In the early 2000s, Ethiraj, a 60-year-old farmer, faced a frustrating problem. He owns three acres of agricultural land that is irrigated by the Nandivaram lake near his home in Tamil Nadu’s Kanchipuram district. But for more than a decade, the lake’s embankments lay in shambles, causing water to overflow into the surrounding fields and submerge them. The lake’s gates or sluices were also in disrepair, making it difficult for farmers to store water there, and regulate its flow.

For years, Ethiraj and other farmers in the area could do little about this, apart from filing complaints with the Public Works Department, which maintained the lake. “Only after gathering media attention, the department begin to repair it,” he said, flipping through a folder crammed with letters and media reports on the lake.

The Tamil Nadu government is now attempting to restore lakes in the state with the help of local farmers like Ethiraj. Last year, Chief Minister Edappadi Palanisamy inaugurated the Kudimaramathu scheme that is designed to involve communities in managing local lakes and waterbodies. Under the scheme, the government contributes 90% of the cost of the repair work while local farmers are required to bear the remaining 10%, either in the form of cash, material or labour.

However, while the scheme is supposed to involve community participation, several farmers feel it is not inclusive. Others complain that after working on projects, they did not not receive the complete government contribution, and have lost money as a result of this.

A traditional process

In Tamil, the word “Kudi” means people while “maramathu” means repair or construct.

Kudimaramathu is the traditional practice of building and maintaining ponds and tanks by local communities in Tamil Nadu. This practice was sidelined in the colonial era, according to S Rajendran, Department of Economics, Gandhigram Rural Institute, Tamil Nadu. “Bureaucrats who had little knowledge of local issues took over the management of the water bodies, slowly marginalising the role of the beneficiary villagers, and resulting in the gradual decline of tank irrigation,” he wrote in an article in the Economic and Political Weekly in February.

The government took full control of all water bodies in the state through the Tamil Nadu Land Encroachment Act, 1905. In subsequent legislations aimed to decentralise control over water bodies, the Public Works Department retained control of tanks with ayacuts of more than 100 acres. An ayacut is the area served by a canal or a waterbody.

Out of the 16,000 lakes under the control of the Public Works Department, around 1,519 lakes across 30 districts were taken up for restoration under the the first phase of the Kudimaramathu scheme.

Work in progress under Kudimaramathu scheme in Poraiyar, Villupuram district. (Photo credit: Aee Wrd Poraiyar via Facebook).

Community participation

The first phase, which mainly involved the repair of embankments, had a budget of Rs 100 crore and was completed by the end of 2017. The government is now set to begin phase two, with a budget of Rs 300 crore for more than 2,000 lakes. This phase will involve constructing dams, supply channels, gates and regulatory barriers in the waterways, said R Selvam, the joint chief engineer for irrigation at the Public Works Department.

Under the scheme, the executive engineer of the Public Works Department works with either a group of farmers in the region, or a single farmer who is given permission to take up the work, or the Water User’s Association of the area. “The PWD [Public Works Department] is not supposed to hire any contractors,” said Selvam. “Ideally, the farmer’s association should also not sub-contract the work.”

The idea is to make local communities feel involved and feel responsible for the lakes, said Selvam. He added: “Subsequently, we hope that they will slowly increase their involvement and at some point, be able to generate at least 50% of the funds under the scheme.”

‘Beneficial scheme’

To repair the embankments of the Nandivaram lake under the scheme’s first phase, the area’s Water Users’ Association worked with the Public Works Department.

Associations such as this were first formed across the state in 2000 under the provisions of the Tamil Nadu Farmers’ Management of Irrigation Systems Act, which was enacted to allow the state to secure funding from the World Bank for an irrigation project. Though many of these associations have become defunct over the years, Ethiraj and his fellow farmers keep their Water Users’ Association going.

With Rs 9 lakh allotted for the Nandivaram lake, they hired labour and used their own machinery to rebuild the lake’s embankments, using silt from the lake bed. “All the work took place under the supervision of the engineers from the government,” said Ethiraj. “We cannot do anything on our own. They made sure that we were using the right quantity of mud while building the bund and spending the allotted amount.”

“Only land-owners are allowed to be a part of the association,” said Ethiraj. Thus the association at Nandivaram has as its members only four land-owning local farmers. Several other farmers and labourers in the area did not know about the Kudimaramathu scheme and were not part of the Nandivaram project.

‘Inefficient scheme’

Chief Minister Palanisamy had inaugurated the Kudimaramathu scheme in March last year at the Manimangalam tank, also in Kanchipuram district. Here, some farmers claimed that they had no idea whether the scheme was being implemented in their area. “The party workers paid many of the villagers Rs 500 each and asked them to be a part of the inauguration,” recalled 68-year-old Selvamani. “We do not know what happened after that.” Selvamani is a landless farmer who has been cultivating paddy for over 40 years in Manimangalam after leasing two acres of land.

Though Manimangalam’s village officer said that the Public Works Department had repaired the lake’s embankments without the involvement of local farmers, the Public Works Department official in charge of the region said that the farmers’ association leader, Yogeshwaran, who owned 20 acres of land in the area, had helped.

Yogeshwaran confirmed that he and nine other farmers worked on the project, and had started work soon after the scheme was inaugurated in March. They were allocated Rs 10.5 lakh to build and strengthen the lake’s embankments using mud from the lake bed. The farmers’ association spent around Rs 12 lakh on the project, and used their own machinery.

“We were told that since we were contributing through this [machinery], the government would bear the entire expense [of the repairs],” said Yogeshwaran. But at the end of the year, the association was only reimbursed Rs 8.3 lakh.

“For some reason, we have not been given the rest of the money, so we have faced a loss,” said Yogeshwaran. “We are only farmers, we do not have the income to bear such a loss. So we have decided not to take up the works in the next phase.”

Manimangalam lake in Kanchipuram district. (Photo credit: Vinita Govindarajan).

Not inclusive

Non-governmental organisations working to empower local communities in the state are also disappointed with the Kudimaramathu scheme. They say that it has not really involved local communities on the ground.

Venkatesh of the non-profit DHAN Foundation said that local chieftains usually took charge of the scheme in their areas, and excluded others.

He said that he was optimistic when the scheme was introduced. “They started with making it a people’s movement,” he said. “We shared three aspects, people planning, people contribution and people implementation. The government decided to take our support. We expected some role to play, we were eagerly waiting. But later, we realised the community was not given a significant role. It turned into just any other scheme to be implemented by the Public Works Department.”