For hundreds of years, the human-made tanks that exist across Karnataka, have sustained the livelihoods of the rural population. Under the management of the Neeruganti, or tank managers, the rainwater collected in these tanks sustained local agriculture, animal husbandry, aquaculture, and met domestic water needs. The Neeruganti passed their knowledge of the tanks from generation to generation.
Yerrappa, the Neeruganti of Dhanamittenahalli, reflects, “My family has been doing the work of the Neeruganti from the beginning. My grandfather taught my father, and my father taught us. In turn, we taught our children. But before we could pass the knowledge to our grandchildren, the tanks were sealed. Now there is no work for the Neeruganti, and we have been forced into daily wage labour.”
In the last five years, the government sealed the tanks’ sluice gates, with the idea that the stored water will percolate into the ground and thus improve the groundwater table in the state. With no water to manage or distribute, the profession of the Neeruganti became redundant.
Many farmlands that the tanks used to irrigate, now lie fallow. Those dependent on the harvests from those fields now depend on rations from the Public Distribution System (PDS). Many young people from the families of the Neeruganti have migrated to the cities in pursuit of education or wage labour. However, there is still hope that the tanks will be returned to the local communities to be managed by them.
Rajamma of Baragenahalli village remembers, “When the tank was open, the community cared for it. The Neeruganti would inspect the tank every day. Now that the tank is under the control of the state officials, the Neeruganti have turned their attention to finding other work to sustain themselves.”
Local community members and the Neeruganti themselves speak in earnest hope that their way of life will one day be restored to its past glory. Like Rajamma, many also see the value that modern technological knowledge and youth can bring to the age-old profession.
“I think the tank system would improve if the youth get involved – especially the next generation of the Neeruganti. They know how to use mobile phones and tablets. If the next generation of Neeruganti learn how their elders managed the tanks, they can improve it with their technical knowledge. They can develop new methods to maintain and improve the tanks.”
In Andhra Pradesh, where the tanks remain open, educated young farmers like Venkat in Devarajapalli makes a case to return the management of these Commons to the locals. He says: “I have graduated with a degree. Today, I would rather stay here and practice farming than work somewhere in a factory for a salary of 10,000 rupees a month. My community got together and restored the pastures. Now we see the goats and sheep are growing healthy. I get to sell about 30 litres of milk every morning and evening – and we make 40 to 50 thousand rupees a month from it. We are able to earn this money and make profits because of the Commons. People are not migrating anymore. If there is enough work in our villages, we will stay and work together.”
When asked about the hopes she has for the future of her children, Sugunamma, whose husband is the Neeruganti of Byraganahalli answers, “Our children are working in Bengaluru and Chikkaballapur. As of now, they don’t know the work of the Neeruganti, but If the tanks are unsealed, we will teach them. We want them to continue this work.”