Ganesh Pangare is creating a national and regional framework for farmers to begin managing the public irrigation systems that water their land, thereby replacing ineffective government management with citizen ownership of a vital public service.

This profile below was prepared when Ganesh Pangare was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2002.


Ganesh Pangare is creating a national and regional framework for farmers to begin managing the public irrigation systems that water their land, thereby replacing ineffective government management with citizen ownership of a vital public service.


Ganesh is restructuring the way farmers and the state interact over the crucial matter of water–specifically, the maintenance, management, and financing of irrigation systems. For decades the government, through its irrigation department, was solely responsible for building and servicing agricultural waterways, yet the quality of service was poor, and many farmers did not get the water they needed. Ganesh is steering a meaningful transfer of power away from the dysfunctional irrigation bureaucracy and toward citizens by helping state governments design new systems and at the same time working with farmers to create democratic water users' associations. By providing detailed implementation plans to state governments, forging agreements with irrigation authorities, and helping farmers form effective groups, Ganesh is in effect guiding large parts of rural India through a major economic and political transformation. But Ganesh's vision for the network extends beyond setting up local water boards and helping them to manage user fees. He sees the emergence of the users' associations as an opportunity to engage Indian farmers in larger issues of natural resource management. In fact, by sharing his experiences and fostering similar efforts around the world, Ganesh hopes to position farmers in the growing world dialogue on water management.


Indian farmers need water–this fact that has not changed much in the 50 years or so since India's federal government embarked on major projects to build dams, dig canals, and carve out irrigation ditches to supply water to the nation's farmers. But many other things have changed, such as the growth of the citizen sector and the state of natural resource management as an essential area of public action. In the changing landscape of watershed management, in which water has steadily become a subject of complex economic, political, and cultural conflict between people and the state, there is a great need for practical systems through which the country can manage water as a public resource and water users as the public.

India's irrigation systems have run into fundamental operational problems, including maintenance and operation of waterways, fair distribution of water to large and small farmers, and financing of regular maintenance. Canals have filled with silt, reducing water flow, particularly to smaller farmers at the "tail" of the system. Owners of larger farms served directly by the main channels at the "head" of an irrigation system are likely to divert the most possible water from the stifled canals. The federal and state irrigation departments have proved inefficient in serving this infrastructure. Eighty percent of their budgets go to salary, including wages ostensibly paid to seasonal workers to clear blocked waterways, yet much needed water only trickles and floodgates are commonly rusted shut from neglect.

Meanwhile, global trends in the privatization of water management, though yet to touch India directly, are affecting the ways that multilateral donors like the World Bank attempt to guide macroeconomic policies. Whatever soundness and rationale privatization may have in theory, hasty implementation has often created turmoil by introducing high fees (or any fees, where water had been "free" from the user's perspective), establishing new corporate bureaucracies, and exacerbating tensions between the average water-using citizen and the new water-owning oligarchies–who are already in conflict over a host of other social and political issues.


Ganesh's strategy is to work with states and farmers to implement the transition to farmer-managed irrigation, then to support and develop the users' association so that it can influence national and international natural resource management policies.

Successful implementation involves, at the outset, approaching the right politicians and bureaucrats to win them over to the idea of participating in the program. Because the government receives funding from the World Bank, because farmers generally approve, and because the irrigation bureaucracy does not protest (it is not dismantled, just relieved of some of its major responsibilities), many of these decision-makers want to pursue the program. Ganesh's role then becomes working with state officials to create plans and frameworks for implementation. Because he is a well-known environmentalist with a record of achievement in watershed management, Ganesh is also able to approach citizen sector organizations to secure their buy-in. Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Maharashstra are three large states in which agreements have been reached and implementation is underway.

The obstacles at this point are technical. What should the pricing structure be? How will irrigation officials manage the transfer of responsibility and budgets–their entire operations and maintenance budgets–to the new users' associations? What will the reporting and accountability relationships be between the village-level users' groups and their counterparts at the subdistrict, district, and state levels? All these details must be addressed in order to implement successfully. For example, Ganesh often recommends a percentage distribution of user fees from the local level outward in a 50-30-10-10 formula–i.e., half goes to the local association and the rest is spread upward. Because water travels downstream, some portion of fees paid at the tail must travel upstream, so to speak, to maintain the head of the system properly. All this requires training and capacity-building of these new entities–the water users' associations. Ganesh's organization provides the materials and expertise to help both irrigation officials and nongovernment organizations take on the training role. To date, this work has set up over 10,000 functioning users' associations in Andhra Pradesh alone.

The real culmination of the idea for Ganesh, however, comes at the point when a large number of users' associations can be linked in an overall federation. The federation is particularly important because it, not the users' associations, is the point of entry for farmers whose operations are rain-fed and thus off the irrigation system. Ganesh's goal is greater farmer participation in water management policy. Because most farmers still rely on the monsoon floods, rather than dikes and ditches, to water their crops, any attempt to influence policy must include them as well. And there are practical linkages as well as political ones: rain-fed agriculture relies as much on the water table underground as on rain from the sky. As irrigation systems become more efficient, they preserve the water table and allow water tables and wells to recharge more quickly. This implies a secondary market between users' associations and their rain-fed neighbors. Managing these relationships successfully will create opportunities for these different categories of farmer to gather around a livelihood issue of mutual concern.


Born in a lower-middle-class farming family, Ganesh spent his childhood in Pune. While in school, he earned his pocket money by participating and working as a guide for wildlife treks, conservation crusades, and nature clubs. His interest in wildlife continued, and during his college years he conducted group tours along the Shivaji Fort trail and in the Annamalai and Madhumalai regions.

As a college student, Ganesh visited Ralegaon Siddhi, the village where renowned environmental activist Anna Hazare worked. Ganesh apprenticed himself to Mr. Hazare and began working in India's watershed protection and management movement. His work on the Ideal Village program involved transferring the success of a particular watershed, the Ralegaon Siddhi, to more than 300 villages in Maharashtra. At a certain point, however, Ganesh saw that the movement was heading toward confrontation with the authorities and further away from innovation in the ideas and practices of implementation. "Alternatives," he recalls, "not agitation," were needed to reduce the violence and animosity mounting around the Narmada River dam project.

He decided to step back from the forefront of the watershed movement and devote himself to an issue where it would be possible to detach the issues of water management, for which the great demand for innovation had been unanswered, from its close connection to the struggle for land rights that made cooperation between the state and citizens increasingly difficult. Realizing that most citizen sector energy had gone into rain-fed areas, and that the nation's irrigation system desperately needed restructuring, Ganesh founded the Indian Network on Participatory Irrigation Management.

Ganesh lives in Delhi with his wife and two sons. He is a keen wildlife photographer, and has coauthored many books and articles on water management.