Rural water access: Governance and contestation in a semi-arid watershed in Udaipur, Rajasthan: A paper in EPW

Recent policy has encouraged a shift towards community management of water infrastructure through the creation of decentralised institutions.This also implies a shift from large to small structures and institutions. This however presumes the existence of a homogeneous 'community', and does not necessarily acknowledge the effect of various separate groups within such a community on these institutions. This paper published in Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) examines the impacts of this shift towards decentralised irrigation management on different groups residing in six villages in Rajasthan.

Study area

This study is carried out in micro-watershed No.19, which comprises six villages in Jhadol tehsil of Udaipur district in Rajasthan. A minor irrigation project completed in 1980 serves these six villages

Rainfall, storage levels in reservoir and groundwater use

Records indicate a strong dependence on rainfall, with storage levels commensurate with rainfall. Increasing dependence on groundwater is making the canal system redundant while also seriously depleting  groundwater levels.

Inequalities in access: socio-spatial dimensions

Availability of water decreases as one travels downstream along the canal, with the tail end village receiving next to no water. Within the villages, distance from the canal determines the availability of water, with the farms (mainly tribal) located on the lower slopes above the canal receiving no access to canal water and very poor access to groundwater.

Inequalities in the use of groundwater 

Access to MGNREGs funds determines the density of groundwater structures.The greater depths at which groundwater is available also means that poor people have less access to this resource. Overall, the rift between the tribal and non-tribal populations is increasing.

Processes and institutions of governance

This section describes and analyses the WUA created to manage the canal system.

From state-led to community-managed water governance

The WUA for the command area of the Kanthariya dam was formed in June 2009 and it has five members. It has held only two meetings till date. The

Skewed representation

Only farmers-mainly upper caste- who own land in the command area are included in the WUA. In addition, the two villages at the tail end of the canal, tribal hamlets, and women are not represented in the WUA.

Lack of transparency and accountability

The WUA acts as an independent and isolated agency with little communication between it and the gram sabha, the irrigation department,the gram panchayats concerned or the agriculture department.

No clarity on powers or authority

The legality of the WUA being unclear, it is difficult to implement the orders passed by it. There is also confusion about its rights, which is exacerbated by the lack of confusion. 

In this case, the shift from State to community governance remains incomplete. Participation is reserved for upper-caste, male landowners. Similarly, powers and resources are not devolved to the WUAs or the gram panchayats, let alone informal tribal institutions.

From informal to formal governance institutions

Economically and socially dominant castes continue to influence community institutions like the WUA. Stories circulated by these upper caste member about the incapability of the tribals to take part in governance processes are accepted. The tribal people themselves are resigned to these ideas, perhaps because they do not identify with the Gram panchayats but with tribal habitations. not acknowledging traditional platforms for negotiation such as gamiti limits participation by various groups in participatory irrigation management. The role of NGOs as they strive to increase participation, the limits of their efforts at engagement and its demerits are discussed at length in this paper which focuses on the larger role of civil society in governance.


Spatial and social inequalities are seen to reinforce each other, as is illustrated by the location of tribal and upper-caste lands with reference to the distance from the irrigated valleys. The role and importance of traditional institutions for conflict resolution in enabling all sections of society to voice their opinions is discussed. Newly created institutions like WUAs continue existing disparities in local resource access and power asymmetries. The need for effective groundwater governance is highlighted in this paper.

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