Practitioner and Expert in Dialogue: A Key to Resource Conservation


The That desert of western India remains one of the most densely populated, yet traditionally used, arid and semi-arid regions in the world. This density of population is made possible through a heritage that literally reshapes the landscape to harvest the scant rainfall. On the Thar's eastern margin in the Aravalli Hill the progressive construction over the centuries of levees, berms, ponds, silt-ponds and reservoirs has improved the collection and storage of rainfall to moisten soils for runoff farming and to recharge aquifers for irrigation from shaft wells. Runoff farming and recharged groundwater farming, combined with animal husbandry for inter-regional livestock markets, remain the living tradition of the central Rajasthani population.

Long-term research, such as that conducted in Rajasthan on Gangwa Village near Makrana in Nagaur District, and comparative study of communities along the Aravalli Hills provide insight into an indigenous system of hydrologic knowledge that affirms: surface impoundments to recharge aquifers; groundwater storage; and retrieval through shaft wells and left technology.

This indigenous groundwater system stands in contrast to the grand designs historically, evolved by the British who constructed permanent diversions or barrages across major rivers, massive dams, reservoirs with year-long surface storage over impermeable beds, and surface transport through canals. The British expanded, developed and maintained such systems of perennial canal irrigation throughout the 19th and 20th centuries in India, often displacing prior groundwater systems. In parallel fashion, they founded Indian educational institutions for research and instruction on water management that favored hydrologic and engineering sciences that were most useful to developing surface facilities. As a result, the study, design and research of surface water facilities became an engineering and technical specialty separate from the study of groundwater reserves.

Accordingly, those who locally man-age a system of groundwater irrigation, as do the inhabitants of central Rajasthan, prove to be concerned with different features and interrelationships then those stressed in the scholarly and technical literature on hydrology and irrigation facilities. Differences among the theories of water management, held by the indigenous inhabitants, the previous British engineer and the modern Indian hydrologist, have important implications. Where the hydrologist sees siltage, loss through soakage and water logging as problems demanding solution, the Rajasthani farmer perceives an opportunity for soil capture and recharge for irrigation. These differences in scientific and folk knowledge - involving perspective, definition of problem, testability and degrees of empowerment to determine water management policy - are relevant to the emerging groundwater crisis in India. The Groundwater Crisis in India

Contemporary water policy in India is confronted by the successes in development in the private sector where there has been a progressive expansion of lands irrigated from groundwater. The outcome had been a remarkable improvement in agrarian production over a 35-year period, even in the dry state of Rajasthan. However, such success has become confounded by lowering water tables, salt intrusions on coastal agrarian lands in neighboring Gujarat, and an accelerating investment in tube wells that will future extracting groundwater at a rate far above that of recharge.

How may groundwater remain a sustainable and equitably available resource? Solutions range from conjunctive planning for surface and groundwaters in each catchment and water basin, with possible inter-basin transfer projected from wet to dry zones; artificial recharging, increasing the harvesting of rain run-off for effective groundwater recharge; limiting or adjusting groundwater extraction through market mechanisms, tariffs and subsides on electricity; regulating loans to limit rube well development; restricting new developments by law; empowering local community council to regulate extraction; and even drafting new constitutional provisions that define new rights and powers in water.

In suggesting solutions to the impending groundwater crises in a democratic polity such as India, one should assume that any effective decision must engage the intelligence and commitment of both the lay person and the specialist at the level of the individual producer and consumer; the local village community; the communities occupying the catchment and groundwater basin; and, eventually, the region and the nation in possible inter-basin transfers. Values of public trust, full divulgence of information, educated and volunteered consent, and public participation in decision-making are essential to the process of protecting and developing water as a resource. In a democratic polity such processes should not only protect all sectors' and persons' access to a common natural resource, but should strengthen the representational, educational and research institutions through which the public may participate in shaping the shared destiny of their nation.

Furthermore, the peculiar development of groundwater, which has depended upon the initiative and entrepreneurial capability of and investments by individual producers in the private sector, demands a solution that actively re-engages this same sector in water resource conservation. Hundreds of thousands of farmers have adapted modern electrical and diesel pump technology to their small scale enterprises. Any solution to the impending crises in groundwater reserve should tap this same well spring of local interest and capability. Creation of Technical and Scientific Knowledge

The very course of my own logitudinal field research in Rajasthan reveals the emerging role of local farmers, not as informants but as research associates. A re-examination of our joint participation in the creation and documentation of an indigenous system of water management, and a discovery of the requisite skills that made it work, suggests that dialogue and collaborative research are keys to both the study and the conservation of local natural resources.

The keen interest of Gangwa villagers to pursue their conceptions for hydrologic improvements, for example, brought us into this research in 1987. Respected farmers and important members of their community, Umaid Singh and Dhola Ram Chaudhri, at that time urged me to document local ideas and practices that were overlooked by the hydrologic engineers who were sent to plan small-scale irrigation projects. They defined the problem which we researched.

Previous discoveries about the cognitive and computative skills of my informants had been thrust upon me. Seeking to estimate yearly draw of well water for irrigation, I queried a key informant. Laluram Jat exclaimed, "Approximately? Why `approximately' when I know exactly? I though you knew already our practice." He proceeded to explain the system of stone counters that registered each of 320 deliveries of water by leather water bag, drawn sixty to eighty feet from the bottom of a well shaft. 320 deliveries defined a shift, at which point the four family crew rotated their position and draft animals. A crew completed 960 deliveries per day, normally, adding two shifts on moonlit nights during the peak of the season. This measuring and rotating of work shares were part of a system for maintaining equity and solidarity among partners.

Partnership was based upon rigorous sharing of costs, risks and gains. There was careful counting and computation, encouraging skills in an arithmetic over the number base four. The findings were broadcast clearly, as in the assemblage of counting stones that were in view of all, or in the chanting of the number of each round of shares in grain spilled out from a measuring pot onto each partner's quilt. Clearly, the farmers of the Aravallis maintained their partnership in water use and farming by adopting a number of practices and utilizing computational skills that strengthened mutual trust and the sharing of knowledge.

After independence, the integration of the princely state into the Republic of India, and land reform, partnerships were first strengthened, then slowly altered. Initially, partners shared common title to wells and lands, and worked cooperatively. After rural electrification and joint purchase of a pump set, they tended to divide up their lands to work them separately, while taking turns in pumping water from the well. This waning of the institution of partnership, however, did not diminish their observing, measuring and computing that hydrologic factors of production upon which they depended. They continued to compare annual rain run-off and conjecture about probable groundwater recharge each year in order to estimate how much land and what crops they dare seed for irrigation. These concerns with projecting water supply and limiting demand are not dissimilar from those of a hydrologist concerned with sustaining a groundwater table.

The tradition of measuring demand and estimating supply continues, but in a new mode. Today, farmers measure relative supply in terms of hours of continuous pumping provided through the irrigation season. The pace at which pumps are level of water in the well substantially communicates the relative recharge rates. Furthermore, people note the hours of rest, or the recovery time, required between pumping to bring the water level back up to fall mark for uninterrupted pumping again.

In the field in 1994, Gail Wread and I gathered new data to document the indigenous system. Indeed, villagers did divide the water basin into several sections (chaupers), identifying tech in terms of a set of wells sharing recharge source. They traced common recharge sources by water taste, and theorized two kinds of sources for groundwater. We were busy studying their ideas, while souring the revenue books for a history of all irrigation wells in order to construct a full mapping of surface impoundments, fields and wells, for which we had several decades of data on land titles and the organization of production.

On March 25, 1994 after drafting a proposal for the next step for the hydrologic development of their community, Gangwa village petitioned the district's highest officer, the Collector of Nagaur, to present their proposal. Gangwa villagers had reached a consensus on the project they desired. Their proposal was innovative, for it sought to capture rain run-off previously lost to the ravines, while redesigning the village reservoir with the protective overflow. Furthermore, their proposal hoped to resolve a controversy over backed-up flood waters. In the past, these waters had brought to farmers the promise of improved collection, soakage and recharge. However, at the same time, they had brought to shepherds the threat of inundation of homes and corrals.

Guided by the peoples of Gangwa, longitudinally researching one village among tens of thousands in Rajasthan, we have come to document a broad range of local skills, competencies and social connections. As well, we have noted the readiness of local people to address a multiplicity of interests, to innovate and to assert their own knowledge and good judgement.

At this juncture one must question the boundaries between informant and investigators, practitioner and expert, indigenous knowledge and scientific technology. Even in the area of monitoring groundwater reserves, physical models of hydrology alone are inadequate, for the water balance is in part a function of human value, cognition and choice in action. Demand is not a fixed datum; rather, it is the outcome of individuals evaluating their circumstances. In the Rajasthani countryside, if one is to continue developing supply and to continue adjusting demand to assure a sustainable and accessible water table, the farmer and the expert should be joined in collaborative effort.

The next step for the community is its development into a hydrologic research station. Indigenous ideas about water harvesting and management must be tested. The hydrologists can design the research, while fully incorporating farmers as monitors who provide myriad data from the field. The experts can over see collecting data, interpret findings and disseminate information, in order that the farmers receive the fullest information about the groundwater table. In this manner they become more reflexive as agents in the use of this information in planning their own community-wide and individual family enterprises.

Uniting the farmers with the experts, and the local community with non-governmental agencies, is to decentralize the process and value the minds of local practitioners whose ancestors already had transformed a desert and xerophytic savannah into an important agrarian zone. Furthermore, successful local ideas may yet stand improvement through the application of well established hydrologic and engineering principles. Conclusion

Water is a common property resource. Central to our concern is how a community may be mobilized to tackle the issue of shared resources. By engaging a community in intensive and longitudinal research into the process that supply and into the demands that divide such a shared resource, one is enlisting them to reflect on the very dynamics of natural, social and cultural processes that may conserve and restore the balance for future generations.

Establishing a village community as a research center of hydrology would help propagate ideas for improved water harvesting, recharged farming and for the restoration of water-logged areas. The local system affirms conjunctive use of surface and groundwaters. What other might consider as the loss of water and soil through soakage and silting, the Rajasthani farmers consider as resources to develop. Accordingly, such local practices might be applied to grand dam and surface canal schemes. For example, there is leakage, water-logging and siltage occurring in parts of the Indira Gandhi canal on the western border of Rajasthan. The situation might be remedied by the intensification of groundwater irrigation of lands surrounding the canal command, while providing further zones for livelihood for traditional Rajasthani farmers and transhumant shepherds. Coordinating canal surface irrigation with groundwater irrigation is an exciting regional solution to India's emerging water crises.

Our goal is to conjoin local forms of inquiry with the inquiry of modern scientists. The focus is not on conclusion and conviction, but on how farmers and experts think out problems, investigate evidence and reach conclusions about the natural and environmental processes upon which livelihoods depend. The interdependency of farmer and scientist in the design of the project and in the collection of data would join them in a dialogue that might add new conceptions to recharged groundwater farming and conjunctive groundwater irrigation to limit water logging in major canal systems. Farmers would also be engaged in modern forms of inquiry, data analysis and modeling of human and environmental interactions. Furthermore, such a field research station as conceived for the village of Gangwa would demonstrate how vexing problems that concern the public commons might be better addressed through the engagement of local peoples in the monitoring, understanding and active care-taking of their own environment. Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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