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Towards a Deeper Understanding of Tank Irrigation

Ramaswamy R. Iyer

By David Mosse with assistance from M. Sivan
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2003, pp. xiii 337, Rs. 675.00


The central part of the book is an account of the history of tank irrigation in Tamil Nadu with particular reference to two low-rainfall districts in the southern part of the state. Narrowing the focus further the book presents the story in relation to two villages (Vayalur and Alapuram - fictitious names) in greater detail, and then proceeds to explain certain differences between the two villages in terms of their different ecological characteristics. Widening the horizons of the study, the book sets forth and criticizes some misperceptions and imperfect understandings of the past (on the part of governments, colonial and modern, international agencies, advocates of ‘reform’, and scholars), and draws some conclusions. It must be added that the book is about much more than tank irrigation in the two selected villages or even in Tamil Nadu as a whole; it is about water. Further, it is about water not merely as a scarce natural resource needed for life-support and for agriculture, but also as an important element in ecological, social and political history, determining and being determined by that history.   The book is too complex and rich to be presented even in summary form here. This review can only try to give the reader a broad (but not, one hopes, inaccurate or misleading) idea of the contents of the book in the following compressed, simplified statement that leaves out many aspects and nuances.   The tanks under study were not merely water-harvesting structures but institutions that formed part of a system of power and caste relations. There was a vertical political relationship between the local chiefs and the raja of the larger domain, and there was also an economic relationship (from the raja to the chiefs and further downwards) through grants of land and water-use rights and claims to shares in agricultural produce. That system of segmented authority also implied segmented responsibility at every level for the maintenance of the tanks, for ensuring compliance with the sharing of water and produce, and for making the necessary investments. The political and power relationships were supported and legitimized by positions and priorities in the temple (temple honours and roles in temple festivals). The system of water control and sharing was also structured in terms of caste relations, as the various functions that needed to be performed were assigned by custom to different castes, and there were related entitlements to shares in produce or ...

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