Customary Rights and their Relevance in Modern Tank Management: Select Cases in Tamil Nadu

Village tanks occupy a significant position in irrigation and in the local ecosystem in the semi-arid and arid regions of Tamilnadu. The tanks play a vital role as an important water resource for the livelihood of the rural communities. These unique and indigenous water harvesting and storage systems and their management have been declining in recent years. The major reason being the centralization of the tank administration in the last two centuries by the British Colonial administration. Such a move led the local communities to alienate from these important water resources and they restricted themselves from taking up collective efforts towards the betterment of tanks. Both the state and the community are facing a critical situation through the deteriorating tanks, forcing the marginal and small farmers into a cycle of deprivation and debt, as also leaving them increasingly at the mercy of the vagaries of monsoon. The tanks have multiple other uses, such as a drinking water resource for livestock, for fish culture recharge of ground water etc. and multiple stakeholders, starting from the village community, local bodies and academia to the international development agencies & organizations. Therefore sustainable and equitable use and management of natural resources like tanks require an appropriate, conceptual, functional and creative governance framework to accommodate the interests and activities of the multiple stakeholders involved.

Natural resource use in India and its associated technologies, institutions and law have their origin in a much earlier and entirely different jurisprudential base. People used to follow the traditional Indian jurisprudence. Custom constituted a source of law, independent from all other known sources. The co-existence of the dual framework of custom and formal law is often fraught with tension and contradictions, with adverse impact not only on societal relationships but also on the natural resource base. This paper, in a similar context, explores the relevance of customary rights in the management of minor irrigation tanks, one of the vital water resources in Tamil Nadu and presents a synopsis of a few cases of conflict on sharing usufructory rights, encroachment eviction and water sharing among tanks, along with the way forward to resolve them, based on the importance of water reforms for the overall development of these small scale water bodies.