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Tamil Nadu Revives Kudimaramathu

Ancient Wisdom of Water Management

S Rajendran ( teaches at the Department of Economics, Gandhigram Rural Institute, Tamil Nadu.

Finally realising the economic and environmental benefits of small waterbodies, the Tamil Nadu government has revived kudimaramathu, the centuries-old practice of building and maintaining ponds and tanks with community involvement. This article recounts the history of the practice, its marginalisation in colonial times, and the politics that drives its revival today. The scheme will be successful and sustainable only if local farmers and stakeholders are empowered to select, maintain and repair these waterbodies.

Thanks are due to K Sivasubramaniyan for his comments.

The Tamil Nadu government has recently initiated kudimaramathu, a long-forgotten traditional but sustainable mode of managing small waterbodies like ooranies (ponds, mainly for drinking water), kanmois (tanks) and reservoirs in the water-starved state. The practice is expected to pay dividends in the long term.

While large irrigation structures such as dams entail huge investment, the displacement of local people, and submersion of sizeable portions of land, small irrigation systems are preferred for their sustainability, cost-effectiveness and local benefit. Such small waterbodies were built hundreds and thousands of years ago, with dynasties and monarchies giving great importance to the management of these structures, with the active participation of local communities. To further encourage community involvement in sustaining these waterbodies, farmers were allotted some portions of the lands called maniyam (Sivasubramaniyan 1995) surrounding the tanks and ponds to maintain, the portion dependent on the size of a farmer’s landholding in the ayacut1 zone.

These structures were built from locally available resources. The waterbodies were structured in chains, with excess water from one structure flowing downstream, thus allowing for maximum storage and minimum run-off.2 The three powerful dynasties, the Cheras, Cholas and Pandyas, which ruled major parts of Tamil lands for long periods, managed irrigation effectively. One of the oldest earthen dams in the world, constructed by King Karikala Chola3 across the river Kaveri between Tiruchirappalli and Thanjavur, remains an engineering marvel even after more than 1,000 years.

Traditionally, local stakeholders maintained the structures, cleaning the inlet and outlet channels of rivers, removing bushes or shrubs, and desilting the small waterbodies. The 1815 document called the Mamulnamas details the number of labourers from beneficiary villages required to construct temporary korambus (embankments that divert water for irrigation) across the river Palar in times of flood, and the construction of korambus continued till the permanent Palar Anicut was constructed in 1858 (Sivasubramaniyan 2000).

Unfortunately, in the colonial era, community participation in managing waterbodies was sidelined. Bureaucrats who had little knowledge of local issues took over the management of the waterbodies, slowly marginalising the role of the beneficiary villagers, and resulting in the gradual decline of tank irrigation. The bureaucrats knew little about local hydraulic systems, irrigation needs, rainfall and cropping patterns, or techniques and technologies of managing waterbodies, a situation that continues even after independence. The neglect of the waterbodies has resulted in reduced water storage, bringing down the area under irrigation.

Besides irrigating farmlands, these waterbodies also provided drinking water for people and livestock, and supported livelihoods such as animal husbandry, fish-rearing and strip plantations of palmyra, babul, mango and tamarind. Minor forest produce—twigs, logs, timber, seeds, pods, gum, fruit, nuts and green manure —was also collected to generate additional income for the village. More importantly, the silt accumulated in the tank beds served as natural manure for the ayacut lands. Brimming with water, the tanks and ponds also helped replenish the water table in the neighbourhood wells. Thus, the waterbodies were central to community life: even today in the off-farm season, the community comes together to hunt fish in many lakes and ponds in the Tamil Nadu countryside. Income from the auction of fruit and other produce around the waterbodies funds temple rituals and other collective needs. These natural resources also help maintain biological diversity and ecological balance, with rare migratory birds from other countries flocking to the tanks and ponds.

Sidelining Local Wisdom

According to the Minor Irrigation Census (2013–14), India has around 6.42 lakh small water structures, 41,127 of them in Tamil Nadu (Government of Tamil Nadu 2014: S-43). Many of these structures were built as long ago as the eighth century BCE. During the 1960s, 9.2 lakh hectares (ha) out of the total registered ayacut of 10 lakh ha in Tamil Nadu were irrigated by these tanks (Sivasubramaniyan 2006). Six decades later, in 2015, this number had dwindled to 4 lakh ha. According to one estimate, the water-holding capacity of these 40,000-odd tanks, ponds and ooranies is around 17.9 lakh million cubic feet, just a little less than the storage level of all dams (21.6 lakh million cubic feet) in the state. The neglect of these small waterbodies over decades has resulted in a decline in water-holding capacity as well. The invasion of weeds such as water hyacinth, Prosopis juliflora and Ipomoea carnia (Rajendran 2000), encroachments, accumulation of silt, and the dumping of municipal, hospital and industrial waste, has affected the flow of water. In some areas, water has become unfit for domestic use and groundwater has been contaminated. Resource-poor farmers, especially in rain-fed regions, have been hardest hit. In drought periods especially, the situation is alarming, with a paucity of water even for drinking, let alone irrigation.

In addition, public utilities such as revenue offices, hospitals, bus stands and housing colonies have been constructed on or near the waterbodies, obstructing the free flow of water. The uprooting of trees weakens the bunds, leading to a breach and loss of water.

Realising the economic and environmental importance of the smaller waterbodies, the state government initiated the revival of the kudimaramathu concept in Tamil Nadu in March 2017 with much fanfare. After drought for three consecutive years (Rajendran 2014) and waterlogging during the cyclone of 2015 in Chennai city, the government has perhaps realised the importance of kudimaramathu. The ruling class now claims that the acute water crisis in the state may be resolved soon as normal rainfall4 will fill the newly desilted and deepened traditional waterbodies.

Kudimaramathu is a system in which beneficiaries volunteer labour to repair a water structure on a household or acreage basis. The voluntary work was done once a year, generally in summer or before the onset of the monsoon. If a household was unable to contribute labour, it contributed in kind (grain or money). This innovative participatory irrigation management was marginalised with the state wanting to control precious natural resources. The Madras Village Panchayat Act, 1920 imposed a fee on farmers for kudimaramathu, and though the Madras Water Board Act, 1930 did make provisions for kudimaramathu, it was not taken up as the state was reluctant to transfer control over waterbodies to village panchayats. The responsibility of maintaining tanks was vested with the public works department (PWD) chief engineer (irrigation department) in 1949, and farmers lost interest in the practice of kudimaramathu.

Participatory water management through kudimaramathu was reintroduced in the undivided Cauvery delta’s Thanjavur district by the PWD in 1975, and was extended to other districts in 1979. The Tamil Nadu Farmers’ Management of Irrigation Systems Act (2000) enabled the formation of water users associations (WUAs), with landowners in the ayacut as members. However, the expected outcome has not been tangible and sustainable as the state machineries exert stringent control over the natural resources, leaving local communities mere spectators.

In some areas under kudimaramathu, villagers also appointed a neerkatti5 to regulate the water flow from tanks. The neerkatti is in charge of releasing water to individual fields and keeps an eye on storage, especially during heavy rains. A neerkatti was paid in kind, in paddy or other farm produce, depending on the cropping cycle. However, this system has gradually stopped in almost all tank-irrigated areas of Tamil Nadu.

It is against this background that the state has allotted `100 crore for 30 districts to undertake kudimaramathu in 2017–18 for 1,159 of the 12,000 irrigation tanks controlled by the PWD. The National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) has allotted another `500 crore for this ancient practice. Realising the significance of cleaning lakes, expatriate Tamils in the United States adopted the novel idea of moi virunthu6 to raise funds to restore waterbodies and protect farming in Tamil Nadu (Lakshmi 2017). In addition to human labour, machinery is used to repair the waterbodies and complete the work faster. The PWD is entrusted with the task of supervision only, and the entire management is supposedly vested in the local communities including WUAs.7 There is no bar on engaging contractors when required, however.

Kudimaramathu includes the deepening of tanks, levelling the surface of the water-holding area, removing sand sediment and silt, strengthening bunds, removing bushes and weeds in supply channels, and repairing sluices. Local farmers are allowed to collect silt for their fields. In fact, the beneficiaries from an ayacut area are required to contribute 10% of the total allocation, the balance met by the state government. At present, only projects costing less than `10 lakh have been taken up under this scheme. An allocation of `300 crore is planned in 2018–19 to take up kudimaramathu for panchayat-controlled waterbodies as well.

Tamil Nadu has about 30,000 irrigation tanks and ponds controlled by village panchayats that need immediate attention. Instead, at present only the PWD-controlled tanks have been taken up for maintenance. Already, PWD authorities are complaining that members of both the ruling and opposition party are forcing officials to select some tanks over others. This renders the “bottom-up” mode of participation of beneficiary farmers and local communities irrelevant. For instance, the historical Samuthiram tank near Thanjavur town was selected following political pressure, but not the larger Vaduvur tank on the Thanjavur–Mannargudi highway, even though the latter has a greater ayacut area.

Politics in Kudimaramathu

In some places, politics has resulted in ugly situations. The opposition Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (DMK) has been motivating and encouraging its cadres to take up the repair and rejuvenation of crumbling reservoirs, channels and waterbodies, possibly to gain political mileage in the drought conditions prevailing in the state. However, officials hesitate to give permission to repair some of these reservoirs because of pressure from the ruling party. Believing that the voluntary involvement and contribution of party workers would help fetch votes, the DMK and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) organised the desiltation of tanks and ponds in many areas, and the DMK is sustaining these efforts.

In parched Thiruvannamalai district, DMK volunteers deepened two large lakes and 16 ponds, besides constructing bathing ghats and sluices. They also diverted sewage (which was being let into these waterbodies) to a drain, with local people joining in the endeavour. Local leaders formed water management councils for the maintenance of these resources. Ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) cadres have on occasion entered already desilted and repaired lakes and posed to take credit for the activity.8 This led to a law and order situation in the chief minister’s assembly constituency in July 2017. On 27 July, the opposition leader was arrested en route to the lake. A member of the land donor’s family and other villagers alleged that AIADMK functionaries9 had removed silt and sand indiscriminately and haphazardly, which would hamper storage (Ramesh and Punniamoorthy 2017).

In fact, farmers’ associations and local leaders allege that neither local communities nor village leaders are consulted about the repair of waterbodies. These are purely political decisions, capitalising on the severe drought. Meanwhile, it is alleged that PWD officials have taken advantage of the situation and demanded bribes to take up water management works in some places, maintaining that politicians and higher-up officials demand money. In other places, farmers have volunteered to deepen waterbodies on their own as officials have declined permission.

The sand and silt indiscriminately removed from waterbodies has also been sold to fill fertile farm plots for real estate development and the brick industry. Builders and contractors use their influence with politicians and officials to smuggle the sand10 out. In some places, the sand is also used for common cause, such as filling community threshing floors, temple premises and school playgrounds.

Although kudimaramathu is a positive initiative by the state government in times of severe water scarcity, unless beneficiary farmers themselves join in the revival of the tanks, the practice will not work in the long term.


This scheme will be successful and sustainable only if local farmers and stakeholders are given the power to select a waterbody for repair, maintenance and upkeep. More panchayat-owned water structures should be brought under kudimaramathu, with active community involvement. Beneficiaries of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) may find livelihood security if they are involved in the repair and strengthening of these age-old structures. At the launch of kudimaramathu in March 2017, the repair of the remaining tanks and channels under the Minor Irrigation Scheme and Tamil Nadu Village Habitations Improvement Scheme with the involvement of MGNREGA workers was announced.

Elections for WUAs should be held periodically in the interests of protecting, managing and using such water structures through the bottom-up, participatory approach. Technical help, wherever required by locals, should be provided, and conflicts resolved through amicable settlement. The entire process of kudimaramathu must remain free from political interference if it is to succeed. Every kudimaramathu initiative should be monitored to ensure that the silt is used by farmers to enrich soil fertility and not for non-agricultural and profit-making purposes. People’s participation and people’s benefit is central to the success of kudimaramathu.


1 Ayacut is the area irrigated by a waterbody and ayacutdars are farmers who possess land in the ayacut area.

2 For a countrywide analysis of traditional methods of water management, see Agarwal and Narain (1997) and Rajendran (1994).

3 This king invaded Sri Lanka, brought in thousands of prisoners, and strengthened the bunds of the river Kaveri.

4 According to a report released on 30 July 2017, Tamil Nadu received deficit rainfall of 28% between 1 June and 29 July 2017 (Dinamani 2017).

5 Neerkatti is a person appointed by the ayacutdars.

6 Feast served in exchange for monetary contribution.

7 Unfortunately, elections for WUAs have not been held for years, and as a result, there are now no office-bearers to take care of the waterbodies.

8 For 10 days in end-June 2017, around 400 DMK volunteers completed repairs on the Kacharayan tank in Konganapuram, Salem district, and the party’s working president was scheduled to visit the tank on 27 July. Konganapuram is in the chief minister’s constituency, and it is alleged that the ruling AIADMK cadres entered the tank to do some window dressing and claim credit for the work. Outraged DMK cadres resorted to a roadblock and the police had to be called in to control the situation. Later, a local AIADMK functionary claimed that they had obtained permission from the PWD. Between the two political parties, the genuine stakeholders—farmers—were left as mere spectators.

9 Objecting to this, philanthropists and locals stopped further deepening of the Kacharayan lake on 29 July 2017.

10 There is a severe shortage of river sand, and consequently, a big demand from the construction industry.


Agarwal, Anil and Sunita Narain (1997): Dying Wisdom: Rise, Fall and Potential of India’s Traditional Water Harvesting Systems, State of India’s Environment: A Citizen’s Report, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi.

Dinamani (2017): “South West Monsoon 28% Deficit in Tamil Nadu,” 30 July.

Government of Tamil Nadu (2014): “Tamil Nadu—an Economic Appraisal: 2011–12 to 2013–14,” Department of Evaluation and Applied Research, Government of Tamil Nadu.

Lakshmi, K (2017): “A ‘Moi Virunthu’ in Washington DC,” Hindu, 30 July.

Rajendran, S (1994): “Spirit of Water: Group Irrigation Management,” Down to Earth, Vol 3, No 3, pp 22–23.

— (2000): “Ipomeas Threatens Cauvery Delta,” Environment Pollution, Vol 1, No 9.

— (2014): “Drought Mitigation in Tamil Nadu,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 49, No 25,

Ramesh, V K and M Punniamoorthy (2017): “Lake Panchayat in Edapaddi Constituency,” Junior Vikatan, 2 August, pp 2–3.

Sivasubramaniyan, K (1995): “Irrigation Institutions in Two Large Multi-village Tanks of Tamil Nadu: Structure, Functioning and Impact,” PhD thesis, University of Madras, Chennai.

— (2000): “Water Management under Traditional Tank Irrigation Systems under Major Tanks: With Special Reference to Mamulnamas,” Review of Development and Change, Vol 5, No 2.

— (2006): “Sustainable Development of Small Water Bodies in Tamil Nadu,” Economic &
Political Weekly
, Vol 41, No 26, pp 2854–63.

Updated On : 9th Feb, 2018


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