For thousands of years, human-made tanks and reservoirs have ensured the availability of water for communities across rain-fed regions of Karnataka. These tanks were the centre of diverse rural ecologies, economies and communities. The tanks have been sustained and nurtured by an ancestral line of tank managers called Neeruganti. For generations, they have ensured the equitable distribution of water and maintenance of the tanks, enabling their communities to thrive.
The Neeruganti held important roles in their communities, working along with the village elders to manage water supply for all needs. They presided over the regular cleaning and desilting of the tanks - a major event that involved able bodies in the village - as well as the proper rituals and ceremonies to seek blessings from Goddess Ganga.
The Neeruganti’s expertise came from their deep knowledge of their area’s irrigation systems, rainfall, the village people’s needs, and agricultural requirements. They also advised farmers on what crops to plant, and kept an eye out to ward off pests and diseases. In return, the farmers offered portions of their harvest to the Neeruganti.
Farmer Chinna Venkataravanappa remembers the old days when Neeruganti played a crucial role in the village. “The Neeruganti would be paid 40 munthas (about 300 kilograms) of grain for every acre of paddy cultivated in the command area. So they had an incentive to keep the crops from drying and ensuring that water reached equally to all plots.”
The role was typically passed down from father to son, with some lineages going back hundreds of years. Neeruganti Venkatappa, 70, caretaker of Doddammanna Kere in Chikkaballapura, says that the Neeruganti played an important role way back in the times of the Vijayanagar Empire (1336-1646) also.
“The generals realised that storing and harvesting water would allow the empire to practise agriculture and benefit future generations. Since water management was key, our profession was created,” he says adding “All community members used the tank water directed… Without Neeruganti’s control, there were quarrels among the people.”
Unfortunately, this efficient and harmonious balance between nature and people came to an end with the advent of the Green Revolution in the 1960s. In 1962, all tanks across Karnataka were declared government property and were brought under the control of the government. The Neeruganti lost their jobs and their importance within their communities started waning.
There was a shift from food crops to commercial crops, which brought about the use of water-intensive farming methods which were reliant on synthetic fertilisers and pesticides. This began decimating the complex soil ecosystems that regenerative agricultural systems rely on. The sluice gates were sealed and borewells were introduced which, as far as the government was concerned, eliminated the need for a full-time tank manager.
When the Neeruganti was in control of the tanks, farmers would often harvest crops every 6 months. Now, not only have farmers stopped growing crops in the tank’s command area, those that couldn’t afford borewells have quit farming entirely.
“We used to grow paddy,” says Yerrappa, the father of Gangatanahalli’s Neeruganti, Ramesh. “We have been doing the Neeruganti work for generations. My grandfather taught my father and my father taught us. We in turn taught some of our children. By that time though, the tank was sealed. Now there is no work. We are earning through wage labour now.”
Even with the presence of local village institutions such as the Gram Panchayat, without a strong, experienced hand at the helm, many of the tanks across the state have fallen into disrepair. The state government’s methods of managing the reservoirs has led to adverse consequences for local communities. Most recently, in an attempt to increase water levels in the tanks, the government ordered the sluice gates to be closed indefinitely and even barred local access in some areas. Without being able to access their own resources and without anybody controlling the tanks, the villagers are unable to maintain or desilt them, which is crucial to prevent toxic water stagnation.
However, all is not lost. Local leaders know how to salvage the situation and communities understand well that one size does not fit all. Hyperlocal solutions, left to able hands of the communities, is the best way forward and there are those ready to take up responsibilities as Neeruganti once again. Children of Neeruganti are renewing interest in the profession once again, combining modern knowledge with ancient wisdom. Educated young farmers are also beginning to advocate for the return of the pivotal job. With the government’s support, there is still hope that we can rescue and revive Karnataka’s water bodies to their full glory once again.
Abhiram Nandakumar with Caitlin Blood in collaboration with Foundation for Ecological Security