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The role of community stewardship in managing shared natural resources

Updated: Jun 24, 2023

Karnataka’s rocky and undulating terrain is dotted with 37,000 lakes spread over 685,000 hectares of command area. Many of these lakes were built during the reign of the Vijayanagara (which literally translates to Victorious Land) Empire. Their reign extended throughout the Deccan Plateau from 1336 to 1646. The lakes’ water distribution systems imbued the region with an ‘agricultural’ spirit, prompting local communities to collectively practise subsistence agriculture under the guidance of a local Neeruganti, or tank manager. Their livelihoods were intertwined – the Neeruganti administered the lakes’ water distribution which sustained the farmers practising agriculture in the ‘command area’ of the lakes, and in exchange the farmers offered the Neeruganti, portions of their harvest.

This exchange was representative of a system of local participatory governance that sustained the infrastructure of the lakes and formed the lifeline of their existence. These lakes are part of what are called ‘Commons’ – vital natural resources that are collectively owned and managed. Under the guidance of the Neeruganti and the Gram Panchayat (the local governing body), the lakes and their waters were cared for, and shared by the community as a whole.

“Water belongs to the community.” Says Neeruganti Venkatappa, “It cannot belong to one person, because everyone needs water. Tanks have survived for so many years because the community has cared for them. Without the community, all the tanks would have dried up. Today, the village institutions have strong representation and are ready to decide the future of their natural resources.”

Present State

Much of the power that vested with Gram Panchayats, to effectively manage and restore these Commons (the tank system), has been affected by the state government’s order to close the sluice gates of the tanks. Moreover, the political and administrative shifts in the last few decades in the way that villages were governed, and the introduction of borewells have also diminished the importance of the role that Neeruganti played in managing the distribution of water from the lakes. Today, many of these lakes are in need of repair, but without the rights to manage them, neither the Neeruganti nor the local village institutions can carry out the work that is required to restore them.

Vemanna, a member of the Panchayat in Thollapali puts it plainly, “If there is a Neeruganti, everyone benefits. The Panchayat appoints the Neeruganti, entrusting work to him. They value his knowledge. In return, he provides information to the Panchayat. He conveys if there is a leakage in the tank or if repairs are required for the channels.”

He goes on to add, “It is very difficult without a Neeruganti. The tank becomes useless without him. The loss of the Neeruganti has a great impact on the availability of fish in the tanks. The Panchayats used to get between INR 100,000 to 200,000 from auctioning the fish. That money was used for repairing the tank bunds, to desilt the tanks, to pay the Neeruganti, for electricity, or other needs. Without the Neeruganti, the water goes waste, crops cannot be cultivated, and not enough fish is available to be caught.

“The Neeruganti ensured equality in distributing water. Each and every farmer would get adequate water to irrigate their fields, the tank would be taken care of, livestock would benefit, and the Panchayat would also benefit from the revenue generated from the tank.”

The thoughts echoed by the Neeruganti and panchayat members throughout Karnataka reflect on the need to restore local sovereignty over Commons. Unsealing the sluice gates of the tanks could perhaps act as an indication for the Gram Panchayats to organise communities to take up restoration of tanks on a large scale.

The will and the need to preserve Commons is strong among communities across the state. As Subhan Saab, a farmer in Bagepalli says, “We understand that the Commons collectively belongs to all of us, and we want to work together towards their betterment.”

Caitlin Blood with Abhiram Nandakumar in collaboration with Foundation for Ecological Security

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