Taming water - Irrigation and drought protection in colonial India and the present

Recurrent droughts and the struggle for survival (Image Source: Gaurav Bhosale via Wikimedia Commons):
Recurrent droughts and the struggle for survival (Image Source: Gaurav Bhosale via Wikimedia Commons):
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Following independence and with the advent of the green revolution, agriculture in India has been based on input intensive farming, and agricultural policies and investments continue to support irrigated agriculture. This excessive focus on irrigated agriculture has led to the neglect of rainfed agriculture. Rainfed areas are often portrayed as being socio-ecologically fragile and in a constant state of crisis.

What has led to this ‘irrigation at all costs’ mindset?

This paper titled 'Colonising the rains: Disentangling more-than-human technopolitics of drought protection in the archive' published in the journal Geoforum informs that this has to do with the policies for drought management that were framed during the colonial times. The paper discusses the case of the Bombay Deccan after the establishment of the British Raj, and describes how the idea of drought protection came into being following the colonial control of India.

Under the British Raj, irrigation was looked upon as a technocratic and uniform solution to tame water in a country where varied climatic conditions and geographies with different water landscapes presented varied challenges to agriculture.

The Bombay Deccan, a hilly plateau in the western-central part of the Indian peninsula had a complex geography that set the region apart from the rest of British India. In contrast to the fertile lands of the Gangetic plains, Deccan was frequently described as ‘rugged and broken’ with limited and unevenly distributed water and groundwater too being hard to access due to hard rock that created a patchy system of aquifers.

This made provision of water through irrigation challenging and expensive and Deccan had the smallest irrigated area of all British India. However, a series of devastating famines causing widespread crop failures and human and cattle losses changed the picture.

The branding of the Deccan famine belt and neglect of local agricultural practices

The region soon began to be named as the ‘Deccan famine belt’ and it was this narrow perspective that led to rearrangement and redefining of existing human-water relations by attempting to control water availability and minimise fluctuations in agricultural production through irrigation.

This approach completely ignored the existing agricultural practices followed by farmers over the years that understood and flexibly adjusted with the monsoon regimes to derive maximum output from the available resources. These adjustments with the available water in the form of rainfall required a deep knowledge of seasons, timings and intensity of rainfall and practices such as rainwater harvesting that included structures constructed according to the topography of the region to catch rains such as tanks, bandharas etc.

Wells that were used to irrigate up to 70 percent of the agricultural land provided could also be relied upon during a dry season, but  were ignored during the colonial rule. Similarly, the embankment of fields with shallow ploughing - a mechanism that involved moving of the land few inches from the surface and prevented the deeper soils from getting disturbed, was a practice widely adopted by all farmers to arrest rainwater and help store it in the soil, was also ignored and emphasis was placed on building large storage reservoirs to provide permanent irrigation to provide drought-relief.

Thus smaller irrigation works were neglected and described as ‘undependable’ and this led to the gradual dismantling of the complex socio-environmental arrangements that sustained them and alienated local communities from their day to day connections with water.

This led to a constant mismatch between what was provided in terms of stored water and what was needed at the ground level in the fields by the farmers. The distribution of irrigation water continued to be flawed with irregularities and  ‘unlawful’ arrangements for water distribution among farmers leading to highly inequitable distribution of water among farmers.

Poor utilisation of irrigation and portrayal of soil and local crops as problematic

Thus, utilisation of irrigation along the Deccan Canals remained low among farmers. The topographical and geological character of the region also had a role to play in this.

For example, the black soil of the Deccan commonly known as Regur is formed due to the slow decomposition of the Deccan basalt rock and has a clay texture and high mineral content. The black soil is thus good at absorbing and retaining large amounts of water even under the driest of  conditions and has the property of resisting evaporation. Thus in a good season, the black soil can yield full harvest and in an ordinary year, a fair one. The chances of crop failure are low and can happen only during severe drought. 

This black soil was blamed for the apathy of farmers towards adopting irrigation in colonial accounts. Application of irrigation on black soil produced disastrous outcomes soon and led to extensive  waterlogging and increase in salinity along the banks of protective canals.

Another hindrance for the success of the colonial plans were two crops Jowar and bajra, that were sturdy, coarse, and drought-resistant, and had a peculiar ability to develop an intricate root system that could catch moisture at various depths and survive during dry spells by reducing transpiration. Both crops survived along with other plants during both kharif (monsoon) and rabi (winter) seasons without the need for artificial irrigation. Farmers designed a system where they planted a combination of crops - some of them quick-growing and reaped early, other of slower growth and requiring sun and air so that deep-rooted plants were matched with shallower ones tapping moisture at different depths.

Thirsty sugarcane, biggest contributor to the finances of the irrigation department

However, these crops were branded as non dependable and this where sugarcane came in. Being classified as a  ‘perennial crop’, sugarcane not only required abundant and regular watering, but once planted the same stem could harvested up to five consecutive times.

With the crop needing stable water supply and with rates up to twelve times those of seasonal crops, sugarcane became the biggest contributor to the finances of the Bombay Irrigation Department. Thus sugarcane began to be considered as the most suitable crop for development of the Deccan Irrigation.

Thus even small holder farmers could grow sugarcane and process it into gul (unrefined brown sugar). The raiyatwari land revenue system meant that individual (male) cultivators had full property rights over their land and they provided regular tax payments to the Government. Farmers who had lands near the irrigation canals got more powerful in the process as they could dispose off their land as they wished if they expected to extract revenues exceeding returns from dry cropping. Thus, Deccan Canals gradually turned into an ‘irrigation frontier’ that attracted a group of ‘capitalist cultivators’.

And the water woes of Maharashtra have continued. While having the largest dams in the country, Maharashtra still remains in the news for droughts and poor water management and remains one of the least irrigated Indian state. Policies still continue to focus on irrigation as the solution for a drought-free Maharashtra. Over half of the water in dams still gets diverted to grow sugarcane in drought prone districts. 

It is time we understand the economic, political, technological and social contexts in which these policies came into being and their implications for water realities in the present India and reflectively turn around these practices by dismantling their colonial constructs, argues the paper.

The paper can be accessed here