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Madurai NGO helps revive tank system, receive water from rainfall, reservoirs, canals

By Proshakha Maitra, Mansee Bal Bhargava*

In India, agriculture accounts for 85% of freshwater usage. Of this freshwater usage, 65% is extracted from groundwater sources, making overexploitation of groundwater reserves a significant concern for today and tomorrow’s water needs for all purposes. As, the intensive use of groundwater for irrigation has led to significant ecological and socio-economic challenges.
According to a report from the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), 14% of India’s groundwater assessment units are categorised as over-exploited, with an additional 4% falling into the critical category. This indicates that groundwater extraction in these areas exceeds the recharge rate and reaches 90-100% respectively.
Overall, the country's groundwater extraction stands at 60.08%, highlighting the pressing need for sustainable groundwater management practices to address the impending water scarcity challenges faced by India's agricultural sector and the local communities.
Current conventional farming practices have caused a decline in groundwater levels, depletion of aquifers, and water quality degradation. This overexploitation disrupts natural hydrological balance, leads to land subsidence, and increases energy consumption. Traditionally, surface water irrigation was prevalent in agriculture.
The introduction of pumps and energy subsidies have led to the convenient extraction of groundwater by the farmers, resulting in the gradual decline of the community-managed water usage and the maintenance of the groundwater which is a share or common property resource.
To tackle the depleting groundwater and increasing agricultural distress, novel and innovative technologies are gaining traction, all of which also advocate for the community-led and driven approach for the society management part. The community-led and driven approaches aim to involve local communities in sustainable water utilization and conservation, fostering a sense of ownership and responsibility. 
Through collective decision-making, equitable distribution, and efficient irrigation practices, community-driven water management can alleviate the strain on freshwater resources while supporting the livelihoods of agricultural communities.

The session

With this background, the Wednesdays.for.Water conversation titled, ‘Community Driven Irrigation Water Management’ was organised. The session speakers were A Gurunathan and Elamuhil S. Gurunathan is the Director of Tata-Dhan Academy with nearly 2 decades of extensive experience in irrigation water management and tank irrigation systems at DHAN Foundation overseeing a team of 150 professionals. His interests include climate change adaptation, water security, livelihoods, environment management, and project planning.
Elamuhil S, with interests in hydraulic and hydrologic modelling, remote sensing and GIS, has been working with Dhan Foundation for near a decade. With experience of working in water commons conservation with tribal, coastal and urban communities, he is anchoring the Centre for Urban Water Resources at Dhan foundation. The session is moderated by Dr Fawzia Tarannum.
The session was focussed around how communities can optimize water use, reduce groundwater dependency, and foster resilient agricultural systems that meet the needs of present and future generations. Both Gurunathan and Elamuhil highlighted how community driven approaches are crucial in building resilient agricultural systems that can sustainably meet the growing demands for food production and secure water resources for present and future generations.

Revival of community managed tank system

DHAN Foundation is a professional development institution engaging with vulnerable communities through various initiatives such as, poverty eradication, microfinancing, promotion of women's self-help groups (SHGs), rain-fed farming, coastal conservation and all of these towards community empowerment through livelihoods. One particular approach of engagement is the restoration and promotion of the tank system, a traditional water management system found in selected states of India such as, Tamil Nadu and Puducherry.
In the pre-colonial period, villages efficiently managed these tank systems, ensuring the removal of silt and maintaining the cascading level of tanks at both micro and macro watershed levels. However, during colonial rule, with the transfer of these assets to the government, the villagers lost interests in their maintenance as the government allocated minimal resources for minor irrigation systems. Consequently, the tank systems deteriorated over time, with encroachment and urbanization further contributing to their disappearance.
To address this issue, the Dhan Foundation was established in 1992 at Madurai, with a specific focus on initiating an action research project for regeneration of farmers' management in the tank irrigation system. It implemented a thematic approach, beginning with a pilot project involving nine tanks in the east block of Madurai.
The communities were required to bear one-fourth of the renovation costs, while the remaining three-fourths were funded through mainstream funding sources. This initiative aimed to promote community engagement and re-establish sustainable management practices within the tank system.
The revolution in water management began with the development of the first tank, which then evolved into cascades, watersheds, sub-basins, and basins. The focus also extended to system tanks, which received water diverted from reservoirs during canal irrigation, and non-system tanks that rely solely on rainfall.
The approach gradually shifted towards rainfed non-system tanks, recognizing the importance of these resources. Community institutions were established, initially involving farmers and later encompassing all households in the village benefiting from the tanks. This coincided with the presence of various programs, including those supported by the World Bank and other entities in India.
Since then, the DHAN Foundation operates in seven states, with significant work in Bihar, Orissa, and southern states. The foundation currently works with 400,000 farmer families and promote associations at the village and block levels, accessing entitlements and programs such as MGNREGA through direct collaboration with the Panchayat Union.
To expand the scope of renovation efforts, a concept of endowment was introduced. It works like this: when tank renovation work reaches completion, 50% of the funding is contributed by the community, with the remaining portion sourced from donors, agencies, or funding organizations like Tata Trust, NABARD etc.
The funds are kept as a fixed deposit in the organization's name, and the interest generated is utilized for the maintenance of the tanks, ensuring long-term efficiency. While renovation is a one-time approach, the program's primary focus is on sustaining agriculture and promoting holistic development practices among the farming communities.

Initial experiences

In the village of Kallukatti, located in the Pambar Basin, a community-driven water resource management example is evident in the restoration of the Oorani, a traditional drinking water pond. The Oorani collects water that seeps through the bund, providing a vital water source for the villagers.
Over time, the practice of rearing common goats and using the income generated for pond renovation began to fade away. After several years, the villagers revived this practice as a means to generate income and support the renovation of this essential water resource.
Implementing community-driven practices requires a thorough screening process to understand the number and nature of water bodies in the area, the relationship between the communities and the water sources, and the cost of maintenance. After identifying a suitable water body for intervention, an inception document is prepared, followed by people learning exercises. These exercises help revive traditional practices and explore opportunities to reconceptualize them.
Other stakeholders were invited to involve in this collective planning process. To make the intervention sustainable, the communities and stakeholders are encouraged to invest in the process. The estimates for restoration are collectively prepared, with guidance from the Foundation, and approved by the communities before implementation.
Initially it was challenging to convey and convince the communities and other stakeholders to engage in tank revival. Slowly, over time, the communities realized the importance of the endeavour and motivated each other to participate. Other stakeholders including donors were also gradually convinced and started supporting the initiatives.

Vayalagam Tank-fed Agriculture Development Program

The formation of Vayalagam marks a significant step in community-driven water resource management to shape a scalable program expanding from working on isolated tanks to tank-based watersheds, reviving chains of tanks in minor river basins to multiply the impact of the renovation and restoration works.
In the initial stages of water resource management, the focus was primarily on restoring individual irrigation tanks. However, soon it was realised by the team that sometimes a tank's restoration was part of a cascade system, where multiple tanks were interconnected, making it essential to restore the entire cascade to ensure proper functionality.
In such cases, cascade-level organizations were promoted to enhance efficiency and minimize disputes among farmers over water sharing. The cascade-level organizations ensure that surplus water is stored in upstream tanks and not released until downstream tanks are adequately filled. 
This equitable distribution of water helps maintain harmony and fairness in water allocation among farmers in the cascade system. Moving beyond the cascade level, there are sub-basin level organizations responsible for addressing larger water management issues.
To empower farmers and enhance their influence in the governance and administrative processes, the Vayalagam mutual movement was initiated. The movement enabled farmers to have greater bargaining power with the government and participate in policy decisions, providing them with a voice and representation in matters related to water resource management and agricultural policies. Additionally, watershed level interventions played a vital role in managing water resources on a broader scale, considering the entire watershed as an interconnected system.
Owing to the expanse of intervention, the initiative has gone beyond involving only farmers to extending memberships to include all direct beneficiaries of water resources, such as the washermen community, fishermen, and cattle grazers. This inclusive approach recognizes that water resources impact the livelihoods of various groups and ensures their representation in decision-making processes.
Initially, Vayalagams were predominantly male farmer-oriented. Over time, female farmers also actively participated in these organizations, reflecting a growing gender-inclusive approach for example, in the Kalanjiam microfinancing model. The participation of diverse stakeholders now ensures a holistic understanding of the challenges and opportunities related to water resource management.

The nestedness

The Vayalagam Collective is a nested institution model with a comprehensive approach putting communities at the centre of the development process, and with various levels of institutions providing specialized support and services. At the block level, there is the Block Federation, which coordinates and implements primary programs focusing on water resource management, agriculture-based activities, and other development initiatives. This level ensures that programs are tailored to local needs and challenges, fostering community ownership and participation.
Next in the hierarchy are SPICE (Specialised Institution for Community Empowerment) institutions, which cater to specific needs of the communities. They offer services like insurance, assistance in securing loans from centralized banks, livelihood enhancement programs, collective marketing for farmers, and community health centres. These specialized institutions aim to empower communities by providing them with the necessary resources and support to improve their livelihoods and overall well-being.
Above the SPICE institutions is the Central Office, comprising Integrated Centres, which plays a pivotal role in providing policy support and guidance to the programs implemented at lower levels. They facilitate knowledge-sharing and offer expertise to upgrade and refine development models for effective implementation.
This nested institution model created a well-structured and participatory approach to community development. By implementing the multi-level organizational structures and initiatives, the overall efficiency and sustainability of water resource management are significantly enhanced. By incorporating specialized support services and expert guidance through the multi-level organizational structures and initiatives, the Vayalagam model ensures that development initiatives are tailored, efficient, and sustainable.
The integrated model ensures equitable water distribution, promotes participatory decision-making, and emphasizes the importance of community empowerment and engagement, allowing communities to actively engage in decision-making and in policies that directly impact their livelihoods, development and progress.

Area-specific interventions

The tank restoration process encompasses both rural and coastal areas, addressing specific challenges in each. In rural areas, the focus is on livelihood enhancement through the restoration of water commons, drinking water ponds, Ahar-pynes (ancient floodwater harvesting systems), watershed development, and farm ponds. Tank-based agriculture and rural livelihoods enhancement are emphasized as climate-resilient approaches to ensure sustainable growth.
In coastal areas, the focus is on combating sea water intrusion. Restoration efforts involve creating and reviving village ponds, promoting traditional sluice operations to replace groundwater extraction, and implementing watershed development projects. The goal is to develop disaster-resilient coastal farming, safeguarding agricultural activities from the impacts of sea-level rise and sea(salt)water intrusion.
In urban areas, the focus is on building a sense of 'commons' among the populace. This is achieved by reconceptualizing water commons, rejuvenating water bodies, and encouraging safe usage of sewage for agriculture. Roof water harvesting is promoted for drinking water, and encroachment eviction measures are taken to protect water resources and public spaces.
In tribal areas, the focus is on ensuring access to drinking and domestic water by restoring community wells, ponds, and tanks. Additionally, efforts are made to develop inland fisheries, aiming to achieve water and nutrition security while enhancing livelihood opportunities for tribal communities.
By tailoring restoration efforts to the specific needs of each region, the overall approach ensures sustainable water resource management, improved livelihoods, climate resilience, and enhanced water and nutrition security for communities across rural, coastal, urban, and tribal areas.

Learning and way forward

In the planning and decision-making processes, the Vayalagam played a central role. They lead the entire exercise, bringing together the voices and concerns of the community members, including different stakeholders. This participatory approach fostered a sense of ownership and responsibility among the community members, empowering them to collectively address water-related issues.
Through the Vayalagam, communities have become more equipped to engage with government agencies and advocate for their needs, leading to more effective and sustainable water management practices. The Vayalagam model promotes democratic decision-making, equity in resource distribution, and long-term community-driven solutions to both social-ecological local matters, tanks and water being among them.
The restored tanks benefit various groups, including large and small farmers and landless individuals, leading to a sense of shared ownership and appreciation for the water resource. This community-driven approach has proven successful in revitalizing and sustaining essential water sources, ensuring the well-being and prosperity of all the members involved.
In addition to water resource management, the community-driven approach also emphasizes promoting alternative livelihood opportunities to uplift the communities and alleviate poverty. One such opportunity is cattle or livestock rearing, enabling families to generate income through dairy products or animal sales.
Another avenue explored is herbal product collection, harnessing the region's natural resources for medicinal purposes or the herbal market. Recognizing the importance of diversifying income sources, the focus extends beyond traditional agricultural activities.
The communities are encouraged to engage in various non-agricultural activities that align with their skills and resources. This approach aims to create a sustainable pathway out of poverty, offering new avenues for economic growth and stability.
*Proshakha Maitra is an independent scholar and senior fellow at ED(R)C Ahmedabad and WforW Foundation. Dr Mansee Bal Bhargava is an Entrepreneur, researcher, educator, speaker, mentor, Environmental Design Consultants Ahmedabad and WforW Foundation (,, Click here to know about WforW Foundation



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