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.
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 oligarchieswho are already in conflict over a host of other social and political issues.
... Read More [+] /> 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 budgetstheir entire operations and maintenance budgetsto 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 formulai.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 entitiesthe 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.
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.