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Rich farmers retain water rights in Kerala

By Jyothi Krishnan

Kerala’s land reforms 40 years ago redistributed land but overlooked water rights. As a result, landed farmers and big tenants retain the most fertile lands and also have exclusive access to water stored in ponds. The small and marginal farmers were given fragments of land with no access to water, and they are struggling to cultivate enough to feed their own families

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The first time I visited Kannappan's farm, I could hear the sound of a 10 hp pump drawing water from his 300-feet tubewell and filling Puthenkulam pond, which is exclusively his. When he paid for the land, the sum included the pond that irrigated the land. He bought his 25 acres in the 1990s, after having sold land elsewhere. He also bought a large house in one of the posh housing colonies in the area. After buying the land, he invested a considerable amount in deepening the pond, increasing the height of the main bund, digging a tubewell, and buying pumps. It was April, and the land around was dry and brown. But Kannappan's land stood out, green from the water stored in the pond; indeed, a full pond is a rare sight in the month of April. Kannappan also breeds fish in the pond.  

At the other end of the spectrum are the small and marginal farmers with holdings as small as 30 cents, with little or no access to water stored in ponds. Their lands are mostly located at the tail end of the main and distributary canals. For this group of farmers, a failed crop means less paddy for home consumption, aggravating their daily struggle for two meals a day.

I met a cross-section of farmers in Kollengode and Elavenchery in Palakkad district of Kerala, in the course of my study on the Kerala's kulams or traditional ponds. Together they reveal the inequalities in the prevailing system of water rights. Their stories also highlight certain changes that the land has witnessed (such as land reforms) which have a bearing on the system of water rights.  

While the region is known for its water scarcity, this scarcity is not universal. Farmers with larger landholdings, and with better access to water stored in ponds or water supplied through canals, get a better deal. On average, the landholdings of this group of farmers range between 10-20 acres. Most of them have access to a pond or a tubewell or a stream, in addition to water supplied through the canal.

Balakrishnan, a farmer who owns around 20 acres of land in the Tumbidi-Karipayi area, cuts a classical picture of a wealthy farmer. Like Kannappan, he is rich not just in terms of money but also in terms of the land and water at his command. He is also secretary of the Padashekhara Samity, a registered organisation of paddy farmers. (The Samity is registered with the agricultural department in each panchayat and plays a role in the disbursal of seeds, fertiliser and the agricultural bonuses that the government provides.)

Balakrishnan's palatial house overlooks a pond that is exclusively his. The land is located at the tail end of the Chulliar main canal and has a serious problem with timely supply of water. Of the three ponds to which Balakrishnan has access, he enjoys exclusive ownership rights over two. The third he shares with other farmers although he holds a majority share.

Of the three ponds, Maduteeni Potta is located at the high end of a slope and thereby does not retain much water (1). The other two are situated lower down, and irrigate paddy. In addition to these three ponds, the land also encloses a kuzhi, a perennial pit at the valley bottom which Balakrishnan deepened and enlarged into a square well. He also deepened the Mandayam chera (chera is used interchangeably with kulam) located at the bottom of the valley, at his own expense, to enhance its storage capacity.

Balakrishnan has set up an elaborate pumping network to pump water from the perennial pit into the ponds when water levels in the ponds drop. However, this too is proving inadequate to meet the water requirements of paddy and other water-intensive crops like bananas and vegetables, which, ideally, should be grown in a restricted manner in a dry pocket such as this. In a final bid, Balakrishnan dug two tubewells, to a depth of 240 and 270 feet; he now pumps water from these wells and stores it in the ponds, using it to irrigate the paddy. He also pumps water into Maduteeni Potta, located higher up, so that he can grow vegetables in the summer when the water is at its lowest level.

It's only people like Balakrishnan who can afford the initial investment on digging tubewells, deepening pits, acquiring pumps, and setting up a distribution network from pit to pond and from tubewell to pond. So secure is his water position that he even managed to cultivate gerkin (a cucumber variety that needs plenty of watering) for export!

Private enclosures: An individually owned pond and pump house

Haridasan, who owns 10 acres of land and a pond, is another large landowner. He and his two brothers owned almost half the area of the Peringotukavu padashekhara samity. He was also the local party leader, a position that his son now enjoys. He owns two rice mills, set up more than 30 years ago. Owning a rice mill then was a matter of great prestige.

Kochukuttan’s story is similar. He owns about 13 acres of land. He too exclusively owns Pandalamkulam pond which covers an area of 2.4 acres. One of the field channels of the Chulliar canal network opens onto his fields, from where it proceeds to the other fields. If water is supplied through the canals, he is sure to get it. He also stores canal water in Pandalamkulam, which insures him against crop failure. Kochukuttan recently bought an additional hectare of land which enclosed a perennial water pit (kuzhi). In addition, he dug a tubewell to irrigate his coconut plantation. He breeds fish too, as the pond is exclusively his. If other farmers had a right to the water, this would not have been possible as the demand for irrigation would have conflicted with the demand for fish breeding. When water levels in the pond fall, water is pumped by tubewell into the pond.

Kochukuttan told us about the huge dowry he paid when his daughter got married a couple of years ago. She had come home for her first delivery, and Kochukuttan cut down one of the teak trees in his compound to make a huge almirah for her to take back to her husband’s family when she returned with the child. The quality of the wood and its size was an indication of his status, he felt. Local artisans were already at work on the almirah. 

These farmers represent the large farmers of the area; they have larger holdings and access to multiple sources of water. They represent the hitherto large tenant class, whose economic position underwent a significant transformation after being conferred ownership rights over the land they cultivated, when land reforms were implemented. The introduction of a canal network, chemical fertilisers, and hybrid seeds during the same period is reported to have led to a sudden spurt in yields, all of which contributed to a consolidation of their economic position.

The manner in which Balakrishnan, or Kochukuttan, acquired exclusive access to ponds is related to the implementation of land reforms in the state. Prior to their implementation in 1970, land ownership was governed by customary landlord-tenant relations. The landlord, often referred to as the janmi, rarely cultivated his land. He leased the land out to tenants who either cultivated it directly or sub-leased it to smaller tenants. With the implementation of land reforms, a ceiling of 12 acres was laid down on the land that could be owned by each adult individual. Land in excess of this stipulated amount was confiscated from the landlord and handed over to the cultivating tenant. And so, cultivating tenants became owners of the land they cultivated. In addition, landless people were given small parcels of land that were confiscated from those who held land in excess of the ceiling.

Apart from landlords, large tenants too had to give up land in excess of the ceiling. Balakrishnan, Haridasan and Kochukuttan are from such large tenant families. Balakrishnan’s father used to cultivate lands owned by a Brahmin family at the time of the land reforms. 

Implementation of the reforms was beset with problems. In order to avoid giving up good agricultural land, many landlords gave up land on which their ponds were situated, retaining the pond’s four bunds for access to the water stored in it! Similarly, while surrendering their land, they kept the best for themselves. These were low-lying lands located below ponds, which retained a considerable amount of moisture and were best suited to double-cropping. Sloping land, with less water-retention capacity, was given away as excess land to the landless, mostly agricultural labourers. These lands were referred to as parambu (2) lands, unfit for intensive cultivation.

The critique of Kerala’s land reforms, that they benefited the intermediary tenant more than the landless labourer, is true. If one studies a cross-section of farmers, most of the present-day large farmers come from large tenant backgrounds.

A key issue that has received little attention in the discussion surrounding equity and land reforms is access to water. When tenants were given formal rights to the land they were cultivating, they were also given rights to water from the pond. These rights were in proportion to the land that they owned in the ayacut of the pond. Ironically, when the landless were given land that was part of a pond ayacut, they were not given water rights. There is no official explanation for this, but farmers say it is because they were given the land for free. Tenants, on the other hand, had to pay a small amount of money at the land tribunal in order to get possession of the land.

Let us examine the lives of farmers living at the other end of the spectrum. Velayudhan was given 58 cents by the government as part of the land reforms. Of the 58 cents, only 23 cents is paddy land; his house was built on the remaining portion. Velayudhan’s 23 cents of paddy land is located in the ayacut of the Kateri (katu means forest, and eri, pond; it was named this as a small forest patch formed the catchment of the pond in the past). But Velayudhan does not enjoy rights over water in the Kateri because he got the land as ‘michabhoomi’ from the government. The word ‘michabhoomi’ refers to excess land that was confiscated from the janmis during implementation of the land reforms.

If Velayudhan has to pump water from the pond, he has to pay Rs 100 per hour to the pond’s owners. Unlike Balakrishnan or Kochukuttan, he does not own a pumping device or have electricity. Velayudhan has lost his second paddy crop on many occasions. Located at the tail end of the distributary canal, water rarely reaches him on time. There have been several occasions when water has failed to reach his fields when the crop is in the critical stage of panicle-formation. Eight to ten hours of pumping water from the pond would have saved the crop, but Velayudhan did not have that kind of money. He is an agricultural labourer; he also works as a supervisor on the land of Ismail, an absentee landlord, for which he is paid Rs 2,000-Rs 3,000 annually. His wife is an agricultural labourer too.

Unable to make both ends meet, Velayudhan and his wife also work in a brick kiln in neighbouring Trichur district. They have been doing so since the early-1990s; they get paid Rs 250 for every 1,000 bricks they make. They work from 4 in the morning to 11 at night, living in temporary sheds in the paddy fields, from where the clayey soil is mined to make bricks during the hot summer months of January-April.

Velan tells an even more difficult story. Like Velayudhan, he is an agricultural labourer. He got excess land from the government -- sloping parambu land that could not be used to cultivate paddy. Initially, he used to grow dry crops on the land. But with a large family to feed (seven girls and two boys), including a mentally challenged child, Velan felt that if he could grow some paddy it would help meet their food requirements. “If nothing else, we could at least have some kanji (rice gruel) with salt,” he said. So, on the 85 cents of land, he built two small semi-permanent houses -- one for himself and one for his eldest son. He levelled the rest of the land into four fields employing his and the family’s labour. At the lowest point of the land, he dug a well and, with a little financial assistance from the panchayat, bought an oil engine. He attempted to grow some paddy in these fields, using water from the well. He also grew vegetables on a small patch close to the well. But the land did not retain much moisture and turned dry during the rainless months. Raising paddy on his land remains Velan’s dream.

Bordering Velan’s fields are the lands of a large landowning family in the region. It’s hard to overlook the inequities when you see the green fields that surround the pond that this family owns. It’s an inequity that Velan cannot afford to question; he works on their fields.

Velan’s wife Chelli inherited a small patch of land (60 cents) from her family in the ayacut of another pond. They raise paddy on this plot of land every year. The entire family works on preparing the land, ploughing, weeding and harvesting it so that they do not have to spend money on labour. But it is water that is the critical issue. While ownership of the pond is shared, most of the land in its ayacut is owned by a large landowner who holds a majority of the water’s share in the pond. He lives in the nearby town of Palakkad and has appointed someone to supervise all the agricultural operations. He did not raise a second crop due to unreliability of water supply from the canal, so the pond had some water in it. Velan and two others requested permission to pump the water into their fields in order to save their paddy crop. The others had holdings larger than Velan and Chelli’s, and were also in a better economic position. Amongst them, Chentamarakshan owned two acres of land. The trio decided to hire an oil engine and buy some kerosene. Chelli’s land was located furthest from the pond, so the other two fields had to be irrigated before hers could be. Since the level of water in the pond had receded, they had to dig a pit in the pond bed and then pump up the water. Sixty-year-old Velan was made to do all the manual work while Chentamarakshan supervised.

Chentamarakshan made fun of the one small bottle of kerosene that Velan had brought from home as his contribution; he did not have any money to share the cost of hiring the oil engine or buying pump fuel. When I met Velan a few days later, at his home, he told me that he was made to do the manual work as he was unable to contribute in terms of money. He mentioned sadly that the small bottle of kerosene had been all that was left of the cooking fuel at home. Despite pumping out the water, they could not fully save the crop. Velan and Chelli finally got three sacks of grain from their field.

The outcome of poor quality land and denial of access to water is aggravated in the case of single women farmers. All the single women I met were widows, raising children on their own.

I first saw Bhargavi, an agricultural labourer and small farmer, at a small grocery shop. I was struck by the way she was buying groceries for her family. She bought 200 grams of sugar, Rs 2 worth of tea leaves, and two biscuits. She then bought 50 grams of lentils, half a coconut, cooking oil in a 100 ml bottle, and a few drumsticks which were not fresh and as a result she got them at a reduced price. Small grocery shops like these are intended for poor agricultural labourers who can buy stuff only in very small quantities. It was extremely revealing to observe the purchases that took place at that shop. Despite relatively high agricultural wages in Kerala, this is the plight of the labourers here.

Bhargavi, a widowed mother of six, cultivates the 85 cents of land that her husband purchased from a large landowner about 20 years ago, with savings from his job as a toddy tapper. They were not, however, given water rights to the pond near which the land is located at the time of purchase. This is common when large landowners sell a portion of their holdings. Very often, the remaining land is owned by other members of the family; giving a share of water to the buyer of the land would reduce the total amount of water available to them. While many buyers insist that they be given water rights too, small farmers, who are also agricultural labourers, are unable to insist on this. Bhargavi and her husband bought the land nevertheless, assuming that water supplied through the canals would be sufficient. Today she relies on Mohanan, who owns one of the bigger shares of water in the pond. She sustains her family with the wages she earns as an agricultural labourer.

She used to raise cows so that the milk generated some income and milk for the family. But she was forced to sell them as she could not look after them.

When I met Bhargavi, she was just back from a long day’s work. Life is a continuous cycle of taking and repaying loans, she says. She normally resorts to borrowing money from the rice mill owner, to whom she sells her grain after harvest.

Kerala is a state that is known for its high levels of social development, literacy, education, and labour rights. How then does one explain Bhargavi and Velan’s plight? How does one explain the continuous struggle they face? While there are no simple solutions to their problems, availability of cultivable land and fair access to water would enable many to at least grow food for home consumption. If nothing else, it would meet the nutritional requirements of growing children in their families.

Sixty-year-old Aiyan’s situation illustrates this. Aiyan’s family has been living here since his grandfather’s time. They were primarily agricultural labourers, but they also owned some land. Aiyan inherited a small piece of land by the side of the Varayiri stream, a tributary of the Gayatri river. He has raised coconut, areca nut, papaya, jackfruit and vegetables on this land. He owns an oil engine and is able to pump water from the stream for the vegetables. Aiyan would take land on lease to grow paddy for his family’s needs. When he did this, he tried to ensure that the land had some access to water.

Three years ago Aiyan borrowed money to buy a small piece of land to raise paddy. Since his children are educated they are not inclined to work as agricultural labourers themselves, but they do all the work in their own fields. The land is located a little away from the stream, from which Aiyan is able to take water. He says they no longer have to buy rice from the market. Jackfruit, papaya and a limited supply of vegetables supplement the family’s food requirements.

Forty years after the implementation of land reforms in Kerala, inequities in landholding patterns persist. Overlooking the dimension of water rights and water scarcity while redistributing land has led to a situation where the landed have retained the most fertile lands and continue to enjoy exclusive access to water stored in ponds. The conceptualisation of ponds and wells as the property of the concerned landowner has meant that the landed have access to private water sources while small and marginalised farmers do not. Desperate after repeated crop losses, many farmers voiced the demand that ponds be viewed and treated as common property; that restrictions be placed on the quantum of water extracted from ponds. Water (and perhaps land too) will need to come into the common domain. That will be the focus of my next article.

(Jyothi Krishnan is a researcher on natural resource management and is presently Research Associate with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai and Team Leader for the MGNREGA Evaluation Project in Kerala. This is the second in her series on Kerala’s traditional ponds, researched as part of the FES-Infochange Media Fellowships 2010)

Infochange News & Features, November 2010

1 Potta is the term used to refer to shallow ponds located on the higher slopes, which retain less water but enable water percolation. Their role in direct irrigation is minimal
2 Cultivable land in general is classified as parambu and padam. Parambu land is located on the higher slopes, partly occupied by houses and a wide mix of trees. About 30-40 years ago, parambu lands exhibited a high level of tree diversity. They were also used for cultivation of dry crops. Padam refers to paddy land on the lower slopes and valley bottoms