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Conservation and Society
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Conservation and Society
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Year : 2004  |  Volume : 2  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 201-204

Book Review 2

Samaj Pragati Sahayog, Bagli District Dewas 455 227, Madhya Pradesh, India

Correspondence Address:
Mihir Shah
Samaj Pragati Sahayog, Bagli District Dewas 455 227, Madhya Pradesh
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Date of Web Publication18-Jul-2009

How to cite this article:
Shah M. Book Review 2. Conservat Soc 2004;2:201-4

How to cite this URL:
Shah M. Book Review 2. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2004 [cited 2020 Aug 11];2:201-4. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2004/2/1/201/55831

David Mosse, The Rule of Water: Statecraft, Ecology and Collective Action in South India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003, 337 pp., Rs 675. ISBN: 019-566137-0.

David Mosse spent a year and a half in a village in the drought-prone Ramnad district of southern Tamil Nadu in the early 1980s, doing fieldwork for his doctoral thesis on caste, Christianity and Hinduism. Five years later he returned to the area, planning drought relief for a British charity. He was back again in 1993 to work on the study under review.

In the words of the author, The Rule of Water is immodest in the issues it raises. It concerns the manner in which social and political organisation has been influenced by ecology of water flows; the way in which landscapes have, in turn, been engineered and inscribed by technical vision and political exigency; and in particular, it considers the social institutions through which water is controlled and regulated. (p. 1)

This is done through an intensive study of tank-irrigated agriculture in two villages of the coastal plains of Ramnad, supplemented by a more loosely structured survey of eighty-nine interconnected tanks in seventy-nine villages. The author also traces the transformation of this system of tank irrigation in marginal, non-riverine south India from its advent in the mid-fourteenth century up to the coming of the British in the late eighteenth century, mainly through a review of the work done or inspired by Stein, Ludden and Dirks. This is followed by an examination of its fate in the colonial era and the state the system is in today, investigating the nature of both grassroots collective action and policy initiatives of the post-colonial period.

Mosse follows Marx in understanding the natural world as 'humanised nature', providing a record of the labour and history that shaped it. He shows how tank systems have historically been shaped by constantly changing political interests, connections and constituencies. This is reflected in the layout of drainage networks, positioning of channels, how rivers are dammed and diverted, and so on. Conversely, following Leach.s classic case study of Pul Eliya, he recognises that the organisation of society and polity are, in turn, deeply influenced by 'elementary facts of ecology' and the demands of the system of water flows and tanks. The length of growing seasons, seasonality in demand for labour and the attempt to cope with the uncertainty of agriculture shape village-level strategies of patronage, alliances and accumulation of honour. Distribution and rationing of water during droughts, regulation of water rights and settlement of disputes, investments for maintenance and repair of tanks, supra-village interlinking of tanks-all these place unique demands on the social system. Mosse argues that these do not lead à la Wittfogel to any particular form of governance. Rather, as Ludden has shown, specificities of culture and history play a critical mediating role in determining forms of agrarian organisation that exhibit great diversity across regions.

Mosse debunks the romanticised notion of an equilibrated, unchanging, harmonious system of tank irrigation, only disrupted by the advent of colonial rule. This is the kind of history many recent proponents of the .revival. of this system have tended to propagate. Mosse shows how in the drylands of south India systems of tank irrigation have always been subject to pervasive uncertainty, disharmony and vulnerability. He argues that this called for massive investments in maintenance and repair that were quite beyond the financial capabilities of the village and were not always forthcoming, even from the pre-colonial ruling elite. Mosse suggests that the coming of the British only continued this neglect, though it clearly appears from his own descriptions that they did aggravate it.

Mosse successfully punches holes into Robert Wade's influential work on 'economic conditions for collective action in south India'. His findings tally with Wade's general thesis 'that collective action is predicted in commons situations where joint use and subtractive benefits are coupled with scarcity' (p. 229). But he goes on to show that merely looking at the internal structure of economic incentives among communities of users is not enough to explain variations in tank institutions. Mosse shows that the agricultural and social changes of late nineteenth and twentieth centuries had a very different impact on water management institutions across different ecological regions. He uses an indigenously developed classification of villages into mankalanatu (sandy soil, wetland paddy in upper catchment areas) and karicalkattu (black cotton soil, dryland cultivation in lower parts of the catchment) to understand these variations. He draws on E.V. Daniel's work to suggest that 'in Tamil conceptions soil is a medium through which social identity is moulded and transformed. Soil has person-centred as well as ecological characteristics and its qualities affect the quality of those persons living from it' (p. 237).

Mosse shows that external interests in tank-irrigated paddy cultivation were neither uniform nor stable, depending as they did on local histories of grants and leases and dispersal of land and water. From the diffuse authority of zamindars mediated through the local Maravar headmen to the more direct authority of beneficiaries (temples/Chettiar bankers) of gifted/leased tanks and villages, these variations in political economy had a direct bearing on water management systems.

While his emphasis on the need to recognise the role of supra-village elite is well taken, Mosse shows a surprising ignorance of the massive evidence in ancient texts, inscriptional material and British records of what has been described as the 'kaniatchi agrarian system' that prevailed even in pre-colonial Ramnad. Shah (1984) decisively demolishes any egalitarian characterisation of this system. I prefer to describe it as a form of 'collective landlordism' wherein the dalits were completely excluded from land rights. Without an appreciation of the intricate details of this system it is impossible to understand either pre-colonial distribution of water or the trajectory of tank irrigation under colonial rule and after. This is probably why Mosse goes to great lengths in chapter 8 to try and prove that the institution of kudimaramat (tank repairs by villagers) was largely an invention of the discourse of colonial administrators. It is one thing to de-romanticise notions of self-sufficient and egalitarian village communities (of which there is, in any case, a well-established lineage among historians for at least the last forty years after Irfan Habib), but quite another to deny the existence of village-level traditions and institutions. Kudimaramat was a well-established village institution in precolonial south India, even if it may not have been egalitarian, for it reflected the severe inequities and disabilities that dalits had for centuries been subject to. Its decline is part, though not the complete story, of the accelerated decline in tank irrigation in south India over the last 200 years. There is no doubt that risk and uncertainty are as old as Indian agriculture itself, but Mosse takes one.s breath away with his gratuitous claim that 'there is nothing to suggest that in the southern tank-irrigated plains the situation has ever been any different' (p. 298).

Mosse is a scholar clearly influenced by Clifford Geertz and evidently in favour of Pierre Bourdieu's dynamic/contested notion of 'symbolic capital' rather than Robert Putnam's currently fashionable, static/consensual idea of 'social capital'. It is, therefore, again disconcerting to read from Mosse that 'tanks and temples are both institutionalized responses to collectively experienced and ecologicaldetermined risk' (p. 5). Theorists must always beware of crossing the limits of their 'immodesty', even when self-professed, especially in trying to fathom the depths of experiences such as the religious.

This may, of course, be excused as an excess not quite central to Mosse's thesis and a result probably of loosely getting carried away with an idea. Much more serious, however, is the impossibility of squaring his own field observations presented in chapter 9 with the framework of collective action presented in chapter 1. It is clear that the dalit-Mudaliar caste-cum-class conflicts he describes over Water User's Associations (WUAs) in the villages of present-day Ramnad cannot quite be reconciled with his view of farmers as 'rational optimisers'. Apparently, Mosse believes that common property use is 'the product of individual strategy and rational choice' (p. 21). But surely the struggle between increasingly militant dalits and rich Mudaliar farmers, reported from all over contemporary Tamil Nadu, cannot be viewed as benign games being played by rational, optimising individuals. Mosse provides a fascinating account of how the dalits are confronting the Mudaliars on a number of counts.membership of the WUA executive, bargaining for higher wages, inequity in water distribution, as also their growing refusal to provide 'customary' public services and labour obligations. In each of these instances, the dalits spoke not as individuals but as members of the dalit community and also as landless labourers or marginal farmers at the tailend of the irrigation distributary. And what they were questioning was their position in the old moral economy as members of dalit castes. This is a caste.class struggle at a microlocation, best understood in terms of actions by historically formed collectives, not isolated individuals. Theoretical tools of serious scholars must be constantly reshaped by the details of the reality they observe. Otherwise they risk becoming irrelevant.[1]

   References Top

1.Shah, M. (1984), .Capitalist Development and the Transformation of Agrarian Relations in Chingleput District, 1780.1983., unpublished Ph.D. dissertation. New Delhi: Jawaharlal Nehru University.  Back to cited text no. 1      


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