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The farmer's perspective

One of the background documents prepared for the United Nations Conference on Desertification was a UNESCO sponsored case study based on experience in the Mona Reclamation Experimental Project about 240 km northwest of Lahore in Pakistan. This case study, together with other reports from the Mona project, have provided some of the most specific information on the ecological problems of the Punjab and provide one of the clearest windows onto the social situation in which those problems are embedded.

It is not clear when irrigation was started in the project area but there is evidence of prosperity there at least as early as the 17th century. New canals were brought into the area in 1860, and the present form of controlled irrigation began in 1901. Part of the area received perennial irrigation from the lower Jhelum canal and is divided into regular squares to simplify planning. Another section of the area (commanded by a canal known as the Shahpur branch), which has only recently been incorporated into the lower Jhelum canal system, is not divided into squares. As a result, traditional and introduced systems of land tenure are mixed in an overal planned system.

The relation of people to land in the Mona Project Area is uneven. As many as 50 per cent of the land holders have units below the subsistence level. About one fifth of the cultivators are both owners and tenants, operating about 17 per cent of the total farm area. As many as 37 per cent of the cultivators are landless tenants, operating 40 per cent of the total farm area, although their rights are protected to a certain degree by a measure of land reform which was introduced in 1972. A further organizational problem is the fragmentation of holdings.

The gross area served by individual watercourses under the project varies in size from 150 to 600 ha, with an average of 280 ha. The water supply for these areas varies from one to three cusecs according to size. The watercourses branch off into field channels as they run through the farm land to deliver water to individual holdings. Usually all the watercourses are unlined: seepage can be minimised only by assiduous maintenance of the bed and sides of the channel in order to optimise the speed of flow and eliminate the possibility of puddling. The water is distributed turn-by-turn to each farmer starting from the head of the watercourse; the time of delivery is fixed in proportion to each farmer's area. The farmer diverts the water to his field by making a cut in the watercourse at the beginning of his land holding. When his stipulated time is over he closes the cut and allows the water to flow downstream for the next farmer.

The flow in the irrigation channel is dependent upon the flow in the rivers. There are times when acute shortage occurs and all irrigation channels cannot be supplied according to their full capacity. In such circumstances, canals are run with partial supplies and in rotation. The distribution system is designed for each outlet to draw proportional shares and for the water to be carried to the tail end of the channel. Shortages should thus be distributed proportionally throughout the system. and the increased control afforded by the new Mangla and Tarbela dams has anyway reduced the shortages. However, maintaining equality of access to water between farmers at the head and tail of a watercourse has always been one of the major logistical problems in the system.

For the individual farmer the most immediate logistical problem is water distribution. He receives his share of water according to a fixed cycle of distribution which may vary from a week to ten days. The length of time of his share in the cycle is directly proportional to the area of his land. Traditionally, the farmers on each watercourse worked out their own system of distribution (known as koccha warabandl) These traditional systems have the advantage of flexibility in that it is easy for individuals to enter into arrangements to swap shares in order to meet specific crop requirements outside the cycle. However, although their ability to make such arrangements is not restricted by the system, it may be restricted by their personal relations. In fact, their personal relations, deriving from the range of roles and statuses in the general social structure, may lead to a degree of injustice in the operation of the system that renders it intolerable for the poorer and less influential parties to a particular watercourse.

In order to understand what actually happens in some not untypical - situations, it is necessary to appreciate some of the basic concepts and organizational features of the society. The primary social units in this area, which have provided the basis for interaction with the administration, are village communities. But within each village, the population is divided into kinship units known as biradari. The biradari is best glossed as a group of families related primarily through males who stand in a fraternal or filial relationship to each other. Since there is a strong preference for marriage with first cousins, marriages tend to reinforce the exclusiveness of existing kinship groupings rather than integrating unrelated groupings into a larger unit. The basic structure of the society, therefore, militates against cooperation on the level of the total number of parties to a particular watercourse, which in the typical case crosses biradari lines. This tendency towards exclusiveness in small biradari groupings of related families is exacerbated by vague distinctions of property rights and hereditary status related historically to the Indian caste system. Finally, the leaders of each biradari compete for izzat, which may be glossed as honour or "face." Izzat can be acquired only at someone else's expense. Punjabi village society is, therefore, structurally predisposed for competition and conflict between relatively small groups of families which are generally not large enough to constitute a watercourse community. The general structure of the society conflicts with the requirements of the technology.

How can such a situation come about? In this case, the answer is relatively clear, and provides an excellent illustration of the more general problem of technology in the larger sense - the organization of sets of tasks over time. The present population is of three different origins. The composition of the original population of the area before the development of the irrigation system appears to have been the main determining factor in the present structure. These people were semi-nomadic herders with subsidiary interests in dry farming and, perhaps, a little irrigation. From what is presently known of traditional modes of pastoralism in the area, it is immediately evident that the biradari structure correlates usefully with the requirements for cooperation, movement, and exploitation in this type of traditional pastoral system, because it provides for flexibility and cohesion on the scale of the camp group which must change frequently. As the development of irrigation led to increased carrying capacity and the labour requirements, settlers were brought in to supplement the population, mostly from similar backgrounds. A third component of the present population consists of refugees that have come into the area from India since Partition. These come from more diverse backgrounds, but appear not to have modified the structure of the society significantly. This interpretation not only explains the present problems in cooperative arrangements- it draws attention to the fact that sociocultural systems do not necessarily adapt to changing ecological or technological conditions as quickly or predictably as they are often assumed to.

The implications for policy

An important scientific and practical problem that has received far too little attention lies in the explanation of why such populations do adapt in some cases, and not in others. Although there is general recognition among farmers of the fact that more efficient cooperation would solve many problems, the most common response as might be expected, is individualistic: the farmer seeks ad hoc solutions to the problems as he perceives them. Adaptation at an individual level can produce a statistical or general trend, but such a trend is not equivalent to adaptation at the group or the more inclusive levels that are the business of planners.

For example, to counteract loss of productivity due to waterlogging, the farmer shifts from wheat to rice cultivation, even though wheat continues to be his dietary staple. He can do this because rice yields more calories per hectare, is salt tolerant, unaffected by waterlogging, and can be exported, and the farmer is able to buy wheat with the proceeds. Between 1949-50 and 1959-60 the area sown to rice in Pakistan increased over 30 per cent, from 0.93 to 1.21 million hectares; and the yield per hectare increased from 141 to 151 kg. Over the same period, the area sown to wheat increased only from 4.2 million hectares to 4.9, while the wheat yield per hectare actually fell from 154 to 133 kg. In these areas where salinity alone is the problem, the usual response has been to try to delay the process by sowing only one crop per year, or to spread the available irrigation water even more thinly over the saline land. Such a response ultimately increases the problem since the reduced application of water does not allow the leaching out of salts to a level below that from which capillary action operates. In consequence the salts return to the surface where they continue to accumulate until the land has to be abandoned. These responses derive from the farmers' perception of the situation, and their perceptions are conditioned by their experience and by the way the social structure conditions their personal interests in relation to other people's.

Two ways to approach this problem are:

- to ascertain why the structure did not change with the change in land use (the various components of the population did, after all embrace the new technology), and apply this understanding to the design of inducements;

- to design an administrative form of organization that would harness the general structure in a structural pose that would facilitate the operation of the production system.

So far, the first approach has scarcely been tried; something akin to the second approach has had some interesting but so far inadequate results. For example, an administrative form of water distribution system (known as pakka warabandi) has been offered to replace the kaccha warabandi where the latter was not working equitably due to problems in social relations arising from the general structure of the society. In many cases it has been accepted; but it has an inherent disadvantage, compared to the kaccha system, in that it is inflexible and cannot be adapted to fit the changing requirements of individual crops. As a more inclusive and potentially flexible form of administrative organization, Water User Associations have been devised and tried out on an experimental basis. If they should prove successful, they may at the very least provide a better framework for communication between irrigation officials, engineers, and farmers. Land levelling, watercourse renovation, and reduction of the size of irrigation basins are examples of simple technological aids that can probably be pursued more successfully where a Water User Association facilitates communication and provides the farmer with the sense of participation, incentive and identity within the system that is presently lacking. But before any such association can be introduced formally, it will still be necessary to work out an adequate and suitable legal basis, which may be difficult in the present atmosphere of increasing Islamic consciousness in Pakistan, since Islamic law generally deprecates any form of organizational exclusiveness. If an Islamic legal basis could be worked out in such a way that the individual farmer perceives the incentive for participation, it may be possible to develop the Water User Association into a comprehensive solution to cover all the ad hoc technological measures illustrated above.

The concept of the Water User Association is important because for the first time it focuses attention on the organizational aspects of the problem. If it is to be successful, it must be given a formal legal basis that will constitute it as a special form of organization providing a degree of insulation against the influence of the general social structure, but building on focal concepts, providing incentive and protection for the weaker against the stronger participants.

A brief review of the organizational tasks that need to be comprehended within this administrative structure will complete this discussion of the major problems of ecology in development with respect to irrigation in South-west Asia. Any irrigation system logically breaks down into a number of sub-systems. The primary subsystem organizes investment of the money, equipment and labour that is required to build and maintain the system. The second organizes distribution among the population of shares in the system or rights of access to the resource. The third organizes spatial and temporal distribution of water-flow among the land parcels to be irrigated.

In an integrated system as large as that of the Indus River Basin, investment can only be organized by government. This investment problem cannot logically be totally divorced (as it generally has been) from the organization of the distribution of flow and of rights. However, below the level of the watercourse this organization requires a flexibility that must be provided by local arrangement. Lastly, the logistical problems of water control and delivery cannot be divorced from the requirements of the local systems of cultivation.

In order, therefore, that the existing technical knowledge for developing the resource without damage to the environment should be successfully applied, it is essential to integrate all these components of the total system administratively in such a way that the structure gives individual contributors to the system the sense of participation and the incentive and capability to make it work. The irrigation system in the Punjab is so large that the organization of it is bound to be effectively independent of the organization of local community life and values. The crux of the problem, which is generally diagnosed as ecological and economic, lies in this social and organizational hiatus. The Water User Association is a possible first step towards an answer to this problem. But successful development of it will require far more attention both to the perceptions and interests of individual farmers, and the overall Islamic cultural framework, than has been given so far. Further steps will depend on the socio-political evolution of Pakistani society.

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