Bigger landowners grab more than their share of water: ensuring water to the poorer remains a challenge
On the World Environment Day it is worth remembering that inequality extends to even water for irrigation. The more resourceful landowners get away by grabbing more water, writes Bharat Dogra
The biggest, more powerful and resourceful landowners also try to grab more water. Even if due care is taken to ensure that the smaller farmers are not left out, not much can be done if most of the village households are landless workers.
The Patha region of Chitrakut district (Uttar Pradesh) is characterized by high land inequalities. Powerful landlords called dadus traditionally held sway over most of the land, while the kol tribals faced land alienation and lost access to much of the land of their ancestors. The dalits here have also been mostly landless. In conditions of increasing deforestation, this plateau which can face extreme heat conditions in summer also experienced increasing water scarcity.
Over four decades back when a World-Bank funded drinking water project was implemented in this area, sometimes the dadus broke the pipes leading to tribal hamlets so that they could get more water for themselves.
In these difficult conditions a voluntary organization called ABSSS started working here about four decades back and these activists got their priorities right by first working for the release of bonded workers and distribution of at least some land among the landless. At that stage the government still had land reform schemes and land had been allotted to many tribal and dalit households but due to the terror of the dadus they had not been able to occupy and cultivate these lands. Following a decade or more of campaigning for land rights, despite many initial difficulties, the ABSSS succeeded in ensuring land access and cultivation by several tribal and dalit households .
Then in the next stage this organization took up several projects relating to water conservation and rainwater harvesting which helped in increasing access to drinking water for people as well as farm animals and in addition availability of more water for irrigation. As these projects were also aimed at recharge of water, the wider benefits of moisture and water conservation improved potential of farming in a wider area than what could be achieved by direct water supply from these projects. These projects were selected in such a way to ensure that many of the tribal and dalit landowners, including the entirely new cultivators among them, could also get irrigation water.
As having access to land and then irrigation as well was considered a big achievement by them, they worked hard to build on their newly acquired opportunities, belying the criticism of dadus that these poor households would never be able to cultivate land properly.
Visiting these scattered hamlets at that time, it was a delight to see such first generation farmers looking proudly at their green fields. In particular I remember a youth belonging to sanitation worker community. We were speaking to him in the middle of his field full of smiling crops in full bloom when he was overwhelmed with emotions and tears appeared in his eyes. He hastened to say that these were tears of joy.
These projects attracted attention for their good quality of work and achieving better potential from low costs. Action Aid, NABARD and Oxfam were involved in supporting some of this work. One important reason for the good results related to the close involvement of the weaker sections achieved in the course of the earlier land distribution work and this support of these households contributed much to the success, even though this work had to be conducted often in very difficult conditions in the Patha region known for its fierce dacoit gangs.
There is similar need for land rights work in more such areas to be followed by work relating to water conservation and minor irrigation.
(The writer is a journalist and author. His recent books include Planet in Peril and Man Over Machine.)