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How dams and irrigation canals killed Kerala's traditional kulams

By Jyothi Krishnan

Seven dam-based irrigation projects since the 1940s saw the traditional ponds on which water-stressed Palakkad district in Kerala relied converted from catchment-based water harvesting structures into containers of externally supplied canal water. This FES-Infochange series on Kerala’s kulams describes the consequences of technological fixes at the cost of traditional practices

Read: Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5

In 2000, I set out to study the ponds and canals of Palakkad district in Kerala. Palakkad faces a severe water shortage despite having the largest number of ponds, dams and canals. The second largest river in Kerala, the Bharathapuzha, flows through this district which is famous for its paddy cultivation. Palakkad is considered one of the state’s ‘rice bowls’, offering visitors the beautiful sight of bright green paddy fields stretched out against a backdrop of hills.

I remember travelling from the neighbouring district of Thrissur to Palakkad at the height of summer, and feeling the hot, dry winds on my face. This was the ‘Gap effect’, I thought, as much of the district, particularly the eastern parts, is located in a 40 km break in the Western Ghats: a unique formation wherein the ghats abruptly stop their almost continuous journey from Western Maharashtra to Kanyakumari.

Referred to as the Palakkad Gap, this break in the hills has created a unique ecological and socio-cultural situation. The Gap funnels in warm and hot winds from the neighbouring plains of Coimbatore, creating climatic conditions that are quite distinct from the rest of Kerala, particularly in terms of rainfall and temperature patterns. It is not uncommon for temperatures here to cross 40 degrees Celsius. The region receives far less rain (1200 mm) than the state average (2500 mm), largely due to the absence of the sheltering Western Ghats which precipitate heavy monsoon rains over most parts of Kerala.

The bus got off the national highway (NH 47) at Vadakkencheri and moved onto a bumpy road that traversed through small towns separated by stretches of paddy fields fringed by palm trees.

I could see the ghats in the distance, coming closer as we neared Elavenchery and Kollengode. I also noticed the increasing frequency of ponds, referred to here as kulams or eris. Eri is the Tamil word for similar but larger irrigation structures in Tamil Nadu. Here, the ponds cover an area of between 1-2 acres only; larger ones encompassing an area of 3-4 acres are rare.

A kulam

It took a while for me to understand the functioning of these small waterbodies in the Palakkad landscape. Farmers lamented the increasing water scarcity in the region; how Tamil Nadu was not releasing its promised share of water to Kerala (interestingly, the Chulliar dam that supplies water to this region receives water through an inter-basin, inter-state transfer); how they faced repeated crop failures; and how paddy was no longer profitable. All this is regularly reported in the Malayalam newspapers during the summer months, with special features on water scarcity. Of course things change dramatically once the monsoon arrives in Kerala!

A larger kulam

Ponds, however, rarely featured in any discussion on Palakkad’s irrigation history. People (irrigation officials, panchayat representatives, even farmers) instead talked about the dam- and canal-building era, which commenced in Palakkad with the Malampuzha Irrigation Project in the 1940s. It soon became evident that people equated irrigation with dams and canals, not with ponds. And in a way they were right: how could one compare the water available in a pond with water stored in a dam that came gushing through canals? When I asked about the ponds, people would say: “Oh the ponds. Yes they are there. They are mostly used to store water released from the dam. They are silted up and so cannot store water as before.” Quite clearly, even if the ponds did store water it was not a very large amount.

Very soon I began to question my own line of enquiry. Was it worthwhile exploring the functioning of these kulams? Everybody seemed quite unimpressed by them, so what was the purpose of my study? Yet, I could not ignore the fact that water scarcity is not only a distribution problem. Nor is it just an issue of leaking canals and timely distribution. It has a lot to do with the way water is managed and used. Whether dams and canals are the ideal way of managing and using scarce water resources in this increasingly dry landscape was a question that needed clear answers.

I walked through the region with an old agricultural labourer called Velan. He had worked as a sthira panikkaran (permanent labourer) on the lands of a large landholding family. Prior to the implementation of land reforms in the state in 1970, much of the agricultural land, and some forest land, was vested with the landlords. Most landlords did not live in the vicinity of the lands they owned; they leased them out to tenants who then undertook cultivation with the help of a larger group of agricultural labourers like Velan. Many of them worked on a permanent basis for a particular landlord or tenant.

Velan mentioned the diversion of water into ponds (vellam tirikkal, as it was called), an activity that is not very crucial these days. He recalled how the labourers would go out in groups during the first rains of the sowing season to divert as much water as possible into the ponds that irrigated the lands on which they worked. Small drainage channels through which run-off flowed into the pond were cleaned before the rains arrived. They would also work on small diversions through the paddy fields and housing clusters that would enhance run-off into the pond. Velan said that undulations in the terrain were so slight that a very clear understanding of the slope of the land was necessary to divert water in a particular direction. Very often arguments would break out between labourers from adjacent landholdings over the diversion of water. Such ‘pond-filling’ activity is no longer undertaken with the same fervour today. On the contrary, farmers consider how to divert water supplied through irrigation canals into the ponds.

It became clear that ponds today are viewed less as irrigation structures and more as water harvesting structures, combining water harvesting, moisture conservation and a careful mix of cropping patterns quite ingeniously. The main bund of the pond (the varambu) is the chief structure, comprising a mud wall built across the line of drainage. As one moves down the slope, one can see that ponds at the higher level, along with the area they irrigate, formed the catchment of lower ponds. This network of ponds, along with streams and shallow pits, ensured a dispersed system of water storage and moisture conservation that enabled agriculture in the region.

The high bund (varambu) of the pond

All this seems fine when the land is viewed as a whole. But when it is divided into privately owned parcels of land, this water network loses its integrity. The slicing up of agricultural and forest land into individually owned bits and pieces also led to the slicing up of the water network into privately owned reserves of water. Today, these ponds are almost exclusively owned by a small group of individuals, transforming them into private reserves. This, coupled with the availability of energised pump systems, has brought about a sea change in water use patterns, which has led to the shrinking of the larger water commons.

Palakkad district is home to seven irrigation projects. The Malampuzha Irrigation Project introduced modern dam-based canal irrigation to the district in the 1940s. It was followed by six more dam-based irrigation projects, irrigating almost every part of the Palakkad plains. The panchayats I took up for detailed study (Kollengode and Elavenchery panchayats) are irrigated by the Chulliar dam, which is part of the Gayatripuzha Irrigation Project that became functional during the late-1960s. This period marked an important shift in the area’s irrigation practices, from one that was exclusively based on ponds to one that was based on a mix of ponds and canals. The canals, however, overshadowed the ponds by the sheer volume of water they brought in. The most significant outcome of the introduction of canals was the filling up of ponds with water distributed through the canals. In many instances, spouts along irrigation field channels were positioned in such a way that they facilitated the diversion of water into nearby ponds. Mohanan from Cheerani in Kollengode recalled how his father requested the concerned official to position the spout of the field channel above his pond. Many other farmers did likewise.

Gradually, the filling up of ponds with canal water brought about changes in the way people managed ponds and their catchments. It also changed the way people viewed the ponds. With the new source of water, the ponds just did not seem as important as before. Velayudhan, a farmer from the area, remembered how they had heard ‘miracle stories’ about the canals and the wonders they did from farmers in the ayacut of other irrigation projects in the district. In anticipation, a few ponds were even converted into agricultural land. It no longer became necessary to clear the drainage channels leading into the pond before the rains, or to ensure that every drop of rainwater flowed into the pond. Over a period of time, the ponds came to be viewed more as containers of externally supplied canal water than catchment-based water harvesting structures. This naturally gave them secondary status.

A number of other reasons contributed to the overall decay of ponds. The redistribution of land from landlords to cultivating tenants during the 1970s brought about changes in the management of ponds as well. The periodic desilting of ponds, undertaken by landlords during the pre-land-reform era, was gradually discontinued. Desilting helped maintain the storage capacity of the ponds. The silt removed served as fertiliser for the paddy fields as well. With the implementation of land reforms and the division of land into smaller pieces, the responsibility of desilting was shared by the new landowners. And so it did not take place very often. The availability of water through canals also made regular desilting seem unnecessary. Many ponds today are heavily silted up, resembling shallow bowls.

The availability of canal water masked the limited nature of water supplies. Hence, declining flows in streams and rivers and the decay of ponds were not taken very seriously.

The supply of water through canals began to get increasingly unreliable within a decade of their commencement. The Chulliar dam’s storage capacity declined sharply due to siltation, largely a result of almost total deforestation in its catchment. By 1982, a link canal was constructed to bring in surplus water from the adjoining Meenkara Irrigation Project. The transfer of this surplus water is part of an inter-state, inter-basin water sharing agreement between the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. And so the filling of Chulliar dam became dependent on the timely release of water from the Aliyar Project by Tamil Nadu. This release of water became highly contentious during the 1980s as a result of rainfall aberrations, drought years and disputes over water sharing between the two states.

It is interesting to see how these larger dynamics affected the management and use of water in Kollengode and Elavenchery panchayats, the state of agriculture, especially paddy cultivation, and the lives of farmers and agricultural labourers in the region.

The unreliability of water supply aggravated the head-tail inequities that are manifest in almost all canal irrigation projects across the country. It led to allegations and accusations between farmers at both ends. The storing of canal water in ponds increased this inequity, as farmers in the head reaches received the benefit of timely supply and were also able to keep their ponds full of water. Despite growing irregularities in water distribution, farmers were unable to restore the ponds to their former glory; they appeared to have lost the habit of timely maintenance and desilting of ponds. Moreover, the introduction of high-yielding paddy varieties, chemical fertiliser and pesticides necessitated the use of larger volumes of water. A shift in the agricultural calendar, from one tuned to the monsoon cycle to one that depended on the release of water through canals, intensified the demand for water. It made the old ways of doing agriculture and managing water seem redundant.

Palakkad has always been a water stressed region. As mentioned earlier, the absence of the sheltering effect of the Western Ghats in the Palakkad Gap, the funnelling in of hot winds through the Gap, and reduced rainfall has created a situation where water has never been plentiful. Deforestation during the 20th century, coupled with the damming of almost all the Bharathapuzha’s tributaries, contributed to declining river flows.

The severe water stress that farmers in the study area reported pertain to the 1980s and 1990s, when agriculture became more water-intensive and water supply through canals unreliable. This roughly was also the period when the ponds began to suffer neglect. Scarcity of drinking water was widely reported in many parts of the district. Falling water levels in wells (both shallow and deep), decreasing water storage in ponds, and declining summer flows in rivers and streams all indicated that local water regimes were failing.

Of the many solutions proposed, the most favoured was augmenting storage in the Chulliar dam through another project, the Palakkapandi Project. In fact, there were very few discussions with farmers that did not end with a mention of the ‘Palakkapandi dream’. This diversion project, currently under construction, comprises a long tunnel carved out of the steep slopes of the Tenmala mountains which form the southern face of the Palakkad Gap. The aim is to divert the peak monsoon run-off, that would otherwise drain into the Palakkapandi stream, through the tunnel into the Chulliar dam. The impact of this diversion scheme on downstream flows as well as on the numerous lift irrigation schemes that draw their supply from the Palakkapandi stream has been overlooked. Also sidelined in this search for ‘new water’ is the issue of inequitable distribution of water as well as the mismanagement of existing water resources. But that is the story all over the state and the country, where we rely on easy solutions without solving the existing problems.

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

Infochange News & Features, October 2010