Pitchai stood atop the high earthen tank bund and stared intently at the dark scudding clouds. He watched the ragged patches gather slowly into a thick slate-grey darkness. Though it would be another hour before the clouds would pelt out rain, the earth smelt moist and ready. The tall stems of the palm trees on the bund swayed elegantly from side to side, even as their leaf blades splayed out wildly in the wind. The leaves of the jamun (1) trembled to the low rumble of thunder, the great shade-givers thrilling to the shade of the dark clouds.
Rain. As a traditional neerkatti (2) earthen tank filled up, he and other men from his caste of Pallars would have work for at least three months this rotational year, maybe four or five – operating the eight sluices, regulating water to the fields in the command area equitably, deciding on the number of wettings for the paddy crop or the choice of second and third crops based on the water available. He received no money for his work, but sacks of paddy from farmers in the ayacut(3) , the compensation calculated on the basis of I0 kg per acre per season. When there was no rain and an empty tank, he received nothing. No paddy, no payment on yields from other crops, nothing. For then there was no water for a water regulator to regulate equitably, and no crop to be grown using tank water. Well off farmers, who owned pump sets and bore wells, would mine water deep from the earth to aid crop survival, excluding neerkattis from any claims.
Rain or drought, the preparations for rain would be made regardless. Pitchai and the other neerkattis with assisting thottis would clear the supply and field channels for unbroken water flow, would mend the breaches in the tank bund, oil the sluice shutters and repair damaged sluices and surplus water weirs. So that when the rains came, the tanks could fill unhindered, and the work of his soul could begin. The alternative was money as wage labor in agriculture or construction, based on seasonal demand. Or wait for money from his migrant sons , a wait as erratic as the rains.
Pitchai stared at the tank bed with its water-spread area capable of irrigating two thousand hectares of land. Nearly one third of the command area fell under Pitchai's own village, the surplus water serving seven further tanks below in cascade effect. The supply channels came from the catchment area in the surrounding hills as also from diversions from the main canal. In his forty years as a neerkatti, Pitchai could never feast his eyes enough on the sight of a full tank touching the high watermark of the stone pillars that rose from its bed, the green rice fields stretching beyond the sluices as far as the eye could see. When younger, he would race about chasing cattle off the rice fields or, during shortage, study each field for its water needs. He would walk up and down the tank making sure every breach on the bund – from rat hole to damaged weir – was repaired so no precious water was wasted. But what could be done when there was no rain? As always, they would pray to the god of Vasimalai temple. And collect money from the rich to arrange for Madai Pongal to placate his displeasure.
Pitchai rested his hand against the swaying palm stem, its leaf blades upraised to the lashing wind. He watched neerkattis Madaipallar and Muthusamy – men from his own Dalit caste – walk towards him on the bund. Muthusamy must have just closed his sluice – its barrel embedded deep in the bund - as he carried the 40-kg sluice key on his shoulder. Their lean dark faces creased into smiles as the first northeastern monsoon rain fell hard on them. Moving to the shelter of a jamun tree, the men silently watched the rain come down in a straight sheet and plop heavily onto the empty tank bed. Come rain, come my goddess, said Pitchai to himself. Come.
His warm body hungrily absorbed the raindrops as they fell through the leaves. As always, his eyes turned to the supply channels. If it rained like this, even for a few days, jungle streams would form in the hills and the supply channels would be full. If it rained like this, the Vaigai River would swell and feed the canal and the canal the two feeder channels that led to the tank.
But his heart would not allow him to dream. Looking at the encroachments on the tank bed and on supply channels, a familiar fear gripped his heart. Five Dalit families – from the Sakkiliyar caste and from his own caste had built huts and cultivated fields of seasonal vegetables on the tank bed abutting the supply channel from the hill catchment, renting irrigation water from the neighboring bore wells of the higher caste Naidu brothers. The landless neerkattis had got priority for leasing the tank bed for growing grass when the tank was empty. But leasing had become encroachment, passing from months to years. This because five families of the highest caste landowners Sivaraman Iyer and his two brothers, Madhava Pillai and his nephew had illegally expanded not only their fields but also permanent dwellings in the foreshore area, obstructing water from one of the canal's major supply channels to the tank. Yet no warning from the village panchayat (4) had worked had worked, nor any action had been taken by the land revenue department.
When Muthusamy spoke, Pitchai knew his thoughts even though his voice was indistinct in the rain. "When farmers don't give labor for clearing the channels, we record this. But the maximum sanction the nattamai (5) when they steal water from the tank or from a neighbor's field, the most they are made to pay are the temple's annual electricity dues. What sanctions does the nattamai impose on encroachers?"
"Nothing", said Pitchai. "There is so much hunger for land. Even now when there are more small landowners than ever before. The panchayat members know this hunger. It is in each of us. So they do nothing."
Watching the rain dance and fill the upstream channels as they came down the hill, he added quietly: "This tank has lived for hundreds of years. It will die without its supply channels. We can de-silt the tank, fortify the bund, repair the sluices, clear the surplus courses. But what can we do when it rains and water cannot reach the tank?"
"The Naidus are renting their ground water to our encroaching caste men to keep their hold on them. This way they counter the spread of the upper caste Pillais and Iyers," said Muthusamy. "While we are more Pallars and Sakkiliyars in this village, it is the Naidus who have always dominated with their numbers - dominated even the few Pillai and Iyer families. They will always rule the panchayat – even now after we have more elected members. Once their encroachments begin, there will be no stopping them."
Madaipallar said with a chuckle, "The Naidus know how to keep people happy too. They wanted me to open the sluice at night so they could get more water than their share. When I refused, they left bottles of toddy at the mouth of their fields."
Pitchai knew that Madaipallar had not touched the toddy. Yet, because he had reported the Naidus' illegal demand, he was charged with being drunk by Narendar Naidu and fined a thousand rupees for being drunk on duty by the nattamai. Pitchai had seen worse. Farmers from his Dalit caste had been killed for letting water into their fields before the upper castes, their ancestral fields happening to be earlier in the pecking order as sluice waters moved into fields from head to tail-end. As he watched the rain slush into the mud brown of the tank bed, Pitchai felt the sting loosen from his memories. The sluices would open again and Madai Pongal would be celebrated to seek Goddess Mariamman's (6) protection for the village.
Within a year, the encroachments were insidiously extended. The Pillais and Iyers even dug bore wells on the tank bed to mark their power over water. Like every other ayacut farmer they used the tank's water when available. And like other bore well owners, had long ceased to care for the tank's upkeep or for the knowledge of the neerkattis.
Over forty years, Pitchai had seen people care less and less for the village and its resources. It was everyone…just everyone looking for his own gain. The big farmers were selling land to the landless or small farmers to avoid land reform laws, casting aside all caste barriers in the land transfer. Farming for the big landlords no longer meant profit, so more land was being left fallow or turned into orchards. Less water was needed so the tank was even less cared for. But what would happen when the tank dried out and no longer re-charged their expensive bore-wells, groundwater receding to depths of 300 feet? The neerkattis were already leaving their traditions, getting more from daily wages and minor agriculture than from earning sacks of rice as water regulators. They were getting their children educated; getting organized through their own caste panchayats.
Not so long ago, Pitchai had gloried in the respect enjoyed by his ancestors, the kavalkarars (7) who controlled the tank's assets in service of the zamindar (8) and king.They also measured out the produce of each farmer for tax as decided by their overlords. Exempt from paying taxes themselves and from all contributions towards temple construction and festivals, they were given acres of ayacut land by zamindars. They were treated like special people during festivals. Special people, muttered Pitchai under his breath. Special, said Pitchai aloud and spat.
He had never been able to speak before the upper castes in the panchayat meetings, neither now in the elected panchayat with all castes proportionally represented nor in the old panchayat where the upper castes held natural sway. Though elected President, Murugan from the Pallar caste always sat on the ground at meetings, while Narendar Naidu as Vice President sat on a chair.
At the last meet, Pitchai recalled, Naidu had sat with his characteristic archness on a large steel chair in the school compound. In an equally arch voice, he had announced: "We have got funds from the district office to get a pucca (9) road built along the length of the village. This will go inside the village too." Murugan had stirred, backed by the Pallars sitting packed against him, to say, "The road must be laid in the Dalit (10) Colony too."
"Yes. We will see, we will see. If the funds sanctioned are sufficient. We will see", Naidu had said and swiftly added, "The money from the tree usufructs(11) be used to repair the temple spire and the wall of the eastern tower. We will also use this money to entertain officials from the revenue department who are now objecting to our right to use our own usufruct revenue."
"What about the encroachments on the tank bed?" Murugan had meekly asked.
"What about the encroachments? Narendar Naidu had said archly. "Ten years now. Still we can't clear them out. Your caste …your caste people got pattas bed two decades ago. Illegal pattas on tank porombok(13) the tank bed was no longer in use for irrigation. So when the revenue department did a re-survey of the tank, the pattas were marked on the map without giving any notice to the ayacut farmers. Imagine their gall. Now if there is no water in the tank, it is our bore wells that go dry. Dry, dry, dry…cannot re-charge."
"Everything we did to remove them," Naidu's elder brother Shankar had added. "Wrote to the PWD, wrote to the revenue department, wrote to District Collector, to CM. Formed the Tank Farmers Association. Even got funds from the district agency for tank restoration. But no help came from the administration for eviction."
Shankar Naidu paused in his bitter narration only to spit out a gob of betel nut a great length away: "We persuaded the encroachers… forced them to leave parts of the tank bed. But they held on. So aggressively. Now they have served notice to the tehsildar (14) and panchayat union (15) that they have taken a stay order in the High court against their illegal eviction. Illegal eviction. Bloody landless people. They have asked for an injunction against the restoration work sanctioned by the government. Imagine. Who is funding their false certificates? Where are they getting funds for a court case? Who are the real encroachers? Tell me. Tell me."
Murugan had looked straight at Sivaraman Iyer and Madhava Pillai and said inaudibly, "The rich landowners who cultivate tank land by paying land tax with a small penalty. Then build pucca houses." (16)
A suitable reply was prepared by the Tank Farmers Association and sent to the government pleader for reply in the High Court. The case dragged on. Two years of drought followed. The tank silted up and became an active site for brick makers to scoop up silt from the tank bed for brick making. The supply channels silted up too, filling with earth, stone and weeds. To Pitchai, the vast tank bed looked pillaged without water – its pillared water-markers brooding over large pock marks of fields, houses, and fast growing weeds. One day, he noticed with surprise, that the encroachers from the Dalit caste were no longer taking water for irrigation from the Naidu brothers but were digging their own tube well, hooking their pump set to the main supply lines for tapping electricity illegally. A few days later, two trucks arrived in the dead of night and unloaded bricks and gravel and bags of cement on the tank bed site adjoining the Naidus' homes. Pitchai knew the Naidus would not wait for the Court's verdict. They would start their own housing project on a far vaster scale than the Pillais and Iyers by parceling out plots and selling built homes illegally.
When trucks arrived again the next night, they had to stop some distance from the tank bed. Lights shone in the Naidus' home. When the Naidu menfolk came out, they peered into the darkness to see the trucks' headlights shine foggily in the distance. Suddenly thousands of flashlights lit the darkness with the dull yellow of pencil cells and the blue gleam of LED. Their light spread over hundreds of hectares from tank bund and field channels to tank bed and supply channels coming down the hills. Men and women from every Dalit caste panchayat in the seven villages served by this tank in cascade effect sat calmly on the ground, their torches shining skywards. The Naidu men stood in a huddle of stunned silence.
It took a long time before Narendar Naidu broke away from the huddle to address the Dalits. "Neerkattis," he said feebly. Then clearing his throat, he bellowed, "Neerkattis and thottis. Go home and bring out your drums, your blow horns. Stand high on the bund and announce to those thieves that if they don't vacate the tank bed and foreshore in 72 hours, these thousands of flashlights will not be passive. We will use sticks and sickles, hammers and bulldozers to break every house, cut every crop that stands on this tank bed. May your Goddess Mariamman protect this tank. May the god of Vasimalai protect our village."
When the neerkattis and thottis beat their drums and bellowed their blare horns, the sound carried to distant villages. The beats throbbed through the night till the flashlights went out at dawn. The eviction was non-violent. Every house and hut, pump and well was dismantled voluntarily. At the end of 72 hours, all that stood were the trees and the standing crops of vegetables. Pitchai also noted a bag of cement that had rolled off a departing truck as it lurched out of the village, fully laden with the foiled spoils of the Naidus.
(1) Black plum
(2) Water regulator
(3) Area served by the tank's irrigation
(4) Local self -governing body
(5) Upper level irrigation functionaries from castes higher than Scheduled Caste
(6) South Indian Hindu goddess of rain
(7) Managers of tank properties and other village assets
(8) Hereditary big landowners from the aristocracy
(9) Durable road made of asphalt and concrete
(10) Members of the lowest rank in the Indian social hierarchy
(11) Right to enjoy benefit or profit from an asset held in common or individual ownership
(12) Revenue record showcasing possession of property
(13) Controlled and managed by the Public Works Department
(14) Revenue administrative officer responsible for obtaining taxation from a district sub-division
(15) A group of village panchayats serving at the district sub-division level
(16) Durable houses made of brick and cement
Web Graphics and design by Smita Maitra * Background graphic by Kabir Kashyap* concept by Amrita Ghosh * Please read the disclaimer