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Encroachments on the Waterbodies in Tamil Nadu

S Rajendran (myrajendran@gmail.com) is with the Department of Economics, Gandhigram Rural Institute, Tamil Nadu.

Tamil Nadu has many legal provisions to protect its waterbodies. However, encroachment on waterbodies is rampant and many encroachers are resorting to violence to silence those who oppose them. Recurrent droughts in the state necessitate that these waterbodies be restored and protected, and encroachments are removed.

The author is thankful to S Ramaswamy and K Sivasubramanian for their comments and Kodiarasu for field support.

Recurrent droughts in Tamil Nadu have prompted initiatives for saving and deepening of surface waterbodies to increase their storage levels. However, such efforts get marred by a strong presence of land-grabbers, who do not hesitate even from killing. Attacking, implicating in false cases, harassing, frequent transfers, etc, of the upright officials, informants, social wor­kers, activists, and journalists who ­expose encroachments of the common property resources (CPRs), including ­waterbodies, have become common, while perpetrators are protected and supported. It suggests a strong nexus ­between land-grabbers, local leaders, bureaucrats, and political representatives. Tamil Nadu has 41,127 tanks. Acc­ording to an estimate, the area irrigated by these tanks has reduced from 9.36 lakh hectares (ha) in 1960–61 to 4.38 lakh ha in 2015–16 (Narayanamoorthy and Alli 2018). One of the factors attributed to this loss is the encroachment of the waterbodies.

Increasing industrialisation, urbanisation, and a market-driven economy, all ­result in such a drive for unlawfully ­encroaching large tracts of public land, mainly for real estate and cultivation purposes. We can understand this process through one instance in Mudalaipatti village of Kulithalai taluk from Karur district close to the Kaveri ayacut area (the area served by an irrigation project such as a canal, dam or a tank). Over the years, around 50 villagers slowly encroached on 39 acres of a water-retaining tank bed covering 198 acres. Owing to poor rainfall for many years, the village tank did not fill fully and ­became an easy target for local villagers to encroach upon to grow banana, coconut, oilseeds, pulses, and flowers. A few village elders revealed that this tank was endowed with rich flora and fauna of reed, nutgrass, edible tubers, fish, crab, and snail, and after encroachment, these disappeared. If the tank is filled,1 in addition to Mudalaipatti, the groundwater table in the surrounding six villages—Posampatti, Adavathur, Ettarai, Mullikarumbur, Palayam, and Inampuliyur—will be recharged.

Grabbing of the Poramboke

A local farmer from Inampuliyur village, who grew rose and jasmine on their 1 acre plot, along with his son opposed this encroachment by approaching district authorities. Their repeated pleas over 15 years went unheard. They app­roached the Madurai Bench of Madras High Court for relief, and the court dire­cted the eviction of the grabbers in 2018. Consequently, officials marked illegally occ­upied land and houses constructed on the poramboke.2 Sensing the threat of eviction, a few sold their conditional patta lands at throwaway prices. To divert the public attention and discourage the authorities, a temple with a budget of ₹1.5 crore was constructed right on the tank bund. Further, the ­enraged encroachers killed both the father and son. The court took suo motu cognisance and issued a notice for prompt evictions to restore the waterbody. This indeed led to evictions.

Article 48A of the Constitution says that the state shall endeavour to protect and improve the environment and safeguard the forests and wildlife of the country. Unfortunately, it is the state which most often violates this article. In the above-cited instance as well, the state had diverted 30 acres to establish a horticulture farm on the north-western side of the irrigation tank. Article 51A(g) makes it a fundamental duty of every citizen to protect the environment, inc­luding the CPRs.

Earlier in Tamil Nadu, the responsi­bility and authority of the maintenance and management of waterbodies were vested with people. Any disputes related to misuse were settled at the village ­level. Over the years, ownership has been transferred to the state, which ­undermined and sidelined the role of ­local communities. The officials do not have a comprehensive idea about the ­local dyna­mics of politics, including conflicts and cooperative efforts by villagers in maintaining and protecting ­waterbodies. Although the Madras Water Board Act, 1930 had provisions for kudimaramathu (maintenance and repair of waterbodies by the people by contributing labour mostly during off-farm season), the government was unwilling to transfer ­waterbodies to the village panchayats (Rajendran 2018). Since 1949, the public works department (PWD) took over its control. Over time, people lost interest and the locals with power encroached upon the CPRs. There have been initiatives to revive kudimaramathu for the repair of irrigation tanks, although it is still to be seen how much these will revive the practice in spirit (Rajendran 2018).

Despite several court rulings for the removal of encroachments on different CPRs, in most cases, these were not foll­owed. There are specific acts to protect CPRs, but these have not prevented enc­roachment. The Tamil Nadu Land Enc­roachment Act, 1905, Tamil Nadu Land Encroachment (Amendment) Act, 1965, and the Tamil Nadu Protection of Tanks and Eviction of Encroachment Act, 20073 are a few such acts. However, these are frequently bypassed, and there are many instances of granting pattas to such encroachers.4 Building structures on waterbodies blocking their flow leading to waterlogging and inundation during rains has become a common phenomenon (Sivasubramaniyan 2018).

A revealing example of flouting of rules is that of the state forest department that planted karuvel (black babul), encroaching on 100 acre area of the Karisalkulam tank (spread over 207 acre) in Amarapoondi, Palani taluk of Dindigul district on a 10-year contract. Despite the trees being 15 years old now, the forest department has not cleared the trees. Though the PWD has allotted ₹15 lakh for desiltation under kudimaramathu, these standing trees affect the renovation work. In another case, a few large powerful farmers encroached upon a portion of tank land and laid pucca road across the Vangumadai tank in panchayat in Andipatti taluk of Theni district, despite complaints that this will obstruct water flow during the rainy season and bunds could get breached.

However, there are also instances where after realising the significance of saving and maintaining waterbodies, enc­roachers left the land without conflicts and the locals with their efforts restored the waterbodies, which not only provide them drinking water but also recharged the groundwater.

Conclusions

It is important to harness the heavy rainfall by preserving the waterbodies and increasing their storage capacity, thereby, also increasing the groundwater ­levels. Water users’ associations are meant to take care of the waterbodies in a “bottom-up” mode. The Tamil Nadu Farmers’ Management of Irrigation Systems Act, 2000 enables the formation of such associations with farmers as members in the ayacut area. Unfortunately, elections for these people-centric democratic institutions are long due.

Besides making such institutions function effectively, it is also important that the competent authorities prevent land-grabbing and encroachment of waterbodies, and carry out time-bound inquiries and take appropriate punitive measures upon receiving complaints. A comprehensive survey of CPRs, including poramboke lands, is essential to quantify the extent of illegal encroachment. Under any circumstances, such commons, particularly water structures, should not be allotted for other pur­poses and appropriate amendments should be made in the existing acts to deal with it. Absence of support to those who are opp­osing encroachments and fall victim to the violence by the encroachers is unfortunate.

Notes

1 In addition to rainwater, supply comes from Kattalaimettu Channel of Mayanur barrage in Kaveri.

2 Poramboke refers to public land used for community purposes like irrigation, cattle grazing and threshing.

3 Clause 12 of this act states that “the government may, in the public interest, alienate any part of the poramboke land under the control of PWD without interfering with storage capacity and water quality.” Using this, and bypassing the core of the act, pattas are granted on the CPRs.

4 As is clear through government order Nos 854 (30 December 2006), 498 (5 November 2007), 711 (30 November 2007), 34 (23 January 2008), 43 (29 January 2010) and 372 (26 August 2014). Benefiting the encroachers on ­waterbodies, thus, is a clear violation of the public trust doctrine.

References

Narayanamoorthy, A and P Alli  (2018): “Time to Focus on Water Management,” BusinessLine, 14 August, https://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/time-to-focus-on-water-management/article24691680.ece.

Rajendran, S (2018): “Tamil Nadu Revives Kudimaramathu: Ancient Wisdom of Water Management,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 53, No 6, pp 18−20.

Sivasubramaniyan, K (2018): “Structure, Functioning and Impact of Irrigation Institutions: The Case of Tank Irrigation in Tamil Nadu,” ICSSR Project Report, Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai.

 

Updated On : 16th Jun, 2020

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