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The journey from the private to the common

Does private ownership give the landowner the right to do as he pleases with land and water? It is only a new consciousness of the finiteness of natural resources that will lead to the appreciation that they exist in the common domain; that they can never be left to individual or private discretion, says Jyothi Krishnan  

Read: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4

The articles in this series have focused on the functioning of traditional water harvesting structures, known as kulams, in the dry, eastern Palakkad landscape of Kerala. A system of water harvesting that was a response to the need for moisture and water conservation in this dry region. A system of water harvesting and water use that facilitated double cropping of paddy in the valleys. Access to water in the ponds was dictated by changing land relations; currently, the ponds are completely entrenched within the private property system wherein it is the landowner in the ayacut of each pond who exercises the greatest power over water in the pond.

The present state of Palakkad’s ponds raises two critical issues. One is the relevance of a system of catchment-based moisture conservation in an area where relatively higher temperatures, dry winds and scanty rainfall are aggravated by widespread deforestation. Conservation of these waterbodies could provide much-needed relief to people in this water-stressed region. It could also provide new insights into the search for locally relevant water management strategies.

The second issue relates to ownership and water use. This is not an issue that is peculiar to Palakkad; it applies to the whole world. As we grapple with scarcity of water in its severest forms, we are compelled to address the issue of ownership.

At a philosophical level, we would all agree that water is nobody’s property -- it is a life-sustaining resource to which all living forms must have access. In practice, however, it is human use of water that dictates the management of this resource. And, amongst humans, it is the powerful who are assured access to a resource.

The idea of ‘water as commons’ has surfaced on a number of occasions. It has cropped up particularly over the last two decades in India. It was raised during anti-dam struggles in India in the 1990s, which were largely against the state’s appropriation of water resources in the name of ‘development’. It was also raised in protests against multinational companies, as in the case of Coca-Cola in Kerala (Plachimada, the site of this conflict, incidentally, was also in Palakkad district).

The scale of the issue of ownership and use of kulams in Palakkad is not large; it concerns the commonplace, everyday appropriation of a common resource. A form of appropriation that we tend to take for granted.

Community norms regarding the protection and use of common lands do not exist in Kerala, except in tribal-dominated regions of the highlands. In the latter, there existed well-defined norms regarding the use of community forests and agricultural lands which are now falling into disarray. In mainstream society, which is concentrated in the midlands and lowlands of the state, common lands are few and far between. It is the private property regime that governs the use of land.

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. The direct relationship between land and food forced them to take good care of their land.

Today, in the midlands and lowlands, population density coupled with the growth of the nuclear family system, has led to the fragmentation of land into small parcels. The vegetation of the midlands and the lowlands is dominated by select monoculture crops like rubber, coconut, etc, which replaced wild uncultivated lands, forests and, more recently, even paddy land.

Paddy cultivation is on its way out; valleys which once grew paddy are being converted into housing and building plots, and used for brick making. Highways, towns and cities eat into the surrounding agrarian landscape, consuming more and more land.

Natural vegetation is fast disappearing. So too are natural land forms. The midland hills are being bulldozed and quarried to meet the growing demand for stone and sand, and paddy fields and low-lying land is being filled up with sand and soil mined from the hills to make way for construction. Natural drainage patterns are being disturbed. The alternating cycle of drought and floods has set in here too.

What does this imply for the water in wells and ponds, rivers and streams? Unfortunately, we have not been able to correlate the two. We have no comprehensive picture of the cumulative effects of the rapid land use changes that are taking place here. The government and village panchayats try to remedy the water situation by vigorously promoting rainwater harvesting, digging soak water pits, protecting waterbodies by building side walls… Once again, a simplistic and often counter-productive solution to a complicated problem.

It’s a problem that demands a fundamental change in mindset and a change in worldview. For, if we continue treating our natural resources as mines to be exploited, there is nothing we can do to alter the situation.

Even as we prioritise the protection of vital resources such as land, forests and water, we must also appreciate that these are common resources, resources for tomorrow, irrespective of existing private property claims over them. While land ownership is considered an unquestionable reality, we will soon be prompted to take another look at the issue. Does private ownership give the owner the right to do as he pleases with the land? Does it give him the right to alter fundamental features of the land, to dig it up, to bulldoze it, to mine the soil? What are the limits to private ownership over land? Similarly, in the case of water, does the mere availability of energised pumping devices grant landowners the right to pump out water from wells and ponds located within their holdings, irrespective of its impact on the water regime? Increasing exploitation of groundwater in India reiterates the need for regulating private control over this resource. Equally dangerous is the exploitation of smaller water sources like ponds, wells and streams, where the issue of regulation is still not being contemplated.

It is time we questioned individual actions as against the larger collective good, especially as the inter-related water systems we have today have to be conserved for tomorrow.

The other issue is the fragmented way we view natural resources. We consider water, land and forests as separate. However much we talk about integrated resource management, in practice our policymakers, decision-makers and project implementing officers are unable to see the link. Deforestation in the mountains and the drying up of rivers are seen as two separate processes. Which is why the drying up of ponds and wells, rivers and streams in Kollengode and Elavenchery is not seen as a result of the long process of deforestation in the Tenmala mountains and its surroundings; or the shift towards water-intensive agricultural practices. The degraded condition of ponds in the area, and plans for their conservation, provide us with an opportunity to examine these inter-relationships closely. In fact, the protection and conservation of ponds requires both micro and macro planning. Micro planning in each pond catchment and command will help us critically appraise the changes that have come about in the catchment of each pond, and to water use patterns in its command. This exercise could throw up measures to help restore the catchment, such as afforestation to arrest soil erosion. It could also be a starting point for collective deliberations on changing water use patterns, and ‘limits’ to water extraction, given the water scarcity in the region.

People need to discuss whether water rights to ponds should be made more inclusive. These micro planning exercises fall within the mandate of the panchayat and the gram sabha. Public pressure must be exerted for the panchayat to wake up to the task.

Micro plans of ponds need to refer to a larger plan, which will position the network of ponds, wells, streams and rivers in the larger basin map of the Bharathapuzha river. This macro picture will help us understand the degradation of ponds vis-à-vis larger changes that have occurred in the region’s forests and lands. It is this macro picture that should inform initiatives at integrated resource management, and should be incorporated into district-level and regional-level planning processes. This will be the first step towards the ‘river basin planning’ model that the government is striving to promote.

Interestingly, ponds are located at the critical juncture between the micro and the macro. While each pond provides a micro picture, put them together and they generate a macro picture of the region.

Fundamentally, it is only a new consciousness of the finiteness of natural resources that will bring about the above-mentioned changes. Despite all the talk of sustainable development, in day-to-day planning and implementation, governments, panchayats and people must begin to see the relevance of such a vision. Recognition of the finiteness of natural resources will lead to the appreciation that they exist in the common domain; that they can never be left to individual or private discretion. While regulations and legislation could help stall exploitation, they will not succeed without the will of the people at large. The journey from the private to the common calls for nothing short of a collective consensus.

(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 is the fifth in her series on Kerala’s traditional ponds, researched as part of the FES-Infochange Media Fellowships 2010)

Infochange News & Features, December 2010