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close this bookDesign and Operation of Smallholder Irrigation in South Asia (WB, 1995, 134 p.)
close this folderChapter 12 - Cultivator organizations
View the documentCultivator organizations in irrigation system operation
View the documentTraditional organization in village-level irrigation schemes
View the documentProjection from the village-level organization to cultivator organizations in public systems
View the documentExperience and problems with water user groups in public irrigation systems

Cultivator organizations in irrigation system operation

The degree of flexibility provided in operation of the canal supply system and the level down to which supply can be matched to demand have been discussed earlier. In schemes which have limited storage regulation, or none, variations in supply to the canal system are largely externally imposed. On the other hand where there is a high degree of storage regulation, variations in supply to the system can be largely controlled. Delivery to the tertiary in either case is generally regulated through pre-arranged schedules, subject to availability of water.

Within the tertiary command itself delivery to the individual farm can also be strictly in accordance with a established rotation, or it may be modified to suit individual needs. In a scheme in which supply to the canal system is highly regulated and predictable, and in which delivery to the individual farmer is strictly in accordance with a fixed schedule, the need for cultivator organization is minimal, other than for communal maintenance activities and general policing of the tertiary system. However, in schemes where supply is less predictable, requiring frequent changes in rotational deliveries within the tertiary or where effort is made to meet the water needs of the individual cultivator by modification of rotations, some degree of cultivator organization is necessary. Such day to day operational modifications within the tertiary command could not be effectively managed by irrigation department staff.

Whether or not cultivator organizations have a part to play outside of the tertiary command, for instance in management of operation of the secondary canal, may be debated. But within the tertiary command, such organizations are often essential. The issues are how effectively they operate, and what assistance they may need to become more effective. To date their performance in major public irrigation systems has been mixed (Sunder 1990).

Traditional organization in village-level irrigation schemes

In village-level schemes, particularly small "tank" systems, organization of irrigation distribution is generally remarkably efficient. Many of the schemes were constructed back in the days when village authority was absolute, and cultivators held their land under sufferance to the local ruler. Progressive weakening of traditional authoritarian structure and substitution by democratic process is changing the situation rapidly in some areas, but operation of village schemes remains reasonably effective. The method of operation varies, but generally an individual is delegated the task of operating all structures including turn-outs to each farm. He is paid by, and under the direction of, the cultivator group. In some cases, however, the post is inherited and carries considerable authority. Sharing of the tasks of maintaining the system is also well organized.

Projection from the village-level organization to cultivator organizations in public systems

A question frequently asked is if the organization of village-level schemes works so well why is it so difficult to obtain effective operation of tertiary-level water user groups in larger public irrigation systems? The answer lies partly in the attitude of cultivators to government facilities, in contrast to village-owned facilities. The philosophy that if government built it then government should operate and maintain it is deeply rooted. In the eyes of the cultivator the government label still remains, however sincere efforts may be to involve cultivators in all stages of planning and construction of a facility, . This is very evident, incidentally, where government assistance in rehabilitation of tank schemes can have the unfortunate effect of causing villagers to abdicate responsibility for operation and maintenance of a previously well managed village scheme.

There are other factors contributing to the problems of group operation at the tertiary level. The supply to the tertiary is indeed under the irrigation department's control, and the cultivator view is understandably that any deficiency in supply is due to government mismanagement. He will consequently take whatever water he can get, as an individual, without regard for the interests of his neighbors or the group as a whole. There has been much discussion of the merits of including representatives from water user groups in the management of water releases at the primary and secondary canal level, largely to avoid this problem. But such interaction between cultivators and the irrigation department is not yet common. In any case, the scope of such cooperation would necessarily be limited operationally, as the interests of individual tertiary commands may well be mutually in conflict. Moving the scale of water user group management from the individual tertiary command up to the secondary canal command (ten to twenty or more tertiaries) has also been suggested.

A further distinction between a village scheme and a tertiary command of a public scheme lies in the social situation within the two. While the group served by a village scheme may cover the whole social spectrum, communal relationships with respect to water distribution have been established in the village over several generations. In the case of a tertiary command in a newly developed irrigation area, the group has been brought together for the first time, as far as any type of communal activity is concerned. Substantial differences in caste, ethnicity or the level of economic affluence may well exist within the group. The bond of a common water source may bring such a disparate group together eventually, as it has with the village scheme, but close cooperation cannot be expected immediately.

Experience and problems with water user groups in public irrigation systems

Much effort has been devoted to the organization or irrigator groups in South Asia over the last two decades. It has been a principal area of interest of national and international institutions associated with irrigation development in that region. Water User Groups are operating very effectively in some areas, and very poorly or not at all in others. The differences can be accounted for partly by cultural factors, there being stronger traditions of collective action in some communities than in others. Another factor is the nature of the irrigation supply, its regularity and its importance in relation to rainfall. Where the supply is reasonably predictable and its distribution within the tertiary command is regulated by long-established well-accepted rules, there is little need for formal organization of water users other than for maintenance of the tertiary channel system. On the other hand, where irrigation distribution is complicated by less predictable supply or where it is supplemental to variable rainfall, there is greater need for cooperation between cultivators within the tertiary command with regard to management of irrigation deliveries. Unfortunately, these are also the circumstances which put most strain on the group. To illustrate, if cultivators have planted in anticipation of normal seasonal rains plus regular supply of supplemental irrigation, only to encounter abnormally low rainfall coupled with less than usual irrigation supply, they are unlikely to conform to group decisions regarding sharing the deficiency, however rational such decisions may be. Faced with serious crop loss each individual is likely to take what irrigation he can get, with consequent breakdown of the group and of the tertiary rotation. Breakdown of the rotation may also occur in the wet season if the primary crop is paddy. Irrigation distribution by continuous small flow to each holding may be more convenient to the cultivator than rotational supply, and in most respects may be equally effective. Such a departure from rotation in the wet season may not be of consequence except for the difficulty of reinstating rotation in the dry season, when it is essential. Aside from stresses imposed on group operation by external factors such as deficiencies in supply, there may be internal problems, political and social. A socially or economically powerful individual or sub-group may unduly influence the functioning of a water user group, to the disadvantage of those of lesser standing.

In spite of the difficulties which have been experienced with water user groups, they are regarded as vital to effective operation of smallholder irrigation systems in many situations. The key question is how assistance may best be provided in their establishment and operation, without detracting from their essential autonomy (Byrnes 1992).

In designing an irrigation system, it is not sufficient to simply stipulate the formation of water user groups, if such are required. The necessary support for group formation and assistance with and monitoring of their operation should also be included as essential project components.