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Women's participation in irrigation management reaps rewards in Gujarat

By Advaita Marathe

The myth that women have no role to play in irrigation management has been shattered, as the Gujarat government's Participatory Irrigation Management policy clearly shows

Although the role of women in cultivation has long been accepted and documented, it has never been extended to irrigation and irrigation management. The prevalent belief is that irrigation is not a woman's domain.

A visit to several villages in south Gujarat belies this. For what began as a small experiment has ended up completely shattering the myth.

Until recently, every major and minor irrigation system in the country has been government-managed, with little or no participation from the users. Today, the trend is towards devolution of control and management of natural resources, and the involvement of people in natural resource management at all levels. The government's National Water Policy (1987) recommended farmer participation in irrigation management as a strategy to bring about structural reform.

In Gujarat, the implementation of the National Water Policy guidelines was initiated on an experimental basis in the district of Bharuch. The results proved so encouraging that in 1995 the state government declared a policy on Participatory Irrigation Management (PIM), along the lines of the national policy, emphasising farmer participation in the planning, implementation and management of direct and indirect irrigation projects, and seeking the co-operation of voluntary organisations. (Participatory Irrigation Management refers to programmes that seek to increase farmers' direct involvement in irrigation system management - either as a substitute or complement for the state role. This generally leads to some form of joint management or co-management of irrigation systems with the state responsible for more tasks at higher levels of the system and farmers organisations responsible for tasks at lower levels.)

PIM involves the creation of people's institutions to operate and manage irrigation facilities. This usually involves a Canal Irrigation Society (CIS) comprising willing and interested beneficiaries from the entire command area which could range from one village to a number of villages. Two-three persons from each minor (offshoots of the main) canal are elected to form part of the committee that takes responsibility for water distribution and management and the daily upkeep and maintenance of the system.

The committee is wholly responsible for water distribution and its management, ensuring that even villages at the tail end receive water. It frames the rules for water consumption, ensures the smooth and efficient delivery of water and the recovery of dues from each farmer according to the number of units of water consumed. Disputes are resolved at monthly committee meetings; all decisions are communicated to the larger CIS at its monthly meeting.

The CIS appoints three persons, who draw a token honorarium, to look after the water distribution and management. Some societies appoint an institutional organiser who is responsible for overseeing the distribution and management of the entire canal system, and for providing technical inputs to the society. A water operator opens and shuts the gates of the canal, while the secretary keeps accounts. If it is a registered society, the secretary has to make sure the accounts are annually audited. S/he is responsible for managing water charges.

In Bharuch district, PIM has been initiated with support from the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (India), a non-communal, non-profit rural development organisation with a focus on natural resource management. The core concern of AKRSP (I) is organising communities and building their capacity to manage their resources. The organisation encourages the participation of women in its programmes.

When AKRSP (I) first undertook the PIM projects on a pilot basis, not much attention was paid to the involvement of women in managing irrigation systems. This was chiefly because the role played by women in irrigation and the productive use of water is virtually invisible. However, growing awareness within the organisation led to conscious efforts to involve women in the canal irrigation management societies and to change the perception that women could not handle matters of irrigation, or were not concerned with it.

Women were involved as nominal members only; only landowners were made regular members. As nominal members, they had no say in the decision-making. Slowly, however, following the organisation's proactive efforts at involving women in the CIS and management committees, people began to be convinced that involving women would bring about overall development within the village community. In fact, their involvement is now visible in every aspect of PIM, whether it be motivating farmers groups, overseeing canal construction, repair and maintenance, committee decision-making, framing the rules for water distribution, setting the terms for irrigation, water distribution and administration, liaising with government agencies, etc. The only problem, as perceived by the women, is monitoring water distribution at night, as alcoholism is rampant in the region.

As a result of their involvement, the lives of these women have undergone a complete transformation. They are much more confident and have taken control of their lives, those of their families and also that of the community. Other notable changes are an increase in their knowledge base and increased mobility. Where earlier they did not venture outside the village, they now walk into any government office, interacting with government officials. Their tolerance of injustice has been considerably lowered, as is evident in their personal lives.

However, it's not as though the women's involvement has been accepted without protest. Many women faced, and continue to face, social disapproval and familial opposition.

Take the example of Rajjuben who used to be regularly beaten up by her husband, Bahadurbhai Vitla. He would stop her from attending meetings and did not approve of her joining hands with other women. On one occasion, he beat her up just as she was preparing to leave for an MVM meeting. Despite this, she went for the meeting, where she complained about her husband. A group of four women went to her house and talked to Bahadurbhai Vitla, explaining the benefits of the MVM.

After the women's intervention, Rajjuben's husband stopped protesting against her going to meetings. He has also given up alcohol.

Apart from their personal struggles, the women face opposition from farmers and the community. Construction work being supervised by women is often stalled or destroyed. Still, the women carry on. As Kantaben from Dadhwada village says: "Women have waited long for some improvement in their lives and cannot do so any longer. So they just have to take things in their hands now."

Involvement in these activities has meant an increased workload for the women. Some receive help from their husbands and families, others don't. But they continue to work, because, as Narmadaben of Sarkui village says: "Since water has to be brought to their fields, women should participate." According to them, when women are involved in water distribution, and the work of the committee is completed in a calm, efficient manner, the men behave in a more ordered manner and the recovery of dues is more timely.

Significantly, women involved in PIM recognise that it gives them control. Chandrikaben from Sarkui believes that women should take on work like this because it means 'control' shifting to women and women getting their rights. The Bhathkhai village MVM says: "All the land, the house that we live in, the field, everything is in the men's name and consequently their control…we felt that there should be something created by us, something that is in our name, which we can be identified by."

Interestingly, in villages that showed significant women's involvement -- like Nanadoramba and Isar -- the men felt powerless in front of the women's initiative and enterprise. In some cases, there was even a sense of resentment at women coming to the forefront of village developmental activities. The women, however, seemed unfazed by this, claiming that power was not what they wanted, they wished for development and an improvement in their lives. The better-educated women understood the need to change social/power relations within rural communities. And to negotiate and secure a place for themselves in the decision-making process and in the community.

(Advaita Marathe is a researcher and development activist based in Gujarat. This report is based on a study commissioned by the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (India), based in Ahmedabad, Gujarat.)

InfoChange News & Features, July 2003