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Institutions, Technology and Water Control

Institutions, Technology and Water Control Water Users Associations and Irrigation Management Reform in Two Large-Scale Systems in India by Vishal Narain; Wageningen University Water Resources Series, 2003; Orient Longman, Hyderabad, India,


Institutions, Technologyand Water Control

Water Users Associations and Irrigation Management Reform in Two Large-Scale Systems in India

by Vishal Narain; Wageningen University Water Resources Series, 2003; Orient Longman, Hyderabad, India, pp 244, Rs 250.


he book is a part of the series that publishes interdisciplinary analyses of water resources issues in south Asia. It is based on the doctoral thesis of the author defended at Wageningen University, the Netherlands under the ‘Matching Technology and Institutions’ research programme that focuses on the interdisciplinary study of tank, well and canal irrigation management in India and Nepal. Noting the “disenchantment” with the performance of surface irrigation development in India and the recent attempts to address the problem through implementing irrigation management transfer (IMT), the author proceeds to discuss the experience of instituting water user associations (WUAs) through detailed case studies under the commands of two large-scale surface irrigation projects in Haryana and Maharashtra in India.

The book comprises seven chapters with the following coverage: The introductory chapter outlines the context of research questions. It is argued that while the contribution of irrigation to agrarian development in India and for achieving self-sufficiency cannot be disputed, functional and planning problems associated with such public investments have been increasingly recognised of late. The emphasis of the debate has shifted from infrastructural to administrative issues. In this context, the IMT policy has been proposed as an attempt to relieve the state of its managerial and financial burden by transferring responsibility for terminal system management onto the user community. The author examines implementation of this policy in Haryana (under the ‘warabandi’ system) and Maharashtra (under the ‘shejpali’ system) and describes “…how the implementation process is shaped by the perceptions of the actors involved, their relationships with each other as well as how they are able to articulate their interests and pursue them further in the implementation process…” (p 4). Unlike a linear conceptualisation, policy reform is understood as a “process” that is vulnerable to various pressures from different interest groups as it works itself out that may stall or even reverse the accomplishment of the original objectives. Bottlenecks and obstacles to policy implementation are discussed in the context of poor effectiveness of WUAs that is almost universally observed. Tapping into an interdisciplinary perspective, the volume seeks to contribute towards a socio-technical approach to irrigation wherein the central questions explored are: (1) the institutional feasibility of WUAs, and (2) the relation between the WUAs and the irrigation bureaucracy as influenced by the geo-physical terrain, design characteristics of canals and outlets. It is argued that the design characteristics of canal irrigation play a critical role in influencing the extent to which WUAs can affect water management and distribution practices and alter relations of power and dominance between the irrigation bureaucracy and users. The implementation of WUAsunder warabandi system in Haryana and shejpali system in Maharashtra are assessed and compared in terms of these parameters.

The author uses the methodology of a case study and makes a significant distinction from sample-based methods insofar as the latter attempt statistical generalisation, the former aims at analytical generalisation based on the grounded theory. Grounded theory, the author argues is “one that is inductively derived from the study it represents….data collection, analyses and theory stand in a reciprocal relationship with each other…research proceeds through an empirico-inductive process with theories and tools that the researcher brings into dialogue with the evidence” (p 14).

Warabandi and ShejpaliWarabandi and ShejpaliWarabandi and ShejpaliWarabandi and ShejpaliWarabandi and Shejpali

Chapter two describes the warabandi and shejpali systems and presents a contrast in terms of their organisational and functional characteristics, the mode of rationing water from the main source of water supply and its consequences for water access by users. The objective is to spread a limited amount of water across large tracts of land for protective irrigation through various strategies of control for implementing what the author calls scarcity by design. While the warabandi is a supply-focused system wherein controls are effected through supply-side measures, the shejpali supplies water on volumetric basis as per water demanded by users ahead of agricultural season and uses demand-side measures to allocate limited water among geographically spread out users. The organisational compulsions that derive from respective water supply patterns have a bearing on technological designs of canal networks and vice versa. Together these fits between technological design features and organisational forms of warabandi and shejpali systems in northern/western and southern parts of India (and Pakistan), it is argued, emerged in response to imperatives of the colonial state to consolidate its political power through increased revenue extraction and famine control. In the recent period, such technological choices that have been made present themselves as given parameters of these surface irrigation projects. Under the warabandi system, water is distributed through ungated proportional dividers – adjustable proportionate module and the open flume – that require minimal human action to function. In the shejpali system gated structures (pipe outlets) exist throughout the system that require to be manually operated. In addition, an elaborate managerial system is required in place to process demand applications for water and carry out other procedures – something that is not necessary under warabandi. These distinct features, the author argues, limit the potential of irrigation reforms

Economic and Political Weekly June 10, 2006 through institutionalisation of WUAs to first, function as effective mechanisms of water management and distribution at the peripheral level and secondly, to alter the irrigator-supplier relationship.

Legal and Policy FrameworkLegal and Policy FrameworkLegal and Policy FrameworkLegal and Policy FrameworkLegal and Policy Framework

Chapter three focuses on legal and policy framework under which WUAs function in the areas selected. Foremost, the author points to the narrow focus of these reforms that are aimed only at below the outlet – leaving the main system beyond the mandate of proposed changes. He emphasises the problems with water supply from the main system that is entirely under the charge of irrigation bureaucracy as the main problematic arena. The action therein is, however, lacking and this places serious constraints on the viability of WUAs at the user level to succeed as effective means to improve irrigation performance. Further, the motivation for these reforms has been largely external (donor-driven) that has not responded to real life problems at the field level as well as reckoned with conflicting interests of various stakeholders – specially those who stand to gain from the status quo. The design and strategy of IMT thus instituted remains out of tune with ground realities as they emanate from alien agendas. As a result in Haryana, the author blames the failure of WUAs to weak orientation/involvement of irrigation bureaucracy in the reform process, exclusion of the main system from the domain of reforms and lack of effective transfer of power to users. The technical considerations of the lining of watercourses

– a World Bank agenda – appear to a have played a dominant motivation for pushing reforms in this state, reflecting an instrumentalist approach. This is in contrast to conceptualising reforms as an integral constituent of overall water development strategy for inducing agrarian and social change.

In the case of Maharashtra, evidence points to a relatively greater degree of success in terms of concrete benefits such as an increase in the area irrigated, improved financial health and collection consequent upon formation of the WUAs. Pre-dating the Haryana initiative, the Maharashtra experience reflects more discussion, reflection and deliberation on these issues in the region as a response to problems experienced. Unlike Haryana, there was an active involvement of civil society. In spite of such a grounded context, however, the author argues that success has been limited, as WUAs could not be replicated across a larger area mainly due to the resistance from irrigation bureaucracy (and some water users who have a vested interest in status quo) that could not be expected to cooperate in a process that was aimed at curtailing its own power. Lack of clarity about the reform process and half-hearted support from the state created confusion and vulnerability to arbitrary dealings of bureaucracy – that further constrained spread of partial successes in the state.

Technical FeaturesTechnical FeaturesTechnical FeaturesTechnical FeaturesTechnical Features

Chapter four brings out the technical features of canal systems that constrain the ability of WUAs to change systems of water management and distribution as well as the relations between water users and bureaucracy. The need to include technological considerations in the discourse on IMT is thereby emphasised. Chapters five and six focus on the internal dynamics of WUAs, lack of transparency and accountability of office-bearers and dominant forces within a WUA to the rest of the members and bring out the implications of reproduction of power relations prevalent in the social environment for equity in access to water entitlements. In addition, the author brings out the ills of mis-governance through widely observed violation of rules and norms under both the systems ranging from water thefts by politically powerful users to bribing the irrigation bureaucracy. While under the shejpali system, some degree of control on curtailing opportunities for making illicit payments was possible through social mobilisation by NGOs and thereby possibility of equitous practices could be enhanced – it was nearly impossible in case of warabandi where violation of rules was rampant. It is clear that the strong prevailed over the weak in such transactions to accentuate existing imbalances in social equity. In this context the author questions the notion of “participation” in decision-making within the WUAs that are mistakenly referred to as atomic units of participatory irrigation management (PIM) programme and correctly distinguishes the notion from that of community management.

Chapter seven concludes by stating the bottomline that PIM as practised so far has not been participatory enough. The research agenda for future needs to focus on process of policy formulation for PIM/ IMT and its implementation, mainstreaming discussion on technology in the discourse and exploring ways of how irrigation bureaucracy itself could become a facilitator of change through reorienting irrigator-engineer interface.

Economic and Political Weekly June 10, 2006

The book is well researched and presented with a clarity of exposition that reflects analytical sharpness and an in-depth understating of the subject matter. As a research on water that prominently incorporates technical dimensions it makes a significant contribution to a stream of interdisciplinary work that is yet undernourished due to paucity of attention and resources that it deserves. As a serious reflection on the experience of reform attempts, it contains valuable insights for policy-makers and practitioners alike, to effect changes in their programmes as learning from past lapses.

Further ExplorationFurther ExplorationFurther ExplorationFurther ExplorationFurther Exploration

However, the following issues regarding conceptualisation and viability of PIM/ IMT reforms in the region need to be explored further:

  • The very idea of consideration of “surface irrigation reforms” in isolation from the broad area of water resource development (WRD) itself presents challenges particularly in view of recent changes in the water paradigm that emphasise integrated approaches to water resource development and monitoring (WRD and M) and that has gained popularity under the acronym of Integrated Water Resource Management (IWRM). The fragmented understating, policy formulation and practice of water have been increasingly recognised as responsible for various water problems that have been created as a result of predominantly technical, top-down and unidimensional approaches. Through a perpetuation of such sectoral visions, PIM or IMT as a purely surface irrigation reform remains imprisoned within an outdated perspective. While degraded conditions and poor performance of most surface irrigation projects are the strongest reasons of the need for reforming the systems – the mandate of these reforms may need to be extended to encompass not only other water sectors, but also questions of how water is used, how it is shared between agriculture and non-agricultural uses, ecological externalities and mechanisms of control over water through collective institutions of weaker segments of water users.
  • Research and advocacy for weaning irrigators away from water-intensive land use patterns is necessary for creating incentives for low water consumption agriculture through a set of integrated policy package. This would contribute to reducing the pressure of water demands and associated conflicts due to competitive demands – thereby enabling less contentious
  • sharing. The PIM/IMT strategies should integrate such initiatives within its fold.

    – Bureaucracy as a source of initiative for change is unlikely as suggested by the author, as historically it is a conservative organisation that tends to consolidate status quo rather than undertake any proactive action for self-renewal that would be required for effecting a radical change. Self-preservation and perpetuation of its own powers and privileges would not only be the likely stance – any change in the balance of forces would encounter strong resistance. Control over water is a political struggle between different constituencies where the outcomes will depend on how each mobilises its resources to negotiate for assertion of its demands. The groupings are, however, between two potentially powerful constituencies – the farming lobby and bureaucracy. Poor water users are yet in the background – in all probability to be used as pawns in the power games of the mighty. The underlying perception of their irrelevance probably explains their widely observed indifference to reforms. During the fieldwork in Andhra Pradesh it was found that many dummy representatives of the weaker sections in the WUA management committees were not even aware that they were members.

    – While expanding scope of the discourse to include technological dimensions – a welcome direction – the argument at times appears to border on technological reductionism. It is no doubt correct that the technological structures and organisational/ institutional set-ups reflect mutually reinforcing interests of dominant agencies – but it would be stretching the argument to conclude that such an arrangement cannot be displaced. A strong and powerful thrust for instituting reforms can as well entail a demand for technological change to replace the obstructing structures. Why such demands do not get articulated and constraints due to technological artefacts overcome, is a question that has to be posed and researched. Existing technological structures thus get situated in their historical context, as opposed to being perceived as rigid obstacles to institutional reform – an impression that is at times generated by presentation of arguments.



    Economic and Political Weekly June 10, 2006

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