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Well Irrigation in Gujarat-Systems of Use, Hierarchies of Control

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THE history of well irrigation during the colonial period is a somewhat neglected one. This is in contrast to the study of canal- systems, which dominates the literature for that period-1 Wells, however, provided the chief form of irrigation in many parts of India in the pie-colonial era,2 as they do again today.3 It was only during the colonial period and early post-colonial period that they suffered a temporary, and only partial, eclipse. It was estimated at the beginning of the 20th century that whereas government-owned canals provided water for about 41 per cent of the irrigated land of British India, wells provided for about 30 percent of the whole.4 In 1949-50, figures for the irrigated area of the rather different land-mass covered by the new state of India showed government canals covering 34.01 per cent of the total, wells 27.49 per cent. Well-irrigated land exceeded government-canal irrigated land from 1971-72 onwards.5 Elizabeth Whitcombe, in her study of the effects of British canals on agriculture in Uttar Pradesh (UP), shows that once the canals were built and canal-water became available, irrigation-wells were neglected and soon collapsed,* But what of the many areas in which wells continued to provide the chief source of irrigation throughout the colonial period? One of the few historians to examine such areas in any detail is Christopher Baker, in his history of rural Tamil Nadu between 18S0 and 1955. He argues that the British, in seeking to turn agriculture into an instrument of accumulation, concentrated their resources on canal-irrigation in the deltaic regions of south India, neglecting irrigation in the uplands, which was predominantly from tanks and wells. The only area in which there was any marked expansion in well-irrigation during the 19th century was Coimbatore, where the dominant Gounder peasantry had the resources to finance their own construction. During the first half of the 20th century, the advent of new pumping technology saw considerable growth in this sector over a wider area; in 1900 wells provided water for about a Fifth of the total irrigated land of Tamil Nadu, by the second world war, a quarter. The expansion was however almost entirely financed by the farmers themselves; the government provided very little help.7 In such a perspective. the resurgence of well-irrigation during the 20th century might seem like a victory of the small-scale and local over the large-scale, monolithic and centralised forms of water-provision favoured by the colonial state. Any celebration of this would appear, however, to be premature. This is because over the past 30 years, extraction of groundwater from wells has in many areas far surpassed any natural replenishment in the sub-soil. Many wells have as a result gone dry. Each year farmers have to bore wells deeper and deeper at greater and greater expense to obtain any supply at all To recoup the investment, the well-owner needs to sell as much of this water as possible to other farmers-frequently carried over long distances in pipes so long as the well remains productive. Furthermore, in many coastal regions, the depletion of ground water has led to ingress by sea-water, so that wells become filled with salty water When used for irrigation, crop-yields decline sharply. The vicious circles thus created are having devastating environmental consequences in many prime agricultural areas of India.1 Beta Bhatia, in an excellent article on this problem as it exists in Gujarat today, has

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