Contents - Previous - Next
This is the old United Nations University website. Visit the new site at http://unu.edu
Part II Water Conflicts
Conflicts over river waters
The relatedness of water availability in different parts of a basin, and the linkage between land use and water use entails that activities of one kind in one part of the river basin can negatively or positively influence other activities in different parts of the basin. The failure to perceive this interconnectedness in the planning of water utilisation has become a major source of conflict over water use in river basins.
Water allocation between conflicting demands for water have rarely taken full cognizance of the underlying conflicts and have therefore aggravated the problems of inequalities and maldistribution. The four major categories of use on which water planning is based are:
Rarely have conflicts internal to each sector or between sectors been explicitly articulated in water development projects. On the contrary it has been assumed, for instance, that multi-purpose river valley projects that provide irrigation as well as generate hydro-power do not have conflicting uses. I However, the very location of these projects is primarily determined on the basis of either of these objectives and water releases are also determined by priorities for power or for irrigation. Other inter-sectoral conflicts include diversion of water for irrigation from drinking water, or for industry from agricultural and domestic use. Not only do diverse uses conflict with each other inter-sectorally, they can also conflict intra-sectorally on the basis of conflicting interests between the rich and powerful and the poor and marginal. The category 'domestic' as an undifferentiated one conceals the conflict between the poor rural peasants requiring a pot full of drinking water and the rich urban elite using large quantities of water for meeting the requirements of water-intensive sewage systems, space cooling, gardening, etc. Domestic requirements vary for different people and the high demands from urban areas are often met by diverting water from rural areas. Similarly, an undifferentiated category of agriculture conceals conflicts between water-intensive cultivation of commercial crops for high cash returns and prudent water use for protective irrigation of staple food crops essential for survival.
Social conflicts over water can also be analysed at different societal levels. Thus, inter-state conflicts are generated when water projects of upstream states influence the quality and quantity of water flow in the basin and reduce the possibilities of water use by downstream states. Major inter-basin water transfers in rivers flowing through many states also generate conflicts by disturbing the riparian rights of states. Conflicts also arise between the state and the people when official planning and policies lead to changes in water use and utilisation pattern and therefore undermine people's access to water. Thus, state planned quarrying of minerals or timber extraction in the river catchments affect the river flow and generate conflicts downstream. Similarly, state planned agricultural production based on large irrigation projects to generate marketable surpluses of cash crops conflicts with people's needs for local food production. Such projects also lead to conflicts between the state and the people by eroding traditional water rights which are often communal in nature and ensure the survival of all members of the community. Local common management of water resources and the ethics and values on which it is based are frequently modified by government planned and managed water projects aimed at the expansion of commercial agriculture. Finally, state plans tend to serve the interests of the economically and politically powerful groups of society and hence generate new gaps between the rich and poor in terms of access to water resources.
As far as surface and groundwater use is concerned, state intervention has led to the concentration of water access in the hands of the rich thus generating new conflicts between the rich and poor.
Paradigm Conflicts: Ecological and Engineering Approaches to Water Use
Rivers and water resources have been central to the prosperity and survival of the indian civilisation. While our cultural heritage perceived water as the basis of all life having a complex relationship with soils, plants and human needs, the contemporary approach perceives water largely as another raw material input for commodity production in agriculture and industry.
This resource insensitive utilisation has led to rapid disruption of the essential ecological processes that recharge and renew water resources and make them available perennially for the generation of plant, animal and human life. While water is continually flowing across land, from land into the sea, from the sea to the atmosphere and from the atmosphere to the land, its management has focused on water as a stock to be tapped and distributed irrespective of how its utilisation affects the hydrological cycle and the replenishment of water.
Such an approach to water resource management that views water as a stock and not as a flow in the water cycle generates a misconception that through large man-made structures water resources can be augmented. However, water cannot be created. It can be stored, diverted, used, polluted, also over-exploited but its overall availability cannot be enhanced. As Worster states:
There is only so much of it circulating in nature and then there is no more.... Throughout history the water cycle has served humans as the model of the natural world. Early civilizations saw in it a figure of the basic pattern of life, the cycle of birth, death and return to the source of being. More recently science has added to the ancient religious metaphor a new perception: the movement of water in an unending undiminished loop can stand as a model for understanding the entire economy of nature. Looking for a way to make the principles of ecology clear and vivid Aldo Leopold suggested that nature is a 'round river' like a stream flowing into itself, going round and round in an unceasing circuit.... The first commandment for living successfully in nature-living for the long-term at the highest possible level of development-is to understand how the round river and its watershed work together and to adapt our behaviour accordingly. Taking a purely economic attitude towards water, on the other hand is the surest way to fail in that understanding.'
The ecological understanding of water thus involves:
The engineering bias that dominates water development fails to perceive the natural river flows as critical to drainage, to recharge of groundwater, to the maintenance of the balance between fresh water and sea water. The engineering bias in water use results in large projects which produce serious social and ecological instabilities and generate conflicts.
The impounding of water in large dams leads to deforestation in the catchment areas, changes in the micro-climate as well as soil erosion, thus decreasing the availability of water. In the command area, the transport of large volumes of water over long distances leads to wastage of water through seepage. The introduction of large volumes of water beyond the natural drainage capacity of the ecosystem disrupts the hydrological cycle and results in waterlogging and salinity.
During the past three decades India has spent over Rs. 1(X1 billion on developing irrigation facilities and the total area covered by irrigation would be nearly 40 million hectares.
The Kabini project is a good case study of a water development project which led to the disruption of the hydrological cycle in the basin. The Kabini project has a submersion area of 6,000 acres, but it led to the clear felling of 30,000 acres of primeval forests in the catchments to rehabilitate displaced villages. As a consequence, local annual rainfall fell from 60 inches to 45 inches, and high siltation rates have drastically reduced the life of the project. In the command area, large areas of well developed coconut gardens and paddy fields have been laid waste through water-logging and salinity within two years of irrigation from the project. The Kabini project is a classic case of how the water crisis is created by the very projects aimed at increasing water availability or stabilising water flows in the engineering paradigm.
River valley projects are considered the usual solution to meeting the irrigation needs of agriculture, or for controlling floods or mitigating droughts. Over 1,554 large dams have been constructed in India during the past three decades. It is estimated that about 79 million hectare-metres of water can be used annually from the surface flow to view the central role of humus forming trees as the most powerful means for water conservation in vulnerable catchments and in fragile tropical agricultural ecosystems. The integrity of the soil-vegetation-water system is crucial to water conservation both in forests and on farm lands. Water conservation strategies are, therefore, ultimately related to strategies for soil conservation and the conservation of genetic diversity in forests and crop lands. The engineering paradigm.cornes into conflict with an ecological paradigm over the use of river waters, either traditional or modern. Ecological interventions in the tropics take into account the uniqueness and variability in the structure, function and dynamics of tropical ecosytems. Ecological approaches aim at increasing productivity while minimising resource use and wastage.
Ecological paradigms relating to water use recognise that water flowing into the sea is not wasted. It has a vital function in sustaining life in the delta and in the sea. Its flow is critical to maintain the balance between the sea and land. Ecological paradigms also recognise that there is nothing like 'augmenting' wafer. It can be diverted, polluted, misused, ruined, but it can never be deepened or enhanced. The water cycle fixes limits to the quantity of water circulating in nature, and water development cannot transcend those limits. The water cycle is the basic metaphor for ecological balance and maintaining the water cycle is a precondition for a just economic order in which neither the marginal communities today nor future generations tomorrow are denied their right to this resource which is vital for life. Water conflicts provide an opportunity to reassess water use strategies so that our actions are in harmony with rivers, not opposed to them and the life they support. According to Leopold, the elementary need in learning how to farm water effectively is to stop thinking about the problem exclusively as economists and engineers and begin learning the logic of the river. Respecting the integrity of the river amounts to respecting all life that the river supports. Violence to the river is violence to the communities inhabiting a river basin. Such violence must give rise to conflicts which cannot be resolved with further violence. The resolution of conflicts over river waters requires an ecological reorientation in water use which combines justice with sustainability.
Indigenous Systems of Water Management
Large-scale water projects which work against nature's water economy and people's sustenance requirements have been designed by destroying water technologies which were ecologically more sustainable and socially more just.
The tank system of South India is among the indigenous alternatives which has survived over centuries. This system consists of a single series of several hundred and in some cases over a thousand reservoirs linked together and forming such continuous chains of works that not a single drop of water falling in the catchment is lost in times of drought, and very little is lost during normal periods. Major Sankey, one of the first engineers of Mysore State, who concentrated on the systematic repairs of tanks, stated that 'to such an extent has the principle of storage been followed that it would require some ingenuity to discover a site within this great area for a new tank'. These tanks play a central role in irrigation even today. In the Ravalseema region. in the southern part of the Krishna basin, tanks irrigate 620,000 acres while major and minor irrigation projects cover 427,000 acres. In the Anantapur region, river water was diverted with the help of sand dams. These sand dams were constructed in areas like Koppalakonda, Penakacharala, Kalluru, Tarimala and Rachepalli of Anantapur taluk, Panidi, Appeyipeta, Naganapuram and Chitrachedu of Gooty taluk. In places like Ramapuram, Kallavapalle-and Budigamma, the surface flows in the Pennar were diverted through masonry dams called 'Panthams'. In Hospet, Hagari, Rayadurge and Kudligi taluks, channels were constructed to draw water from rivers for irrigation. Similar types of irrigation schemes have also been reported in Dharwar, Bijapur, Sholapur, Satara, Sangli and Ahmednagar districts. Two such major schemes were irrigating nearly 580 acres in Bijapur district. In Madras Presidency, irrigation through small tanks and canals, which the villagers managed themselves, collectively irrigated an area equal to that irrigated by all the larger works which have been constructed by the British government in that Presidency.
An example of indigenous water use was the widespread system of 'Ahars' and 'Pyres' used for irrigation of paddy fields in South Bihar as reported by Sengupta.4 An 'Ahar' is constructed by erecting an embankment 1 or 2 metres in height on the lower ground. From the two extremes of this embankment two other embankments are constructed so as to project towards the higher ground, gradually diminishing in height as the ground level rises and ultimately ending at the ground level. 'Ahars' were built on drainage rivulets to collect water. Constructions with sides more than a kilometre in length and irrigating over a thousand acres of land were frequently found. 'Pyres' on the other hand were systems devised for utilising the water which flows through hilly rivers running from south to north and intersecting the whole country. 'Pyres' were laid off from the rivers to carry water to-agricultural fields. Some of the largest 'Pyres' were 20 to 30 km in length, fielding a number of distributaries and irrigating may be 100 villages.
The system protected agriculture to such an extent that when there was a famine in other parts of the country, Gaya district, where 'Ahars' and 'Pyres' were most evolved, was not affected. However, this immunity was eroded following the deterioration of these irrigation works, which was primarily a consequence of breakdown of economic and social systems which ensured maintenance of the water systems.
The irrigation works in pre-British India were managed by a variety of social organizations within the village community. Usually, the structure of such organisations included a collective of all the beneficiaries of irrigation works, and was headed by a leader. Based on the leadership, the system was known by different names in various regions.
In Maharashtra districts of the basin, the bandharas were managed by such water committees. The task of these committees was to maintain the earthern dam or diversion from the river and to desilt the canals. Similar work was performed by committees in Bijapur, Dharwar, Raichur and Bellary districts of Karnataka. Similar committees were also found in the districts of Andhra Pradesh where there were known as 'pinnapeddandarule' or 'peddandarule' system. The difference between the two was in terms of the members who constituted them. In the 'pinnapeddandarule' system, youth were preferred as the desilting of canals involved hard physical labour. In Krishna district, less labour intensive work was involved hence the membership rules were flexible. Work involved in desilting or erecting canal banks or rebuilding canals was equally shared by all the beneficiaries. Each member or beneficiary was supposed to do his share of work in proportion to the land held. The committee levied a fine on any one who failed to do his share of work, irrespective of the size of his landholding.
Similarly in South Bihar, both the construction and maintenance of water systems was collectively managed. Each cultivator had to contribute labour to a collective system called 'goam' to repair embankments and desilt channels. In South India this practice was known as 'kudimarammath'.
Allocation of water within the villages was also managed by the cultivators themselves. A system known as 'parabandi' was in operation which regulated the distribution of water among the villages from a common source to ensure fair distribution to all the villages. In case of some large works, the rights of each village were formally recorded. In others, the regulations were largely customary. If conflicts arose, they were resolved according to local rights and regulations.
When the British arrived in India, they had no expertise in water management, since agriculture in Europe has never been dependent on irrigation. Arthus Cotton, the founder of modern irrigation programmes wrote:
There are multitudes of old native works in various parts of India. These are noble works, and show both boldness and engineering layout. They have stood for hundreds of years....
When I first arrived in India, the contempt with which the natives firstly 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 have constructed much less even imitate them in extending the system
Greenway, while writing on farming in India, commented on the lack of advanced engineering knowledge of the British which had led to the catastrophe in Sheffield because of the Bradfield dam.
A comparison naturally presents itself between the dam of the Bradfield reservoir, which failed, and the Indian model which has been so long and in so many instances successful, and which if rightly constructed and faithfully attended to, may be regarded as ensuring the maximum of efficiency and safety.
Empirical as the process may appear, practice has made it perfect. Engaged in a continual struggle with the powers of nature, contending with volumes of water far larger, floods far heavier, tempests more violent, than any known in England, the Indian engineers have been forced into devising means, not only to enable a bank to stand a given presence of water, but also to provide resources against contingent risks and accidents, which latter provision, strange to say, appears from the evidence on the inquest of Sheffield not invariably to be considered a part of the engineer's duty.'
The British, however, had to control river water in India keeping in view their economic interest in increasing revenue. In Rajasthan they controlled water to maximise the revenues derived from their monopoly in salt trade, in Bengal to protect their transport network and increase revenues from agriculture. Water politics was thus as transient as the resource itself, to create obey areas and command areas, i.e., areas and people inhabiting them which are callously devastated to cater to the needs of areas and people which are industrialised, urbanised, and politically and economically powerful.
Langdon Winner has suggested that politics is embedded in artifacts. Large water projects definitely have politics built into them. In an attempt to control rivers, they also control the lives of those who depend on the river and its basin for livelihood. Worster has proposed the thesis that making more demands on the earth and devising the means to fulfil them leads to an unequal power division in society. 'Intensification of use eventually must give rise to potent anti-democratic forces whatever their guise may. Karl Wittfogel's idea of a hydraulic society captures the reality of the social organisation created by large dams. Wittfogel's theory is one of power, he holds that control over water leads to control over people.
Wittfogel, however, like Marx before him, perceived the hydraulic society as a reality in Asian civilizations over thousands of years. They assumed that the pervasiveness of and decentralized network irrigation systems was linked to centralized power and that specific individuals conquering river waters turned into a power elite. What Marx and Wittfogel failed to perceive from a distance was that irrigation systems in India were managed by cooperating communities, not dominating bureaucracies, and that decentralized maintenance and use rather than centralised control was the characteristic of India's ancient irrigation systems.
Sengupta has challenged Wittfogel's thesis that domination was characteristic of Asia's water systems. Vast networks of irrigation systems are not necessarily large projects. They can be a closely knit network of micro-projects, each managed locally in terms of construction, maintenance, allocation and conflict resolution among users. Further, stagnation has not been a characteristic of these traditional irrigation systems. Instead, flexibility was often displayed. The cropping patterns were changed annually according to the availability of irrigation water in a particular year. With water resources under local control, local decisions on land use involved less risks and higher certainty. On the other hand modern canal irrigation from large dams centralises water control and distribution. The time of water supply rarely corresponds to the time of requirement and certainty is far less than it would have been had the cultivators themselves distributed the same amount of water through local resources. Correspondingly, they have much less scope to alter their cropping and irrigation practices to suit the availability of water.
Centralised societal domination is, therefore, linked to centralised water control not to vast networks of decentralised waterworks. The power of the modern state over people as exemplified through large dams is qualitatively different from the social organisation of indigenous irrigation systems. Such political control does not merely violate human rights in the present, it threatens to deny future generations the right to life-support systems. Large water projects interfere in a major way with the natural flow of water and the hydrological cycle. Ecological hazards are intrinsically associated with them, which in turn generate another level of conflicts over natural resources. Social control over water use in indigenous systems had prevented both over-use and abuse of water, and avoided a conflict between the use of water for human consumption and its functions in the maintenance of essential ecological processes, central to which is the water cycle.
Colonial Conflicts Over River Waters
Under colonial influence, water was diverted from its role in the survival economy and nature's economy and was transformed into a source of revenue and taxes, or as an input to commodity production for the generation of profits. The introduction of market forces in the water economy of the country created new conflicts over water resources between the market and survival economies.
The salt economy and water conflicts
On 5 April 1930 Mahatma Gandhi launched the national noncooperation movement with the campaign for the production and distribution of salt at Dandi beach in Gujarat, violating the Salt Law of the British that had guaranteed their monopoly in the production and distribution of salt. Salt is a vital resource for the survival of both human and animal life specially in tropical countries like India. It remained a common resource till the British monopolised its production and distribution to transform it into a source of revenue. The growth imperative compelled the expansion of the salt industry, as monopolised by the British, at the cost of diversion of resources from essential economic activities like food production. Further, in order to increase revenue the British government raised the salt tax in 1923 through the Indian Finance Bill of the Viceroy. This triggered off strong protests all over the country since a basic resource like salt was being denied to the people in order to increase revenue. The anguish of Gandhi on this appropriation of a common resource was clear when he said,
They even tax our salt-a necessity of life, only less necessary than air and water. It ought to be free as they are.... Nature bestows it on us and we may not use it. There is salt beside the sea and they forbid us to gather it's
The production of salt in certain pockets like Rajasthan and in the coastal areas as well as its distribution in all parts of the country had been a part of the living history of the Indian civilisation. Salt is one of those commodities which cannot be produced everywhere notwithstanding the self-sufficiency of the village economies. The demand for salt from all parts of the country led to the establishment of salt industries wherever it was possible to extract salt from saline water. All along the coastline except in Bengal, salt was manufactured by digging hollows in the ground and allowing the saline water to evaporate.
The Sambhar Lake in Rajasthan was a major inland source of salt for the whole of Central India. The manufacture and trade of this essential commodity and the possibility of a high margin of profits in case of monopoly in production, led to the East India Company securing the entire lake. In 1870 the British government forced a treaty on the States of Jodhpur and Jaipur through which it acquired the right of not only manufacturing and selling salt but also levying a duty on it. The peculiarity of the Sambhar Lake is that there is no rock salt bed in the geological formation of the area. The salt granules in the great salt marsh of Kutch are carried north-east by the trade winds in the summer and deposited in the catchment of the Sambhar Lake. In the monsoons the salt granules are dissolved and the solution is carried into the lake by a large number of streams. the largest of which is Rupnagar. Through the quick evaporation of water from the lake. millions of tons of salt get deposited in the Sambhar Lake. According to the British estimates of that period. 46 million people in India depended on supplied from this lake. This made the control of this 9(\ sq miles lake economically valuable for the growth of the salt industry
Though the British salt industry in India grew by more than 33 per cent in the first twenty years of its existence, it was not content with only monopoly in production and distribution. To enhance the profits and growth of the industry, the British had maximised the inflow of water into the Sambhar Lake by denying the more basic uses of water for irrigation and drinking. Rupnagar, the largest stream feeding the lake, was the main source of water for the State of Kishengarh whose most important economic activity was agriculture which depended solely on the water of Rupnagar for irrigation. Thus the British attempt to increase the inflow of water into the lake came into direct conflict with the survival needs of the people in Kishengarh.
In 1900, a famine year, Kishengarh wanted to store some water by constructing an embankment tank on Rupnagar. The salt authorities strongly opposed this use of water for drinking and irrigation by the people. The Finance and Commerce Department of the then Government of India promptly accorded higher priority to the interest of the salt industry as opposed to the water needs for the survival of the people of Kishengarh. In a note dated 13 July 1901 the Department issued the following statement:
In view of the way in which the manufacture of salt depends on a sufficient supply of water in the lake and the precariousness of the supply, the Govt. of India consider that it is most inadvisable that anything should be done in the shape of constructing new reservoirs, irrigation works, or of extending any existing works on any of the feeder streams of the lake, either in the British territory or in native states which will be likely to diminish supply....
The Government of India desires that in future the Salt Commissioner may be consulted before any of the existing works' in British territory or the native states are enlarged, strengthened or improved.
In 1906 the villages of Kishengarh faced a severe drought. In sheer desperation to ensure a minimum supply of water for the biological survival of human and animal life, the people built an earthen dam which the British promptly destroyed. In the same year the rulers of Kishengarh pleaded for permission to construct low masonry weirs across Rupnagar and to sink some wells. The Salt Commissioner made sure that these projects could not be undertaken.
It is this undisclosed destruction of agricultural ecosystems in the catchment of the Sambhar Lake that made possible and visible the growth of the salt industry there. By 1922 the prosperous and populated Kishengarh was desolate. Large areas of cultivable land became waste and wells could no longer be used. Another desperate attempt by the kingdom of Kishengarh to construct four irrigation tanks was postponed for twenty-four years, thus ensuring the total destruction of the local agricultural economy.
This was the general pattern of destruction of the survival base of the people in all regions of the country where the salt monopoly led to economic growth for British interests. This monopoly forced the people to give up the production of a basic resource like salt, which was being produced by them with simple technologies that required no capital input. The control made people totally dependent on the British supply, to be bought at a price determined by British interests. It was this exploitation by the British through the denial of a basic need as well as the associated destruction of other related resources that led to non-violent violation of the Salt Law as an assertion of the people's right to vital natural resources for survival. As a mode of protest it spread throughout the country with people breaking the Salt Law in large numbers. Its impact, both immediate and long-term was immense. By 5 March 1931 the British government was compelled to retrace its steps and issued a notification that people could produce salt for their own use.
The damodar canal and water conflicts
Burdwan district of Bengal lies in the Damodar river basin. Irrigation in this district, as in other parts of Bengal, was based on the overflow irrigation system. This ancient system of water use had met the needs of rural Pengal for more than 2,000 years. It provided a single solution to Bengal's inter-locking problems of flood and malaria control, cheap inland transport for the better part of the year, and renewal of soil fertility. This ecological management of common resources led to the establishment of a community organization based on irrigation rights which required every individual to regard his neighbour's interest as his own.
Being a tropical monsoon region, Bengal receives heavy rainfall in the wet season. But due to high percolation rates, the groundwater level declines rapidly after the rains and a serious shortage of water occurs at a time when it is most needed. As a result tanks and wells dry up. The only solution is to maintain saturation of the subsoil by impounding as much rainfall as possible on the surface and keeping it there for as long as possible. Earlier this was done by flooding the tanks and rice fields with the muddy spill of the rivers in spate and by storing rain water in tanks which at one time numbered over 50,000 in Burdwan district alone. Percolation from rice fields and storage tanks maintained the underground reserve of water at a level 10 to 15 feet higher than that at present and prevented the drying up of wet crops in summer and of wells and tanks in the dry season. A system of inundation canals was in operation in Bengal from ancient times. The silt bearing top film of water from flooded rivers was allowed to flow into the rice fields, where the silt was deposited. River silt is very high in manure. It enriched the crops as well as killed noxious weeds in tanks and in the rice fields. Every tank had its distributary to flush it, and every rice field had its distributary to irrigate it. The silt also carried carp eggs. Carp, being larvicidal fish, devour the larvae of the anapholis, thus controlling malaria and at the same time providing the much needed nourishment to the rice-eating peasantry. Removal of silt from the river water prevented the silting up of the rivers at the mouth so that there were no floods.
The political destabilisation of Bengal led to the ecological disruption of this highly efficient system. The water channels were silted up and were declared to be 'dead' or 'blind' by ignorant British engineers. A series of devastating floods followed and by treating the symptoms instead of the cause, the problem was further aggravated. The erection of embankments to protect the Eastern Bengal Railway cut across the natural contours of land, disrupting the natural drainage, causing severe ecological problems and hardships to the once prosperous peasantry.
At the end of the eighteenth century the British took over the responsibilities and liabilities of maintaining the irrigation system with its water resources, spill channels, streams dykes, pools, tanks and embankments. However, the government failed to keep its promise and worked in the opposite direction by making the left embankment watertight. As a result, its innumerable spill channels were closed, and subsequently, the zamindars and tenants made a number of secret breaches through the embankment. In the period between 185-59 the government cut off 20 miles of embankment on the right side of the Damodar with a view to protecting the Railways and the Grand Trunk Road. This led to silting up of the river bed, death of the live channels and stagnation of water due to disruption of natural drainage. This was followed by severe epidemic of malaria which wiped out one-third of the total population in a district in a decade. Areas that were once famous as 'health resorts' became 'decadent areas'.
Sir William Willcocks, one of the greatest irrigation engineers the world has ever known, pleaded in vain for some funds to resuscitate these 'dead rivers' with the cooperation of the peasantry. Once the vicious circle of destruction was broken, the project would run itself and pay its way. But the irrigation and survival needs of the peasantry came into conflict with the interests of railway transport and stream navigation river flotilla companies. The use of water that could have restored to the peasantry'the old prosperous days when irrigation with the muddy water of the Ganges flood was the heritage of all"' was not attempted because spillways and railways were mutually exclusive in the Burdwan tract. Millions were spent on the externalities of the watertight embankments, malaria and flood control projects. For seventy years, embankments were allowed 'to impoverish lands, and impoverish people and affect them with malaria, when a trifling expenditure of the money could bring relief'. In the words of Sir William Willcocks,
The irrigation Department has tried its hand at every kind of irrigation except the ancient irrigation. The resulting poverty of soil, destruction of fish, introduction of malaria and congestion of the rivers have stalled the canals and banks, and the country is strewn today with the wrecks of useless and harmful works.
To compensate the people of Burdwan the government constructed the Eden Canal in 1881 and the Damodar Canal in 1933. The latter was intended to irrigate 20,000 acres of rice lands of 379 villages at the cost of Rs. 1.25 crores. After the inauguration of the canal, the government planned to realise a part of the capital expenditure by imposing a canal tax on the ryots. As the tax was heavy, the peasants refused to execute any lease in order to use the canal water. As a result the government introduced a legislation to impose a compulsory levy. The Bengal Development Bill 1935 was introduced by Khwaja Nazamuddin on 18 February 1935 which provided for the improvement of land in Bengal and the imposition of a levy in respect of increased profit resulting from the improvement works constructed by the government. The aim was to induce people to use canal water and to convert this consumption into a source of revenue. The Bill, it was argued, would not only compel the ryots to pay up to half of their increased profits, but would also enable them to make increased profits by taking advantage of the improvements. The Minister stated that peasants did not use canal water in a normal rainfall year but viewed irrigation as an insurance against the failure of monsoon. The Bill was aimed at 'not allowing any man to indulge in the luxury of not consuming canal water during normal rainfall years by making every man pay an improvement levy of Rs. 5.80 per acre per annum irrespective of the benefits derived or likely to be derived from the irrigation facilities of the canal.
The Bengal Development ' Bill was obviously resented by the Burdwan peasantry for whom it became yet another source of colonial exploitation. In the later thirties the popular discontent gathered momentum in the command of the Damodar Canal over the Bengal Development Act and the improvement levy. A movement crystallized as the Damodar Canal Tax movement. An association called the Burdwan District Raiyats Association was formed with D.P. Choudhury and Balai Chand Mukhopadhyay as President and Secretary, respectively to oppose the Act and the canal tax. On 20 December 1935, peasants from 500 villages of the Damodar Canal area held a mass meeting under the auspicious of the Raiyats Association. The meeting adopted a number of resolutions challenging the estimates of produce of land in the precanal and post-canal days and the Development Act. By the beginning of February the agriculturists of the canal areas were seriously affected, due to the enforcement of the Development Act. The government began harrassing poor cultivators for the realisation of the canal tax and made an effort to recover the arrears of taxes. On 10 February the cultivators' grievances were brought to the notice of the Burdwan Maharaja who suggested a public protest meeting be held to air the grievances of the ryots. On 14 February 1937, about 1,000 representatives of the cultivators of the Damodar Canal area attended a conference and resolved,
That in the opinion of the conference the principles underlying the Bengal Development Act and sections thereunder were arbitrarily opposed to the interests of the prajas and krishaks in general in the sense that they had been placed outside the jurisdiction of the civil court so that the appreciation of the Act might make the executive officers all powerful and give them absolute, arbitrary and unfettered authority which was sure to be used to oppress the ryots, that an estimate of the surplus produce of lands in the Damodar Canal area made by the officials of the irrigation Department was devoid of logic and was not based on facts, that the amount of paddy produced in the canal area did not admit of a taxable surplus after the deductions for payment of rent to the zamindar and expenditure on cultivations
The Canal tax agitation emphasised that since there had been no development and no increased amount of land situated in the Damodar Canal area, no improvement levy could be imposed under the Bengal Development Act 1935. The levy was linked to the government's extravagant capital expenditure, not to the paying capacity of the agriculturists or benefits, if any, derived by them. The improvement levy was thus totally illegal, unjust. unreasonable and contrary to the facts and opposed to justice. The peasants insisted that the cost of the works be recovered from the East Indian Railways, the Grand Trunk Road, Burdwan-Kawa Railway, Bengal-Nagpur Railway, the city of Calcutta and other vested interests who had really benefited from the canal. Further, they also clarified that since they derived benefits from the canal only once in seven or eight years when drought occurred, they should bear only that cost.
The Congress, which had also joined the agitation, set up its own inquiry committee. The report of the committee established that the Damodar Canal had not to any appreciable extent increased the productivity of the area served by it. The yield per acre prior to the construction of the canal was about 24 maunds and it remained at the same level after the canal had started functioning. The report also highlighted the fact that the 'Damodar Carnal project was never meant for irrigation purposes alone. It was intended "inter alia" that the canal should protect the railways, the G T Road, the Burdwan town, the port of Calcutta, etc. by modulating the strength of the Damodar flood. It recommended reduction of the tax on cultivators to reflect better the benefits against drought provided by the canal. As a result, the government reduced the levy to Rs. 2-9-0) per acre. But even this amount was too high. In 1939, the government started attaching movable properties of the defaulters in the canal area. The local cultivators were determined to launch a satyagraha movement till the tax was further reduced to Rs. 1-8 O. per acre. The government on the other hand, sent a large contingent of Gorkha soldiers to bring the situation under control. Section 144 was promulgated, prohibiting public meetings. The 'policy of terrorisation' forced the peasantry to give up their agitation for a reduction in the canal tax. The people subsequently accepted the government rate of Rs. 2-9) per acre and paid the arrears.
Contents - Previous - Next