 1936 VoL I pp. 200-229.

  6. CJ. Baker "An Indian Rural Economy, 1880-1955 - The Tamil Nadu Countryside", Oxford University Press, 1984.

  7. D.L.O.'Mendis, "Walking on two legs" Inaugural address, The Institute of Engineers, Sri Lanka, 1986787.

  8. Dharampal (1986) "Some aspects of Earlier Indian Society and Polity and their relevance to the Present", Parts I, II, ITI, New Quest 1986.

  9. Uttiramerur inscription - dated early 10th Century. Details from, V. Venkayya (1904) Irrigation in Southern Indian in Ancient Times", Archaeological Survey of India, Annual Report, 1903-04.

  10. "Common Property and Community Maintenance: Dasabandam and Pre-British irrigation Works", V. Subbulakshmi, University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad. Presented at the Lokayan Workshop on Tank Irrigation, Bangalore, July 1988.

  11. Barnards Survey - Details in Dharampal (1986) Ibid.

  12. Alexander Dalrymple: A Short Account of the Gentoo Mode of Collecting the Revenue on the Coast of Choromandel, London, 1783, p.3.

  13. W.H. Moreland (1920) "India at the Death of Akbar", London 1920.

  14. Baker (1984) Ibid.

  15. Dharampal (1972) "The Madras Panchayat System, VoU: A General Assessment", Impex India, Delhi.

  16. Dharampal (1972) Ibid.

  17. Cotton (1874) Ibid.

  18. V, Subramaniyam Chetty, "Tank Irrigation during East India Company - A Study of Cuddapah District", Paper presented at the Lokayan Workshop on Tank Irrigation, Bangalore, July 1988.

  19. "First report of the commissioners appointed to enquire into and report upon the system of superintending and executing Public Works in the Madras Presidency", Madras, 1852 (Tamil Nadu Archives),

  20. D. Narasimha Reddy, "A Note on the decline of Tank Irrigation", Talk presented at the Lokayan Workshop on Tank Irrigation, Bangalore, July 1988.

  21. M. Von Oppen and K.V. Subba Rao, "Tank Irrigation in Semi-Arid Tropical India", JCRISAT, May 1980.

  22. 22. D. Narasimha Reddy, Ibid.

  23. 23. Report of the Indian Irrigation Commission, 1901-03, Tamil Nadu Archives.

  24. 24. G. R. Kuppuswamy, "Irrigation System in Karnataka - Methods and Techniques".

  25. Sir. Gabriel Stokes in 1905 quoted in Baliga (1949) "Studies in Madras Administration" Government of Madras, 1960, pp. 199-208.



    (.... In Million Hectares...)

    1950-51 20.9 3.6 5.9
    1951-52 21.0 3.4 6.5
    1952-53 21.2 3.2 6.6
    1953-54 21.7 4.1 6.7
    1954-55 21.9 4.0 6.7
    1955-56 22.8 4.4 6.7
    1956-57 22.5 4.5 6.2
    1957-58 23.2 4.5 6.S
    1958-59 23.4 4.8 6.7
    1959-60 23.8 4.7 6.9
    1960-61 24.6 4.6 7.3
    1961-62 24.9 4.6 7.3
    1962-63 25.7 4.8 7.6
    1963-64 25.9 4.6 7.8
    1964-65 26.6 4.8 8.1
    1965-66 26.7 4.4 8.7
    1966-67 27.1 4.6 9.2
    1967-68 27.3 4.6 9.3
    1968-69 29.0 4.0 10.8
    1969-70 30.3 4.4 11.1
    1970-71 31.4 4.5 11.9
    1971-72 31.9 4.1 12.2
    1972-73 32.0 3.6 13.0
    1973-74 32.5 3.9 13.2
    1974-75 33.7 3.5 14.2
    1975-76 34.5 4.0 14.3

    Source: Tank Irrigation in Semi-arid Tropical India Progress Report 2 by M. Von Oppen and K.V. Subba Rao, ICRISAT, 1980.

  27. Baliga (1949) Ibid.

  28. S.Y. Krishnaswanry (1947) "Rural Problems in Madras", Madras, Government Press.

  29. D. Narasimha Reddy (1988) Ibid.

  30. Nirmal Sen Gupta (1985) Ibid.

  31. Dharampal (1986) Ibid

  32. Palanisami, K., and William Easter (1983), The Tanks of South India (A potential for future expansion in irrigation)" University of Minnerota, Institute of Agriculture, Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, Economics Report, ER 83-4, June.

  33. Proposal for the Pilot Projects of the Tank Modernization Programme, PWD, Tamil Nadu

  34. TABLE - 2
    State Region District Area Irrigated by Erys(Gross) Total Gross irr. area by all sources No. of Erys %Gross Ery irr. area to total irr. area Average size of Erys(Ha.)
      (-----(1000 Ha.)-----) 40 Ha. 40 Ha.    
    Rajasthan 270* 2136*     13 -
    Gujarat 35 1166 271 20022 3 1.7
    M.P. 131 1523     9 2.2
    Maharashtra 208 1570 1348 27857 13 7.1
    A.P. 1110 4423 7395 66114 25 15.1
    Tamilnadu 1084 3272 8726 27019 35 30.3
    Karnataka 373 1144*        
    * Net Irrigated Area
    Source: Tank Irrigation in Semi-arid Tropical India Part I by M. Von Oppen and K.V. Subba Rao, ICRISAT, 1980.1
    TABLE - 3
    District PWD Total Panchayat Union Total Ex-zamin   State Total
    Chengalpattu 1207 1783 756 3746
    North Arcot 1169 .2084 482 3735
    South Arcot 757 1766 79 2602
    Salem 188 549   737
    Dharmapuri 101 1579 154 1834
    Coimbatore 59 64   123
    Thanjavur 685 491   1176
    Pudukottai 530 5334   6394
    Tiruchy 268   214  
    Madurai 771 3391 331 4493
    Ramanathapuram 1508 1333 7367 10208
    Tirunelveli 686 965 445 2096
    Kanyakumari 984 1074   2058
    TOTAL 8903 20413 9886 39202
    Source: Ruth Susheela Meinzen-Dick, "Local Management of Tank Irrigation in South India Organization and Operation" - Cornell Studies in Irrigation, Cornell University, 1984.
    TABLE - 4
    DISTRICT 1882 - 83 Total Cropped area Net area Irrigated  by Erys Avg. for 1969 - 72 Total        Cropped area   Net area Irrigated by Erys
      (1) (2) (3) (4)
    Anantapur 114 89 2249 78
    Cuddapah 240 188 1142 42
    Kurnool 72 39 3220 33
    Bellary 72 53 1507 20
    Krishna 287 39 1661 88
    Nellore 225 151 1646 227
    Vizag 48 30 1307 221
    Salem 85 97 2283 80
    Coimbatore 142 44 2068 12
    Madurai 223 158 1601 130
    Chengalpattu 430 315 1070 405
    North Arcot 338 201 1589 260
    South Arcot 397 213 1786 268
    Thanjavur 104 46 2162 73
    Tirunelveli 377 145 1376 189
    Tirichirapalli 247 132 2031 196


    3511 1940 28698 2320

    Source: Tank Irrigation in Semi-arid Tropical India Part I by M. Von Oppen and KV. Subba Rao, ICRISAT, 1980.

    Year Canals area irrig. ha Tanks area irrig. ha Area irrig. ha Total No of wells No of Pumpsets Other area irrig. ha net area irrigated ha
    1960-61 881,771 936,400 675,477 873,689 35,078 46,164 2,462,251
    1965-66 799,147 902,545 761,963 1,036,068 49,610 37,695 2,398,574
    1970-71 883,661 897,923 898,675 1,243,905 41,231 35,625 2,591,836
    1975-76 910,441 749,828 1,005,458   411,389 35,258 2,565,120
    Source: Ruth Susheela Meinzen-Dick, "Local Management of Tank Irrigation in South India Organization and Operation" - Cornell Studies in Irrigation, Cornell University, 1984.
      ITEM APPROXIMATE CASH VALUE (Rupees/hectare)
      Low High
    Paddy for neeranis:    
      at 1982-82 harvest price 30.00  
      at 1982-83 harvest price   40.00
    Paddy for neerpachi:    
      at 1981-82 harvest price 63.00  
      at 1982-83 harvest price   86.00
    Cash contribution to tank fund 15.00 46.00
    Labor for channel cleaning:    
      approximately 5 man-days/ha 144.00 80.00
    Total of locally-mobilized contributions 252.00 352.00
    Source: Ruth Susheela Meinzen-Dick, "Local Management of Tank Irrigation in South India Organization and Operation" - Cornell Studies in Irrigation, Cornell University, 1984.


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