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Modeled on the lines of Mahatma Gandhi’s environmentalism, the classic argument comes from the authors of Dying Wisdom. Accordingly Indian water harvesting systems are represented as rooted in a pre-colonial ‘organic village economy’ wherein the autonomous ‘village republics’ were the primary locus of management of natural resources and economic and political affairs.

With the rise of the state control over common water resources, there was an ‘erosion of the autonomous functioning of village management systems’. Colonial rule converted village common property into state property, denied customary rights and weakened traditional village authority transforming managed commons into degraded free access resources.

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It placed the decentralised village water systems under the control of centralised bureaucracies which prioritised modern engineering knowledge, large scale irrigation and the expansion of commercial agriculture neglecting indigenous skills. On the other hand, punitive colonial revenue regimes impoverished the peasantry and undermined the local financial base of water harvesting systems.

This dismal state of India’s traditional water harvesting systems only worsened with the ‘arrogance of the post-Independence Indian political leadership and the irrigation bureaucracy’ which preferred Nehru’s vision of independent India with large dams as temples to Gandhi’s vision of independent India founded upon its village heritage. It also calls for the revival of community control and traditional water harvesting systems.

There is therefore a need for serious investment in research and development of traditional water harvesting systems through integrated and participatory renovation of tanks and the deforestation of catchments, drawing on indigenous knowledge of water land relationships and involving all sections of community.

The relationships between the state and the community were more complex and problematic than has been made out to be in traditional accounts. David Mosse points out in his study of statecraft, ecology and collective action in South India that the impact of colonial governance on the water commons defies a simple representation and has more to do with changing system of state than the erosion of village tradition.

Indeed, traditional village water management system proves extremely elusive, and identification of the moment of their collapse is an impossible task involving a seemingly endless journey back in the time.

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