During the third week of GESA, Dr. Raj Puri conducted a game on common pool resources which very effectively explained the role of communications and cooperation among stakeholders in the management of commons. This game helped me develop some insights in my ongoing work on community based tank management and its relevance on the decentralization of governance in India. My study area is within the Gondia district in Central India.
Gondia district is situated in the eastern part of the Indian state of Maharashtra. Along with adjoining Bhandara district, it constitutes lake districts of Maharashtra. On average, it is reported that every village in Gondia has eight tanks which is the highest among all the districts (35 districts) in the state. Almost 80% of the existing village tanks have been built by the community. Historically, these tanks served as a source of irrigation for the villages.
A specific community, the Koholi, is given credit for the construction of the tanks. As told through oral history, some centuries ago, erstwhile rulers of the area brought in ancestors of this community from northern India to cultivate the forest and ensure food security in the area. The Koholis were experts in tank construction. Over time, an elaborate community based institutional system for tank management evolved. In return for assured irrigation, farmers would contribute by cleaning water distribution channels, desilting tanks, and maintaining tank walls and water outlets. During the British colonial regime, this community based tank management continued.
Post- independence, the enactment of a specific legislation brought a major change in community based tank management. The state took over the entire responsibility of tank management. In the parlance of literature on Common Pool Resources, the tanks became public property. Koholi community dominated tank management gradually dissipated. Unfortunately this resulted in the loss of local level monitoring that in turn resulted in the physical deterioration of the village tanks.
At the same time, the Dhiwar fishing community, a disadvantaged section of the cast-based hierarchical society, started receiving benefits through state welfare schemes. Prior to that, this fishing community only had usufruct rights over fishing (in contrast to property rights). With the state sponsored empowerment schemes, the fishermen developed a strong claim over the use of tanks for cooperative fishery based on high yielding fish breeds.
My research is focused on the dynamics of institutional changes and its implication on the decentralization of governance in India. Institutional change is a result of dynamics at three levels – constitutional, collective choice and operational. At present, based on my observations and analysis, community based tank management in Gondia is at an interesting stage, characterized by the presence of remnants of management by the Koholi community, intervention by the state, and, emerging stake by the Dhiwar fishing community. It is like a transition phase – from one form of community based management with the least state intervention to another form of community based management characterized by the emergence of a strong stakeholder group due to state intervention.
I believe that it is necessary that both communities (Koholi and Dhiwar) are on board for holistic management. A limiting factor in effective decentralisation of water management in the developing world is a lack of communication among stakeholders as a result of considerable retension of power by the state. In the case of tank management in Gondia, the irrigation department deals with irrigators whereas the fishery department played a major role in the emergence of the fishing community as a strong stakeholder.