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Posts Tagged ‘canal

Barefoot water scientists in Andhra Pradesh, India

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An interesting short video from FAO on water management and cultivating responses to indeterminate (or insufficient) water stocks. In southern India, the climate is becoming unpredictable and drought more common , says FAO – and this indeed is the case for peninsular India in general. Indiscriminate pumping from shallow aquifers shared by many farmers has caused abnormal drops in water levels, most notably in northern and north-west India, in the states of Punjab and Haryana which were the Green Revolution model states. When a well goes dry, a farmer loses his crop. In Andhra Pradesh, said FAO, 6,000 farmers have been trained in groundwater management by a project run by Indian NGOs and guided by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization. They have learned to monitor how much water is available underground at the start of the growing season. Then they only plant crops that need that much water.

Image: From FAO video, 'India's barefoot water scientists'

Here is some background on the legacy of irrigation in India, and the administrative functions that large irrigation projects provided the state, whether that state was colonial (as a dominion of Great Britain) or independent (Republic of India). “At the beginning of the eighteenth century, India  was the ‘irrigation champion’ of the world. While the colonial government initially neglected the maintenance and upkeep of the numerous but mostly small irrigation structures, it soon spotted the potential for large-scale canal irrigation as an economic enterprise and took to canal building as a business on a massive scale. In those days, there was much dissatisfaction with irrigation management among observers and investors who expected much higher financial return on irrigation investments.”

Image: From FAO video, 'India's barefoot water scientists'

This is written by By Tushaar Shah in the chapter, ‘Past, Present, and the Future of Canal Irrigation in India’, found in ‘India Infrastructure Report 2011 – Water: Policy and Performance for Sustainable Development’, (Oxford University Press 2011).

“Yet, in retrospect, around 1900, canal irrigation systems in India were arguably in a far better state than today in terms of their operation and maintenance (O&M), productivity impacts, and financial returns. If we look at the situation ten years ago, around 2000, while the new welfare state had kept alive the colonial tradition of big time canal construction, the management of canal irrigation had become pathetic in terms of all the criteria on which it excelled a century ago.”

Image: From FAO video, 'India's barefoot water scientists'

“The dominant view about the way out is that farmer management through water user associations can restore canal irrigation to its old glory. However, this may not be the correct thinking. Shah has argued that the larger socio-technical fundamentals in which canal irrigation can thrive in a smallholder agrarian setting were all mostly present around 1900 and are all mostly absent today.”

The colonial irrigation management was a high input-high output affair, said Shah. A vast authoritarian bureaucracy reaching down to the village level used forced labour to maintain canal network, managed water distribution, and undertook ruthless water fee recovery on all lands deemed to be irrigated.

Image: From FAO video, 'India's barefoot water scientists'

In the canal commands, the canal water ‘tax had to be paid regardless of whether or not use was made of the canal in a particular year or whether or not there was a reliable supply from the canal’ (Hardiman 2002: 114). This, according to Hardiman, encouraged, even forced, farmers to grow valuable commercial crops to generate cash. It also resulted in much litigation from dissatisfied zamindars who put pressure on canal managers to ensure water delivery and maintain canals. The amounts provided for O&M were substantial so that deferred maintenance was minimal.

As a commercial venture, the performance of canal irrigation has decidedly declined over the past 100 years. D.R. Gadgil, the pioneer of Indian economic planning, had argued that, in a poor agrarian economy like India, public irrigation investments should be judged on their social and economic returns rather than their financial returns. Soon after Independence, irrigation charges were drastically reduced; and even these declined to a small fraction. Have public irrigation investments in free India delivered the irrigation—and the socio-economic returns they were designed for as Gadgil had hoped?  Unfortunately, the answer to the question is ‘No’; and there lies the heart of the problem. The financial rot was the harbinger of a much deeper crisis of stagnation and decline in public irrigation systems whose social and economic returns turned out to be far smaller than imagined.

‘Letters from America’

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Energy Bulletin, the peak oil + transition cultures + alternate economics online resource, has just posted my article, ‘Letters from America‘, in which an agriculture student from a small North Indian village writes home to his sister about the odd way of life he encounters during a stay in America. EB has described this as an updated Gulliver’s Travels. This is the first part:

Farm labour at work near Salinas, California

Farm labour at work near Salinas, California

Dear Pooja, Imagine how surprised I was to see farms here that are so big, they disappear over the horizon! Papaji would not have believed it and nor would our uncles. I first saw them from the plane, and as I couldn’t judge how high we were, I didn’t know how big they were.

This I saw in the state of California, which is quite dry, like in our North India during April, but of course it is much cooler. They grow many vegetables here, and many flowers too. I wondered how they had so much water, because where there are no farms and no houses, there is desert.

They told me the water comes from the mountains, which are quite far away (at times I can see them to the east, and there’s a sparkle to some of their summits that could even be snow). How much they must have spent to move the water here – there is an enormous aqueduct (like our canals, but so much longer) that sends the farmers water.

Vegetables and fruit shop, Chinatown, San Francisco

Vegetables and fruit shop, Chinatown, San Francisco

What bothers me is that they waste quite a lot of it. You may think I am joking, but I have seen water being sprinkled all over big farms from sprinklers, like the ones some of the rich farmers have in our district, only of course here there are many more and they shoot out the water for hours at a time. Imagine what we could do with so much water for our crops – I wonder what they pay for this water, whether the poorer farmers also get any (don’t ask me if there are any, I don’t know yet).

You would also be amazed by how much machinery they use. I could make out a plough and a tiller, but other things I did not understand at all, what they do or how they work. Papaji would have been very angry to see so much machinery for use on the farm. The other elders too.

Remember when Jagdeep-chacha bought his first tractor (yes I know he first rented it with three other farmers) how Papaji and the others argued with him. “Machines distress the earth, our hands and feet must be in contact with Mother Earth if we ask her for nourishment,” I remember them saying.

Range of breakfast cereals in Los Angeles store

Range of breakfast cereals in Los Angeles store

I used to see it as a natural kind of respect, and although – as I admitted to you but not to Ma and Papaji – I enjoyed riding on Jagdeep-chacha’s tractor when we went for fairs, I felt uncomfortable when that big heavy shiny noisy belching machine with huge tyres rumbled heavily across his fields. How could our soil bear such a monstrous weight, I would think, and what of all the thousands and thousands of little creatures that live in the soil and make it what it is, what would happen to them? Ma and Papaji and our brothers and sisters understood, but not everyone did.

But here, machines of all kinds are used on the soil. They dig, turn, roll, lift, crumble, bunch, furrow and level the soil. They treat the soil as it if was a kind of porous carpet that can be diced and shaped in any way they please. I find it very troubling, Pooja, that they do this. There is no respect.

Organic vegetable farm, Camarillo, California

Organic vegetable farm, Camarillo, California

The rows of vegetables look healthy and neat – beans, lima beans, oats, safflower, lettuce, what they call ‘salad’ which means a variety of greens. I don’t know how to react at times, there is so much of it. I was told the farms are in blocks of 100 acres, maybe more! Just imagine Pooja, where are we with our three and a half acres? But it’s not good to compare like that, as Papaji used to say, stick to what you know and can do and work on the land to the extent Mother Earth wants you to, without greed and without superiority. Still, this is so different it will take me some time to understand it. But it will be difficult.

The family I am staying with here in California are kind and explain whatever they can. Two days ago we talked about food and hunger, poor and rich. They told me that people in the state of California don’t know how poor other people are elsewhere in America. I said I did not know there were poor people in America, because the stories in our villages have always been of how easy it is to get rich here. But they explained to me that there are poor people, although what they mean by poor is quite different from what we and Ma and Papaji would understand.

Los Angeles urban built density

Los Angeles urban built density

“If someone has only one TV and one old car, that’s poor,” said my host, and I was so surprised by this he started laughing. When I told him what we mean by poor he became very serious. “This country wastes too much,” he said. And I agree.

Yesterday we went to a shopping centre to buy me some walking shoes – don’t worry I’m looking after my money very carefully, the shoes were cheap.

Outside the shop we bought the shoes from was a rubbish bin. You won’t believe it Pooja, there was a man with his arms in the bin, looking for food. He was taking out small packets and bags that people had thrown inside, and in these he had found something to eat. I looked inside the bin too, but could only see more plastic bags and paper packets and cups – this kind of man must have the experience to judge what contains food.

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box, Camarillo, California

Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) box, Camarillo, California

My host told me that every day, the average American “throws away about one-and-a-half pounds of food” (that means around 700 grams, they still use pounds here so I have to keep converting) and it is not that the food has gone bad. If lettuce has wilted only slightly, if a loaf of bread gets slightly hard because it has been left outside, even if an apple is a little discoloured through bad handling, they will throw it away! Yes I know you will say our city folk are wasteful too, but this amount of waste is different.

And yet I have heard of something they call ‘food stamps’ and ‘soup kitchens’, where the poor and homeless are fed. Ma would have been curious – these ‘food stamps’ and ‘soup kitchens’ are not managed by temple committees like at home but by small volunteer groups. I have been impressed by people willingly going to do such work: there is inequality and waste, that is true, but there is also concern and action.

Written by makanaka

June 26, 2010 at 01:12

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