Like Bengaluru's lakes, the Neerghantis are disappearing
For centuries, Neerghantis oversaw an ancient system of irrigation, but the rise of the borewell has radically changed their way of life
Neerghanti Narasimhaiah is among the last of a disappearing breed of people who made a living working on an ancient system of irrigation. Now, as their environment has changed, the Neerghantis find that their ways of life have changed as well.
It has been 10 years since it really rained in Doddaballapur, a rural Bengaluru taluk, says Narasimhaiah. “And at least 10 years since there was a kodi,” he adds.
A kodi refers to when a lake or tank begins to overflow during the rains. The system of tanks is set up such that the water from a full tank during a kodi will flow into a specific canal that leads to yet another tank, protecting the land and the crops around it.
Back when Narasimhaiah first started operating the irrigation mechanism, there used to be a kodi every year. Then it became once in three years. And now, it doesn’t happen at all.
His job was to operate the sluice gates of a lake in Doddaballapur. It was a livelihood and a part of a way of life that was integral to much of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and other parts of peninsular India’s Deccan plateau—a geography that has few rivers each of which are the subject of political contests.
It was the traditional job of the Neerghantis to operate the sluice gates of man-made tanks, of which there were perhaps as many as 208,000 in India, depending on which research paper you chose to believe (the figure here is based on this 2007 paper). These tanks functioned as reservoirs irrigating crops that grew on the other side of a restraining embankment. It is on this embankment that the Neerghantis plied their trade.
City historians say that the lakes of Bengaluru were once part of these networks of man-made tanks that enabled local agriculture. But as the nature of human settlements and livelihoods changed, these tanks turned into lakes.
There are a lot of separate but interconnected threads to the story.
At the base of it all is the fact that Bengaluru’s lakes are essentially man-made tanks of water originally meant to be used to irrigate fields, according to Rohan D’Souza, a researcher formerly with the city’s National Institute of Advanced Studies.
At one level it is an environment story, as the once plentiful lakes of the city have been encroached upon by both government agencies and realtors.
It is also a story of antiquated property laws in India that allow died up lakes and river beds to be sold with impunity.
It is also a humanitarian story: houses on these lake beds or canals are pulled down by the government after deeming them illegal.
It is also a livelihood story—the changing world has made some jobs almost irrelevant as lakes have gone from being water providers for irrigation to mere showpieces for urban India.
“With the advent of the borewell, tanks became irrelevant to farming. When the tanks became irrelevant, the Neerghantis lost their way of life,” said Sharachandra Lele, a senior fellow at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment.
Watchmen of tanks
Narasimhaiah says he is 95, although there is no way of knowing for sure. A lot of what he says doesn’t have any documentary proof supporting it. There is, in fact, little mention in modern times of the Neerghantis except in relation to tank-fed irrigation in India. And even those are scanty.
There are come colonial records. Such as B.L. Rice’s Mysore: A Gazetteer, in which the Neerghanti group was described as a hereditary “watchmen of the tanks”.
In another place in the Gazetteer published in 1897, Rice mentions that the “nirghanty distributes the water of the streams in just proportion to the several fields”.
N. Govardhan, a Janata Dal (Secular) candidate in 2013’s state election, is a Neerghanti himself, although neither he nor his father has worked as a waterman. But his uncles have, and Govardhan accompanied them when he was a child, he recalls. He has written a book in Kannada about the community and says a Neerghanti is a kind of hereditary village officer that belongs to the Holeya caste.
The Holeyas were the people who worked the fields of Karnataka or the hola, a field where crops were cultivated. The Holeyas are one of 101 so-called Scheduled Caste communities listed by the Karnataka government. In total, there are 308 castes listed in the schedule of classes considered backward in the four main southern states. Many, such as the Holeya caste, appear in more than one state list.
In a report titled Learning from Traditional Social Institutions, the authors, S.T.S. Reddy, N.V. Hiremath, Raja Mohammed and Ashok Alur, say that there are usually three or four Scheduled Caste families in a village and all the families arrange with each other to perform year-long stints in essential village jobs: village guard, the guard of the village headman and the Neerghanti.
In return, individual farmers allowed Neerghantis such as Narasimhaiah to harvest all the crop that grew within the radius of the six-foot cane.
… and the ‘thoob’
Narasimhaiah is happy to take me to what is called the “thoob”, a stone contraption that looks like a door frame standing half in and half out of water. Running through the top of the frame is a horizontal metal rod connected to a submerged sluice gate. The rod is use to raise the sluice gate, releasing the tank’s water, which would then rush through a system of canals running through individual fields.
On a piece of paper, Govardhan sketches a rough diagram of a thoob. He draws a metal rod that is usually sticking out of the waters of the lake against the embankment. The metal rod is connected to a sort of wooden plate covering a hole in the embankment. In Govardhan’s diagram, there is another, lower hole in the embankment near the tank bed.
This hole, which is usually opened only when the water levels in the lake fall below the first opening, is covered with a large clod of soil and straw that is called “the pig’s head”, or the handhi tale in Kannada. This handhi tale is opened by the simple expedient of a Neerghanti holding his breath, diving under water and wrestling it out of the hole.
The decline in tanks as a source of irrigation in India can perhaps best be explained by this statistic published by the government: The Agricultural Census of 1970-71 notes that tanks accounted for 12.1% of the total area under irrigation of 29 million hectares. Canals, back then, were the most popular (41.8%), while tubewells only irrigated 17% of the land.
By 2010, tubewells were irrigating nearly half the total irrigated area and the tanks’ share in the net irrigated area had dropped to about 3.48% of the total.
But, if the lakes cannot be used as irrigation tanks anymore, why create such a ruckus when they become real estate?
Harini Nagendra, a professor of sustainability at the Azim Premji University, says the lakes are important because they provide an outlet for floodwaters: “In cities, lakes are needed to harvest and replenish groundwater, and drainage channels must be clear to prevent flooding,” she says.
“The south-west monsoons appear to be starting later and later, so the amount of water that comes in may be reducing. In addition, when water comes in, it is not able to flow into lakes because of the disruption and blockage of the storm water channels—so the lakes don’t get filled, instead the city floods,” she adds. So we get lots of water when we don’t want it, and little when we do.
The Neerghantis and caste
“The Neerghantis,” says Jogan Shankar, the vice-chancellor of Kuvempu University, “were village-level officers from before there were statutory officers appointed by the government.”
“The work that the Neerghantis used to do was considered prestigious and important at the village level. He had the authority on deciding the quantum of water to be provided to different kinds of lands below that lake,” adds Shankar.
But that way of life has vanished and so has any presumed importance they felt to the village economy. Leaving only the stigma associated with their lower caste, says Hita Unnikrishnan, a post-doctoral fellow at Azim Premji University.
The changing times show in Narasimhaiah’s life—he currently grazes two cows for a living.
He has three sons and three daughters. None of them are in this business anymore. Things were a lot better in his younger days, he muses. The lake was bigger. And there were a lot more fields, most of which are fallow now, where people graze their cattle.
“No sir, every year it is getting worse. There is no help for us. They don’t care about people like us. (They) take votes. But nobody cares about us,” he says.
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