Institutional shifts in water management: from the kere system to individual groundwater extraction

Drought and water scarcity are not new to Kolar - early District Gazetteers note that “... the rainfall being scanty and the rivers and streams dry for a large part of the year, the area is, for the most part, devoid of vegetation, and scarcity conditions are very common. There are far more lands under dry cultivation in this district than under wet” (Sri Sathyan 1968: 18). Limited water resources were used ingenuously through the kere system - a network of manmade water tanks that exploited the natural slope to form a system of cascading rainwater harvesting structures (Shah 2003). Further, water access and use, especially for irrigation, were carefully regulated through the neeruganti (village waterman), who was typically a lower-caste man from the village in charge of water distribution and the maintenance of physical water structures (Somashekara Reddy 2007). The kere and neeruganti systems were embedded in and shaped by local socio-economic contexts, and hence have also changed over time.

Under colonial rule, irrigation infrastructure (kere) and institutions (neeruganti) were separated from the political authorities that maintained them, thereby overlooking “the cultural construction of natural resources” (Mosse 1999: 304) and undermining these traditional systems. This dismantling was continued by the post-independence state, which neglected indigenous irrigation resources in favour of modern irrigation schemes (Shah 2003; Agarwal and Narain 1997). In 1962, Karnataka introduced a state-wide irrigation policy that subsumed the traditionally hereditary post of neeruganti under the local government administration for large tanks. In villages with small tanks, the neeruganti system was dismantled and slowly lost its prominence (Somashekara Reddy 2007). While in some areas in Karnataka, neeruganti continue to function, their influence is sharply curtailed (Baumgartner and Hogger 2004) and they do not control or participate in decisions about excavating wells or digging borewells. Simultaneously, the centuries-old kere infrastructure has also been eroded due to government and private encroachment, the demise of local regulatory institutions to maintain and desilt tanks, and inadequate finances to maintain keres (Agar- wal and Narain 1997; Thippaiah 1998; Shah 2003).

Overall, Kolar has seen shifts in farming, from multi-cropping of millet, vegetables and cereals to mono-cropping of climate-sensitive, water-intensive cash crops such as flowers, tomatoes and mulberry. Further, there have been biophysical and climatic shifts in the form of changing green cover, severe groundwater exploitation, more erratic rainfall and higher temperature extremes. Finally, local institutions to manage natural resources, especially water, have evolved over time from communal institutions to more individual access and use practices. To understand the implications of these biophysical, climatic and institutional shifts on water use and access and gendered vulnerability, the chapter now draws on two cases of water access and use for irrigation and drinking purposes.

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