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Conservation and Society
An interdisciplinary journal exploring linkages between society, environment and development
Conservation and Society
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Year : 2006  |  Volume : 4  |  Issue : 2  |  Page : 353-355

The Kuhls of Kangra: Community-Managed Irrigation in the Western Himalaya

Associate Professor, Agricultural and Natural Resources Economics, School of Environment, Resources and Development, Asian Institute of Technology, P.O. Box 4, Klong Luang, Pathumthani 12120, Thailand

Correspondence Address:
Ganesh P Shivakoti
Associate Professor, Agricultural and Natural Resources Economics, School of Environment, Resources and Development, Asian Institute of Technology, P.O. Box 4, Klong Luang, Pathumthani 12120
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

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Date of Web Publication26-Jun-2009

How to cite this article:
Shivakoti GP. The Kuhls of Kangra: Community-Managed Irrigation in the Western Himalaya. Conservat Soc 2006;4:353-5

How to cite this URL:
Shivakoti GP. The Kuhls of Kangra: Community-Managed Irrigation in the Western Himalaya. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2006 [cited 2020 Jul 7];4:353-5. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2006/4/2/353/55802

J. Mark Baker, The Kuhls of Kangra: Community-Managed Irrigation in the Western Himalaya, Permanent Black, Delhi and Ranikhet, India, 2005, 271+xiii pages, Rs. 695. ISBN 81-7824-135-8.

Irrigation is receiving worldwide attention owing to the competing uses and users of water resources. Innovations in agricultural technology, particularly the release of high yielding crop varieties have brought down the prices of agricultural commodities making investment in irrigation difficult to justify. In addition, dramatic shifts in information and communication technology are increasingly attracting farm labour not only away from the collective maintenance of irrigation systems but also from farming itself. However, the importance of irrigation systems is getting prominence due to increasing demand for food to feed the growing populations and considering the environmental concerns over pressure on farming in the marginal lands and the hazards associated with such actions.

The book written by Mark Baker is an attempt towards analysing the sustenance of irrigation systems in relation to continuing stresses in light of various theories. In fact, having been worked on with a huge amount of rare historical information, this book is a milestone effort. The author has tirelessly immersed into the bundles of old records of Indian public institutions wrapped in cloth and liberally coated with the dust of decades for digging into the historical perspectives of irrigation systems in the Western Himalaya of India.

The book begins with the historical background of the centuries old collectively built and maintained community-managed gravity flow irrigation systems popularly known as kuhl in the Kangra Valley of India's Western Himalaya. After an overview of the location of the Kangra Valley and an explanation of what kuhls are and what they do, the author describes the situation before independence in which the kuhls were found to have been supplying the community not only water for irrigation and domestic use but also hydropower for flour mills and turning pottery wheels. After independence, this was virtually reduced due to the availability of rural electrification and the widespread installation of piped water among these communities.

The kuhls provided irrigation water in two peak periods of dependence, the first during the preparation of land and the second for sowing and sustaining crops. The great majority of kuhls in Kangra were constructed by loosely but intricately organised collectivites of farmers or were sponsored by local elites, a few were constructed by members of the pre-colonial ruling Katoch lineage during the late seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. At least by the beginning of British colonial rule in Kangra in 1850, local communities were responsible for managing and repairing all the kuhls. Over time, collective action has been in jeopardy due to increasing non-farm employment and frequent destruction of the kuhls by floods and earthquakes. It has become a threat not only to the management of irrigation systems but also to farming as a whole. The author illustrates varying degrees of solutions adopted by the communities in response to such stresses. In the majority of kuhl regimes, the Kohli (water master) supervises the annual cycle of management of repairs, mobilises the communal work parties necessary for maintaining and repairing the kuhls, supervises the conveyance and distribution of water within the kuhls, resolves conflicts between farmers over water use, and performs the religious ceremonies associated with kuhl management. The author positions kuhl regimes in the broader context of irrigation and of common property resource (CPR) management while framing the question as to why and how have kuhl regimes managed to maintain their physical and institutional integrity despite destructive environmental disturbances and unprecedented rates of regional socio-economic changes. However, the organisational forms that have evolved to accomplish the common tasks of water management and the construction, maintenance and operation of physical structures associated with water use have varied widely.

Scholars interested in CPR regimes have long focused on self-organising, community-based irrigation systems similar to that of most irrigation systems of Nepal but their theories cannot entirely account for the durability of common property regimes under the extreme conditions of ecological stress, economic change, and social differentiation that exist in Kangra. Prevailing theories of CPR management suggest that such conditions should cause the kuhls to die out but most have been transformed and remain alive and well. Baker adds new dimensions to such theories by reaching beyond them to incorporate 'exogenous' factors such as the roles state-making practices play in CPR regimes, the importance of networks in buffering individual resource regimes from environmental stress, and the ways in which regimes are sites for reproducing and occasionally contesting the relations that constitute place and region. In doing so, the author advances a new way of thinking about community- based systems of resource management-a timely subject given recent trends in many countries toward the devolution of authority over natural resource management from government to rural communities. The comprehensive explanation offered by the author of the coping mechanisms being adopted for the robustness of the kuhls of Kangra include rational choice, social networks, state formations, regionality, and theories of common property resource management.

Absence of other source of water for irrigation and the continuing dependence on kuhls for irrigation together with their location in hilly areas precluding the extensive cultivation and large scale, state-sponsored canal irrigation systems and massive capital investments, social engineering, bureaucratic technocracy and other state simplifications they entail were some of the reasons quoted for the persistence of kuhls in Kangra. Into his explanatory framework the author incorporates the history of regional politics and economics as they affected the kuhls during the pre-colonial, colonial, and the post-colonial periods, the role of state involvement in kuhl construction and management, the benefits of exchanges of labour and water among members of the networked kuhls, and the ways in which kuhl systems are embedded in and reproduce core cultural beliefs and practices.

This book is a milestone in the field of anthropology of irrigation with the case study of Indian irrigation systems and offers an incisive and exemplary assessment of CPR theory. Mark Baker's work adds a vital new dimension to such theories and represents a major contribution to this area of scholarship. Thus, the book is a valuable treasure for development practitioners, policy makers and academicians who are involved in the development and management of CPRs and seeking solutions to problems related to CPRs.


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