It is paramount to realise that existence is made meaningful with water bodies regaining life and water table rising under the terrain. M.A. Siraj explains with an example

It is common knowledge that rejuvenation of tanks recharges the rural aquifers and lends a fresh lease of life by triggering hope amongst villagers. Centralised irrigation schemes have brought massive transformation in farming schemes, but they also centralised the ownership of these water bodies and grabbed the people (particularly in rural areas) of their rights over them. Farmers depended on irrigation from tanks in Peninsular India which has few perennial rivers. Kings, local chieftains and gram sabhas exercised rights over these tanks and looked after their upkeep and initiated measures to repair the bunds, build separate bathing and washing ghats and watering holes for shepherds. They ensured an optimal use of common resources.

Tanks have been the most important source of irrigation for recharging ground water, offering sanctuary to birds, for domestic use of people and a source of drinking water for both people and animals, as well as a source of silt and sand for construction. Hoary inscriptions attest that the management of irrigation was a major agenda of village assemblies. The revenue generated by the villages, apart from the corpus funds they had, was also used by the assemblies to protect the tanks. The assemblies ensured that the water resource was sustainable.

Tank communities

As these water sources passed into the State’s hands, the farmers’ interest in them declined and many of them came to be neglected. Huge swathes of their catchment area also came to be encroached by the planters. It was in this backdrop that the Karnataka Government had formed the Jala Samvardhana Yojana Sangha (JSYS) or tank communities where management of the tank could be handed over to the users. Karnataka has over 36,000 tanks with a potential irrigation area of 6.85 lakh hectares. But the reality is that today only 2.40 lakh hectares (only 35 per cent of the potential) are irrigated by these tanks. This speaks of the declining use and increasing neglect of these sources. Rough estimates indicate that around 90 per cent of the catchment area of tanks in Kolar district has now come under cultivation, thereby considerably reducing the prospects of these tanks regaining their potential of water storage if the monsoons are really vigorous.

The DHAN (Development of Humane Action) Foundation has been working for revival and rejuvenation of tanks in Kolar district and Pavagada taluk of Tumkur district. Kolar records an average rainfall of 75 to 78 cm in an average monsoon season, more of it coming during the North-East monsoon in October-November. The tanks that get filled up recharge the subterranean aquifers and lend life to the open wells or borewells.

Severe drought

But the current drought, one of the severest in decades, had left little water in these tanks by June this year. Consequently, most open wells had gone dry. The borewells that were sunk to a depth of more than 1,000 ft. were still discharging some water. But the ones that could not reach that depth served as mere signposts for the village folk. Most villages in Kolar taluk were being supplied water in tankers by the government from Kolar town.

Wealth of work

The DHAN Foundation had taken up work in several villages such as Mittamalahalli, Doddanahalli, and Allikunte, all situated around 15-20 km south of Kolar, in May and June this year. It motivated villagers to contribute labour (shramdaan) and provided material help by bringing in excavators and earthmovers. The villagers desilted several of these hoary tanks and their feeder channels, reinforced the bund, evicted the encroachments and undertook foreshore plantation to check the soil erosion. According to H.G. Raghavendra, senior project executive, Tank Programme for DHAN Foundation, in Mittamalahalli village alone the villagers removed 8,000 cubic metres of silt during the 45 days of shramdaan. Allikunte, a kilometre further away from Mittamalahalli, also bore a parched look. All the nine open wells had gone dry. The village tank sprawling over 19 acres was seen overflowing only 14 years ago.

According to farmer Gurappa, the drought this year was so severe that the soil had lost all the moisture and become powdery even at two metres depth. But Gurappa and his farmer friends joined the DHAN’s water community to desilt the tank with a command area of 25 acres. According to them, they have been raising only one (rain-fed) crop during the last 10 years. While in the two cases old tanks were desilted, in Doddanahalli, a farmer offered the Foundation a 50 x 90 ft. plot of land in his farm to create a new pond. DHAN therefore brought in farmers to contribute labour and its (DHAN) portion of cash to create a pond with a storing capacity of 1,000 cubic ft. It was expected to fill up if it rained for just two hours.

According to Vasanth Kumar, regional coordinator for DHAN, of the 150 borewells in the vicinity, only four were operational in June. Kumar thought that if the farm pond gets filled up, it will recharge the land in a radius of 500 metres and water would ooze out in all open wells.

Rich dividends

DHAN’s - and the farmers’ - efforts have paid rich dividends. Despite insufficient rains, the desilted tanks as well as the new farm pond in Doddanahalli village collected enough water to recharge the subterranean aquifers and trigger farm activity when I visited the villages in the last week of September. The beautiful step well made of dressed granite stone (see picture) had dried up entirely in June. But it had come back to life in September, though rains were still scanty.

What it all boils down to is to leave the village water bodies to the care of villagers, motivate them to contribute labour and desilt them frequently and protect them from encroachment, for life lies in water bodies regaining life and water table rising under the terrain.