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The farmer, the lotus pickers and the washermen

For generations, the farmers on whose land Kerala’s traditional ponds stood would share the waters and fish with the community. Now, with increasingly commercial fishing and sand mining, the lotus pickers, washerfolk, cattle owners, and bathers are being ousted. Can there be a hierarchy of ownership of something as fluid and life-sustaining as water, asks Jyothi Krishnan  

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Mutha and her family used to bathe regularly at Pandalamkulam, a pond exclusively owned by Kochukuttan in Kollengode panchayat of Palakkad district, Kerala. This is a perennial pond, located at the valley bottom. Except during certain summers when it ran completely dry, Pandalamkulam was a relief to many poor families in the vicinity. After a long day’s work, they would rush to the pond before it was dark for a quick bath. Kochukuttan never had a problem with people coming and bathing and washing clothes in the pond, for it never interfered with his requirements in any way.

Pandalamkulam is one of the traditional water harvesting structures, known as kulams, in the dry, eastern Palakkad landscape of Kerala. This system of water harvesting was a response to the need for moisture and water conservation in the dry region. It was a system of water harvesting and water use that facilitated double cropping of paddy in the valleys.

The private property regime governs the use of land in Kerala. Community norms regarding the protection and use of common lands do not exist here, except in tribal-dominated regions of the highlands. However, until the recent past, farmers and rural folk followed a certain land use ethic. This is manifest in the recollections of older farmers of how they managed the land. It is also manifest in their recollection of water use practices. As one old farmer in Kollengode said, they took care of the water in the pond like a speck of gold, never wasting even a drop. 

In 2005, however, by mid-April, Kochukuttan had pumped out all the water in the pond. His son had begun to pursue fishing as a commercial proposition; he made as much as Rs 40,000 from fishing, in 10 months.

Kochukuttan’s pond was completely drained in order to eliminate any fish that may be in it. The water was pumped into the nearby coconut plantations. Before introducing fresh fish eggs, farmers sometimes plough the pond bed with a tractor and apply a coat of lime.

Of late, panchayats have been extending support to farmers who want to pursue fishing in ponds, by distributing fish eggs. Farmers who combine farming with fishing are considered enterprising.  

So Mutha and her companions had to go to a pond much further away that summer. The thought of protesting against Kochukuttan’s decision to pump his pond dry during peak summer did not even occur to anybody, Mutha said, for it was an accepted fact that Kochukuttan had every right to do so.

In the past anyone could go and fish in the pond once in a while; Kochukuttan did not really mind if someone occasionally threw in a bait. At times there would be no food at home, so Mutha’s son would go and try his luck. A fish or two was enough, she said.

Since Kochukuttan’s son embarked on commercial fishing, however, they were forbidden from fishing in the pond. Naturally, Mutha said understandingly, they had invested a lot of money in it. This case illustrates the commonplace, everyday appropriation of a common resource. A form of appropriation that we tend to take for granted.

Who needs the pond the most? The landowner who has been vested with ownership rights over it? The women nearby who come regularly to bathe and wash in its waters? The lotus pickers who come to pick lotus flowers and tubers? The cattle that are bathed here? People who come to spend a quiet evening? The occasional fisherman?

Who uses the pond the most?

These are difficult questions that come to mind as one studies the conflicting claims around ponds, as well as the many ways in which different groups of people rely on them. The conflict arises from the supremacy of the landowner’s rights over the pond. The fields located below each pond hold the first stake over water in the pond.

The system of land ownership that has evolved in this region grants pond ownership rights to the farmer who owns land in the ayacut of the pond. These rights underwent a phenomenal change with the introduction of energised pumping devices that intensified the farmer’s control over water. Hitherto restricted manual lifting was replaced by unrestrained pumping. The pond owner was now free to pump as much water as he wanted for irrigation. He could also pump it completely dry in preparation for fishing. If the pond was shared by more than one farmer, all that was required was a consensus amongst them regarding the pumping of water.

The farmers’ decision to forbid fishing in ponds irritated many young people, who, out of spite, began to fish at night causing losses to the farmers. Such instances are small rumblings of discontent over the exclusive powers that pond owners enjoy. Some farmers were forced to catch their fish before they were fully grown, for fear that local people would get them instead.

Chami, an 80-year-old agricultural labourer, said things were different when fishing was not a commercial proposition. When water levels fell, pond owners would tell the labourers to fish in the pond. Whatever was caught was distributed, with the pond owner deciding how. The labourers involved in the fishing would also receive a share. Now, said Chami, with fish breeding, there are many more fish in the pond but pond owners and local people are pitted against one another.

I encountered the lotus tuber pickers quite by accident. Nobody had told us about them, about how ponds sustained the livelihood of this small group of people. We were walking past Churikadkulam in Matacode in Kollengode panchayat when we saw a group of 15 men and women standing in the slush of the pond bed, pulling at something. They were extracting lotus tubers which are used to make pickles, and also chips for which the tubers have to be cut into small pieces and dried. The group belonged to the Chettiar community, and were from the nearby town of Pallasana (about 15 km away).

The Chettiar colony at Anaikode in Pallasana consists of around 70 families. Besides Pallasana, the Chettiars have settlements in many parts of Palakkad district -- Vadakkenchery, Kallekkad, Chittoor-Ambatupalayam, Vandazhi, Kanjikode, Velayodi, Alampallam, etc. It is only the Chettiars from Pallasana and Alampallam who pick lotus tubers, possibly because there are many more ponds in these parts of Palakkad. The Chettiars speak Tamil at home. They don’t remember when exactly they came to Palakkad but they know from their grandfathers that they came here during the time of Tipu Sultan’s invasion of Kerala. They know the ponds of the region extremely well, particularly the ones that have lotuses. They also pick lotus flowers and take them to temples. In addition, many collect and sell honey.

Lotus tubers are harvested twice a year -- first in the months of December-January and then again in April-May. Lotus flowers are harvested in the months of July-August. The tubers are thick when harvested in December; during the second harvest they are thinner.

Appu, the leader of the group I met, explained that it was a lot of hard work as they had to stand in the thick slush for hours, feeling around with their feet for tubers and then gently pulling them out without breaking them. There were four women in the group.
Appu takes a seasonal contract with the owners of certain ponds. Once it is learnt that he has entered into a contract with a particular individual, other tuber pickers do not visit this pond; and he does not go to ponds where others are involved in picking. He then mobilises a team of people who assist him in picking the tubers, and pays them for their work. He takes a larger share as he has to mobilise them and pay for their transport, food and wages. The tubers are given to tuber traders. Earlier, Appu used to deliver them mainly to the Brahmin community who routinely consume the tuber in its dried form. Now, they deliver their produce to tuber traders as it is becoming popular for use in pickles. The increased demand for pickles in which tubers are used has enhanced its market value. In the past, Appu used to get Rs 5 for 30 kg of tubers; now he earns Rs 10 for every kilo he sells.

Some pond owners allow them to plant lotuses on the pond bed so that there will be plenty to harvest in the coming season. A pond full of water is best for the plant’s growth. (This is why they grow very well in temple ponds where water is not used for irrigation.)

Sand mining in the pond beds, however, poses a threat to tuber picking. Of late, many pond owners have allowed JCB machines to mine sand from their ponds. The increased demand for sand to meet construction requirements in the state has fuelled sand mining, not just in river beds but pond beds, stream beds, even paddy fields. The pond owner gets a lumpsum amount from the private contractor. JCBs cause large holes in the pond bed as a result of which the tuber pickers find it hard to stand and search for tubers. Sand mining also destroys the plants.

The other group of people who rely on ponds are the washerfolk who traditionally belong to the Mannan community. I had heard of an old conflict between the washerfolk and the owner of Veliya Eri in Manalipadam in Kollengode panchayat, over water use. People have been washing their clothes for years, at Odungatuchira. During the implementation of land reforms, the pond was surrendered by the landlord as land in excess of the stipulated ceiling. Subsequently, the land on which the pond was located was vested with the government. This turned it into a common pond, implying that its water could not be pumped out for irrigation. When a later owner of the pond attempted to pump water from the pond, people in the area belonging to the Mannan community objected on grounds of it being a common pond, a pond where they had been washing their clothes for years.

I tried to find out more about the issue some years later. I went to visit the Mannan household that lives closest to the pond, and found that they had switched their traditional livelihood. The family had moved to Mumbai years ago and were just back in their hometown after having built a larger house. I happened to meet the present owner of the pond, who had migrated to the area around 30 years ago. He told me that the incident was true and that the Mannan community had indeed been up in arms against the previous owner when water was pumped out of the common pond. He also recalled how cleverly the former owner of the pond had evaded giving up land in excess of the ceiling. For one, he surrendered land on which the pond was located, as excess land, knowing fully that this would not benefit anyone. Two, in order to retain control over the pond he surrendered only land that was located at the centre of the pond. The four sides of the pond, and the bathing ghats, were retained as his land! It’s amazing how the authorities managed to overlook such blatant instances of evasion. So, when the washerfolk resisted moves by the owner to pump water out of the pond, he retaliated by saying that the water may be common but the land on which they stood and washed was his! Over a period of time, the washerfolk stopped washing at Veliya Eri and moved to Gramakulam, a pond that was part of Kollengode gramam (where the Brahmin community resided), in Kollengode panchayat. Initially there was opposition to the washing of clothes there, but, over time, the washerfolk established their right to wash clothes in the pond.

Once again, the water requirement of this group of people was given secondary status. Sixty-five-year-old Ponnu from Mannantara in Manalipadam began washing clothes with the rest of her community when she was just 10. She recalled that when water levels in the pond and streams dropped in summer, they would go with bundles of clothes on their head all the way to Seetarkundu in the Tenmala hills, where water was more plentiful. Ponnu said her feet used to hurt walking all the way to the hills, especially after standing in the water for long.

Despite the younger generation looking down on this profession, it continues to provide economic security to the elderly in the Mannan community. Ponnu told me that despite the hard work, it provided her a monthly income which was becoming more and more important as she grew older. Her children were economically burdened themselves, so she was happy that she was able to fend for herself. It is pertinent to note that even at a time when most members of the Mannan community followed this profession, their water requirements were not given special consideration. If there was not enough water nearby, they were expected to go and wash wherever it was available.

Being catchment-based water harvesting structures that promoted both water conservation and irrigation, ponds were definitely intended to enhance agricultural security. In so doing, their management was located within the land relations of each age; it was the landowning class that had the greatest say over the management of ponds. But ponds have supported a range of other livelihoods as well, such as lotus tuber collectors, washerfolk and fisherfolk who have no land and subsist on traditional livelihoods. Not being in the agricultural sector, they are not covered by any welfare measures. Their rights to water in the pond are not protected and are threatened by the decisions of individual pond owners. Their livelihoods and daily water requirements are subject to the exclusive powers enjoyed by the present-day pond ‘owners’.

The fundamental question is regarding ownership. Unlike land, water cannot be strictly viewed as private property; its fluid and life-sustaining nature makes it difficult to categorise it as a piece of private property. Despite ponds being viewed as the property of the landowner, several other people use the pond in various ways. And yet there is a hierarchy, with the landowner at the top. The claims of all other groups are ambiguous.

Recognising these multiple claims over water could result in a more equitable sharing of the water that is available. There must be open discussions between the different groups of people who rely on the pond in different ways. At present, the pond owners are extremely resistant to open discussions, for they have the most to lose. The idea of viewing ponds as ‘commons’ is unthinkable for this group of people who are also powerful, socially and economically.

This issue has repeatedly emerged in proposed pond protection measures by the concerned panchayat. When the panchayat undertakes to protect a pond, the implication is that the pond ceases to be a private pond. Because of this, many farmers have refused to hand over their ponds to the panchayat for protection fearing that tomorrow they will not be able to exercise exclusive powers over the use of water in the pond.

Recognising multiple claims over water and the ‘common’ status of water also implies recognising the need for a shared sense of responsibility towards the protection of these unique waterbodies. Inculcating a sense of responsibility into our day-to-day dealings with land and water is one of the big challenges we face today.

(Jyothi Krishnan is a researcher on natural resource management and is presently Research Associate with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, and Team Leader for the MGNREGA Evaluation Project in Kerala. This article was researched as part of the FES-Infochange Media Fellowships 2010)

Infochange News & Features, March 2011