The dreams of a water warrior


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Vilasrao Salunkhe, best known for his founding of the Pani Panchayat model of equitable water distribution in Maharashtra, passed away on 23 April 2002 of a massive heart attack. One by one, his friends around the world are coming to terms with his loss. When environmentalists are eulogized, it is often by those who have known them longest, fought beside them and revelled in well-earned victories. I, honestly, did not have that privilege. On these pages, I commemorate a man whom I knew for the briefest of times. Yet, his vision dominates my understanding of how circumstances can and do change, and why we must invest in our shared human capacity for justice.

Within our present focus on pathways of ‘new environmentalism’, Vilasrao Salunkhe’s affirmations that technology design can embed principles of social equity, resource redistribution and participatory planning presents us with an interesting set of ideas to reflect upon and rally around. Moreover, the broader Maharashtra water equity movement, with its roots in the Pani Panchayat model, opens up a new frontier in Indian environmentalism where collective resistance and alternative development strategies are hand-in-hand compelling bureaucratic reform.

In this essay, I reflect upon the lessons that can be learnt from Vilasrao’s efforts at changing the rural landscape toward ecological and social sustainability. I also extend these ideas to the theoretical scale by suggesting methods by which social movements can better engage in the process and prospect of democratic technology design.



The world renowned Pani Panchayat model of water distribution began with Vilasrao Salunkhe’s efforts at combatting drought in Naigon village in Purandhar tehsil after the devastating Maharashtra drought of 1972. Evolving from Salunkhe’s work at Naigon, five main principles guide water rights and access in Pani Panchayat schemes: water is granted on a per capita basis equivalent to half an acre per person; irrigation is intended for seasonal water conserving crops; irrigation rights are extended to landless persons; water is held as an unalienable community right unattached to a parcel of land; and lastly, 20 per cent of irrigation costs are borne by community members as cash contributions. Beginning with one project in 1972, the Pani Panchayat model currently operates in 52 irrigation projects in 25 villages in Maharashtra. Pani Panchayat organizing is coordinated by an NGO trust called the Gram Gaurav Pratisthan.

When Vilasrao welcomed me into his home in Pune for the first time, I was nervous to meet the man whose development efforts had heralded such international repute. As we sat down to discuss his life’s work and visions for the future, he said to me with a modest, yet enthusiastic, grin, ‘It is so interesting that you want to study the equitable distribution of water. How did this become your interest?’ Having faced deeply entrenched male chauvinism and technical elitism in my interviews on irrigation development, I found it so refreshing to meet an engineer, especially of Salunkhe’s stature, who intently reflected on my ideas about participatory development and bureaucratic reform.



In addition to providing moral support to a young researcher, Vilasrao opened his work to my ethnographic gaze. In 2001, he invited me on several occasions to join his meetings and tours with government and NGO officials interested in learning about Pani Panchayat successes. One afternoon, I travelled with a coterie of government officers to Mahur village, one of Pani Panchayat’s crowning achievements, to dialogue with villagers about cooperative water harvesting efforts.

Looking out onto an irrigation tank with water in the dry month of March, we listened to farmers explain how their lift irrigation scheme had been designed through community input and the social and economic transformations they had experienced as a result of adopting the Pani Panchayat model. On our return to Pune, several of the engineers argued, in the belied privacy of their Tata Sumo, that Mahur was an isolated and unreplicable example of equity in action.

The rounds of interviews I conducted with irrigation agency executives yielded similar results. In my notes, I recorded emphatic claims that Vilasrao was a fanatic, a dreamer and most unreasonable concerning his position on water equity. One high-ranking irrigation engineer said to me, ‘Nowhere in the world is water shared equitably – why should Maharashtra be the exception.’

To Vilasrao’s credit his achievements on the ground have impressed some politicians – though often outside of Maharashtra. Before his untimely death, Vilasrao Salunkhe served as an official advisor to the Andhra Pradesh chief minister’s water conservation mission. In this capacity, he was helping to design a government-sponsored version of the Pani Panchayat system to irrigate 900 hectares for 400 families in Khammam district. Vilasrao had been facilitating information exchanges by bringing Pani Panchayat farmers from Maharashtra to visit villages in Andhra.



While bureaucrats often cite faults with the utopian idealism of the Pani Panchayat model, through my interactions with Vilasrao and his colleagues, I have been particularly impressed by the cognitive links between technology and equity that are manifest in the Maharashtrian water redistribution movement. Recent examples from these Maharashtra efforts illustrate that a pivotal mode for environmental organizing in India will be to innovatively mobilize social movement theory to address the democratic design of technology. An important part of this project is to bring the academic fields of political ecology and science and technology studies into constructive engagement.

The field of political ecology has been home to social movement scholars interested in studying the structural dynamics of poverty, underdevelopment, and environmental equity through the examination of the government/civil society interface. While social movement theory aims to provide detailed understandings about the how, why and what of environmental resistance, the politics around technical decision-making, such as the design of infrastructure projects, is often simply expressed in terms of societal impacts, rather than the conceptual potential for sustainable and participatory design.



The field of science and technology studies (STS), with its intellectual roots in the sociology of scientific knowledge tradition (SSK) in Europe, provides some interesting insights into mapping the social processes around the design and negotiation of technology. Analytical concerns in STS theory include the study of local and traditional knowledge systems, accountable scientific expertise and the mobilization of citizen science. While STS research efforts have predominantly focused on American and European examples, there is great potential to bring these theoretical insights to bear on natural resource struggles in the developing world.

While the topical concerns of STS and political ecology are often disparate, there are many methodological and analytical areas of overlap. By integrating these fields, a STS approach for examining micro-level technical decision-making can be combined with the macro-institutional concerns of political ecology to study how participatory technology development can impact livelihood struggles. Environmental movements in India can productively deploy the broader scholarship that is developing in American and European STS programmes on democratic technology design. By embracing this integrated perspective, alternative development models can be explored that transcend expert dominated technological development in favour of more community based approaches at enabling environmental equity.

The water redistribution movement in Maharashtra, based in NGO initiatives for participatory technology development, offers an opportunity to develop a richer understanding of how an expanded STS programme can come together with political ecology concerns. Before his death, Vilasrao Salunkhe was involved in orchestrating the Maharashtra State Equitable Water Distribution Council. As a broad coalition of technical NGOs, social movement organizations and legal and political actors, this council has been opposing technocratic elitism by reconstituting a role for community-based research in the design and planning of irrigation projects.

Working simultaneously at the scales of collective resistance and the sculpting of technical alternatives, NGOs affiliated with this movement have opened up the black box of water technology to map out the cognitive disconnects between how irrigation is and can be designed. One important example of this work has been the redesign of the Chikotra irrigation project in Kohlapur district.



Since 2000, Vilasrao Salunkhe had invested his energies on reforming an irrigation project in Maharashtra that would make a mark. Building on his two decades of research and activism on water equity in Maharashtra, Salunkhe believed that the government’s Chikotra Valley irrigation project could be redesigned into India’s first example of river basin scale water equity. A closer look at this project demonstrates how alternative technical designs can be guided by a sophisticated toolbox of participatory research techniques, like on-farm agroecological research and community resource mapping, to embed locally derived needs and demands into watershed development planning.



In 2001, a medium size dam was constructed by the Maharashtra Krishna Valley Development Corporation on the Chikotra river, a tributary of the Vedganga, to increase irrigation infrastructure in Kohlapur district. With a 60 metre tall main dam storing 38 million cubic metres of water, this irrigation project was to serve a command area of 27 villages. The water distribution system for this project consisted of 25 intermittent weirs downstream of the main dam. In theory, farmers in the benefit zone would be granted permits by the agency to sink pumps at weir sites and lift water to their fields. The project had a submergence zone of 317 hectares from five villages.

As is the case with almost every dam under construction in India, the Chikotra project elicited vehement public opposition. In addition to resettlement issues, local objection to this project focused on the poor technical design of the irrigation system and limited project benefits. The social movement, advocating for a project redesign, was led by Anandrao Patil of the Shram Shakti Pratisthan in Kohlapur and Vilasrao Salunkhe of the Gram Gaurav Pratisthan. Technical assistance was also provided by several engineers from the Pune based NGO, the Society for Promoting Participative Ecosystem Management (SOPPECOM). These NGOs argued that, by design, the government project benefited only half of the water scarce villages in the basin. In addition, the Chikotra scheme narrowly focused on surface water for irrigation, rather than integrating ground water and domestic needs into water demand calculations.

Under the banner ‘Water for All’, these NGOs have led the design of an alternative basin development plan which provides all 52 villages in the Chikotra Valley with equal access to water. After two years of agricultural and hydrological investigations, formation of water users cooperative associations in every village and detailed community consultations, the final alternative plan provides an assured supply of water for every family in the basin for irrigation and domestic needs. This plan combines reservoir storage from the main dam with water conservation projects and lift irrigation schemes throughout the extended command area. Water distribution will be managed by users cooperatives, with participatory resource mapping and watershed planning guiding ecological regeneration and sustainable agricultural development.



In January 2002, in response to the alternative proposal that was submitted to the irrigation agency, the Maharashtra chief minister pledged his support for the redesigned Chikotra project. The irrigation agency was directed by the CM to conduct a feasibility study regarding project implementation. The agency reported back that while in theory there was enough water available in the Chikotra Valley to provide every family with water, the government should not set a precedent in Maharashtra by financing state subsidization of lift irrigation or agreeing to a principle of equitable access where even landless people are entitled to water.

As a result of this administrative footdragging, formal affidavits were presented to the agency from each gram panchayat in the Chikotra Valley signalling widespread support for a Pani Panchayat based notion of water equity. In addition, since March 2002, Chikotra Valley residents have taken to the streets of Mumbai with sit-ins and protests to draw attention to their proposal. The lack of administrative action on the Chikotra alternative plan led Salunkhe to argue to me that ‘the whole mindset of politicians and bureaucrats in the irrigation department is such that they have no understanding of what has been achieved through Pani Panchayat social equity projects.’



Based on Pani Panchayat efforts over the last 20 years, as well as other well-known examples from drought prone rural Maharashtra such as Ralegaon Siddhi and Hiware Bazar, it has been well established that participatory watershed planning can yield transformative social and economic effects for rural societies. To scale up these experiences beyond a single village, it is crucial to distil specific technical design principles from these projects. Herein, it will be vital for social movement scholars to integrate approaches from science and technology studies toward analyzing democratic technology design.

This integrated perspective will help articulate the answers to three key questions: how are values, like equity and access, embedded in technical design? Which social mobilization techniques enable knowledge-making and knowledge-sharing? And lastly, what role should institutions of mediation, like technical NGOs, play in negotiating alternlíives? In the end, nothing will do more justice to Vilasrao Salunkhe’s memory than to actualize a basic level of water equity in India. Beyond the scope of the Chikotra project, this means reinvesting in the importance of social equity and valuing water as the lifeblood of agrarian society.



* I would like to thank Rohan D’Souza and Ravi Rajan for encouraging me to write this piece. The research I reference in this essay is part of a larger effort to understand the historical and contemporary features of the Maharashtra water equity movement. Toward this project, I am particularly indebted to K.J. Joy, Anandrao Patil, and Vilasrao Salunkhe for their sustained help. This research has received generous support from the American Institute for Indian Studies, the International Water Management Institute, the US National Science Foundation and the University of California.