The area under discussion embraces India with its neighbors Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka, and further afield Burma and Thailand. There is wide diversity in the character of the smallholder and the structure of the village society within these areas. But with the possible exception of Burma, there is a strong tradition of individual land ownership. This free-holder situation is largely preserved when the land comes under irrigation, a factor which greatly influences and in some respects complicates the design and operation of irrigation systems. It distinguishes the region from those countries with more authoritarian tradition, where land rights are either vested in the community or at least are subject to government intervention in matters of supply from public irrigation systems.
The factors influencing irrigation design are partly to do with the cultivator himself, and partly with the size of his holding and the extent to which it is subdivided (fractionated). The half hectare holding of a typical farmer may be divided between six much smaller parcels scattered over a wide area. There is, incidentally, considerable confusion in the use of the word "holding" in statistics of land distribution. The term may be used for an individual parcel, or for the total land owned by a cultivator without regard to parcelization, or for an "operational" holding which can include a number of holdings farmed as a family unit.
Inheritance is of course responsible for the diminishing size of holdings. It is also responsible for the strange shape of some holdings. To illustrate, a farmer may have one hectare in a single unit 40 m in width by 250 m in length. He has four sons who inherit equally, but instead of each receiving an area 40 m by 62.5 m, each receives a strip 10 m wide by 250 m in length, the reason being that the original holding runs down-slope with very shallow infertile soils at the upper end and deep valley-bottom lands at the lower. Equity demands that land productivity be divided between the four sons, although the narrow shape of each parcel received presents problems in cultivation and particularly in irrigation distribution. In the same connection, the reason for parcels originally being acquired in scattered locations rather than contiguously is frequently to include a proportion of different soil types in the family holding, for instance lowlands for paddy cultivation and uplands for other crops. On inheritance the same mix may be preserved, even when it involves division of the separate areas into very small parcels.
Construction of an irrigation distribution and drainage system at the farm level, land shaping for irrigation and provision of formal farm access would be facilitated by land consolidation (consolidation of parcels), or at least by realignment or "rationalization" of property boundaries. However, in the area under discussion, such action is the exception rather than the rule, due largely to farmer resistance. A farmer whose family has toiled for generations to convert a stony shallow field into a reasonably deep fertile soil is not interested in exchanging it for a neighbor's less-improved land in the interests of land consolidation. Other objections include the concern of a large landowner whose title to some of his fields is on somewhat shaky ground and would not stand the scrutiny of consolidation as in West Bengal, and the conviction of the small landowner that he would be cheated by "government" in the same process. Some of the objections are removed in areas of deep homogeneous soils, and consolidation has been successfully carried out in the past in such areas, or is currently being carried out, in some cases with detailed attention to equity. However, attempts to impose land consolidation in areas of diverse soil types and irregular topography as a prerequisite to irrigation, have generally not been successful in the area under discussion, nor have attempts to pool holdings into a communal farming operation. In general, irrigation has to be built around the existing property boundaries. An exception may occur where land redistribution is being carried out in parallel with development of an irrigation area, in which case lands "surplus" to the legal maximum size of holding become available for distribution, and may be divided rationally in that process.
To summarize, consolidation of fragmented smallholdings or realignment of boundaries considerably facilitates the design of water distribution to the farm (the tertiary level). However, where circumstances lead to profound reluctance on the part of smallholders to participate in such a process, experience has been that there is nothing to be gained by endeavoring to press it.
The character of the individual smallholder in matters affecting irrigation and the nature of the village social structure are too diverse to allow anything but a few general observations. It should be noted that the term "village" as used here denotes an area which includes a group of dwellings (a village in the more popular sense) together with an associated area of farming lands. It is a political and social entity. The operation of a village irrigation system, owned and operated by the community, is often taken as the reference point on which to base the design of water-user groups in larger publicly-owned projects. The popular opinion that farmer-owned village irrigation systems operate very well and publicly-owned systems operate very poorly is not always supported by the evidence, but the history of the village system does give an indication as to what a smallholder and his peers will or will not do if left to their own. At one end of the scale of performance the village systems do very well, using much ingenuity in coping with very variable seasonal supply of water, and producing a wide diversity of crops within a small area. Communal interest is put before the interest of the individual. Such performance requires a close social structure or a long tradition of authoritarian village leadership. At the other end of the scale, particularly where the traditional village authority has broken down under the influence of changing times, performance can be very poor.
In publicly-owned irrigation systems the farmer viewpoint changes radically. The interest of the individual and his family becomes the primary concern, and the interest of the group becomes secondary. Much attention has been given to the merits of delivery from a publicly-managed system to a farmer-managed unit, such as the service area (the "command") of a secondary or tertiary canal. The issue is whether an area managed by beneficiary cultivators, but supplied from a public canal, will be regarded by the cultivators as their own and treated with the same respect. Although management of water distribution within the tertiary command, and eventually the secondary, by water user groups is highly desirable, in fact cultivators are not generally convinced that the system within such an area is fully their own and should therefore be treated in the same manner as a village system. For one thing the supply of water to the area remains outside of their control (unless cultivator management is extended upstream to the primary canal, which may or may not be practical). There are notable exceptions, but in general if government is in any way a partner in the irrigation of an area, cultivators appear to believe that government should assume all responsibility down to the farm turnout. A similar problem is encountered if any outside assistance, other than simply funds, is provided for the improvement of village systems. The problem of cultivator attitude to any intervention by government, and his readiness to drop responsibility for maintenance in the lap of government as soon as there is any such intervention, must be acknowledged and lived with, even if not fully understood or appreciated. Means of overcoming this attitude are still being sought.
The small cultivator is, by and large, a hard worker, as evidenced by the typical scene of villagers setting out at dawn in single file for the fields, and returning only at dusk, or the farmer with his oxen puddling the paddy field in the torrential monsoon downpour while his wife drenched in rain and knee-deep in mud stoops in a nearby plot transplanting. And yet there are limits to what a cultivator can be expected to do, or is willing to do, limits which are not always acknowledged in project design or analysis. Anticipations regarding rate of up-take of irrigation, and projections of change to double or triple cropping made possible by the advent of water, are frequently not met in reality. The small cultivator, in general, is not yet fully trapped into the consumer economy. The idea of working in the extremely arduous conditions of the hot weather months, because supply from a tubewell would make a profitable crop in that season possible, may not be appealing. His simple needs can be met without such labor. Even changing to double cropping may be unattractive, at least to the male members of a certain "tribal" village whose ambitions are limited to growing sufficient wet-season rice to ensure a supply of paddy-wine for the remainder of the year. This is an exception of course, and offset by the example of the Punjabi farmer, willing and physically able to work in all seasons, and whose ambitions extend progressively to motor-cycle, tractor, truck, and eventually a car repair shop and haulage business. The conclusion is that assumptions made during design, in pursuit of a favorable economic rate of return, should take into account the character of the particular cultivator who will be party to the project. Aside from attitude to labor, there may be constraints imposed by caste or custom on the type of agriculture which will be undertaken. For instance, raising of sheep or goats or other livestock (other than cows or water-buffaloes) is not acceptable to most cultivators in the Indian sub-continent, and is left to particular castes. Fish culture (in ponds), which can be very profitable, is unlikely to be an attractive occupation to some, and would be positively ruled out to others, except with hired labor of another caste.
A factor of particular importance in the development of an irrigation area is the need for credit and the attitude of the cultivator to its use. Short-term credit is required for crop production (fertilizer, seeds, cultivation), and long-term credit for farm improvement (land shaping for irrigation, sinking of wells etc). The problem is the reluctance of most cultivators to use other than minimum amounts of credit (except for marriages), resulting in a much slower rate of buildup of production from an area than is economically desirable from the institutional viewpoint, when the capital cost of the irrigation infrastructure is taken into account. In spite of the fact that he would probably be better off financially to use credit to the maximum a farmer generally prefers to go slowly, employing his own resources of family labor and animal-power for land shaping, and using much less fertilizer than optimum, until eventually his cash position permits more intensive production. His reluctance to borrow is understandable, as the amount of money involved, judged by the standards of a cultivator accustomed to subsistence-level rainfed agriculture, is very large, and borrowing for agricultural purposes is not without risk. Crops may fail or market prices may fall. -A Collector (senior Indian administrative officer) recounts his experience in trying to better the lot of landless laborers living in squalid road-side shelters. He arranged the grant of small plots where each man could build a simple dwelling for his family. The men were profuse in their thanks, but a year later the Collector found that few had done anything about actually constructing a dwelling. On questioning one explained that he had no money to buy materials. "Then come with me to the bank and I will see that you get credit to buy bricks." But sir, how will I repay the loan? I barely earn enough to feed my family." Then we will ask for credit also to buy a buffalo, and its milk will pay for both loans." But sir, if the buffalo should die?" The man was content to remain in his roadside shelter, warmed by the thought that he owned a little plot, something his son could inherit, and he wasn't about to put it at risk by borrowing against it.
Where cultivators are urged to borrow, particularly for land development (compulsion has been attempted in some areas), there is often no intention to repay. The loan becomes virtually a subsidy, and the bank obliged (by government edict) to issue such loans may become a casualty. The question of credit is clearly a subject on which the inclination of the cultivator may run counter to the plans of the development agency. In project planning, while stressing the need to provide ready access to credit in a developing area, a conservative view should be taken in projecting actual demand for credit.
The issue becomes more pointed if there is the intention to finance certain government constructed items such as water courses or deep tubewells through credit obligations issued against cultivators. The problem is the unwilling cultivator. Many irrigators given the choice between continuing with a service provided by government (usually at highly subsidized rates), and cultivator ownership and operation of the facility, will choose the former. Pride of ownership is likely to be secondary to cash considerations, and the cultivator may in any case be unwilling to be committed to the substantial debt obligation involved. The expedient of setting up an autonomous agency which borrows for the purpose of financing the departmental construction of the facility (for instance water courses), and in turn endeavors to recover the cost from the cultivators has been tried, as a means of avoiding the problem of farmer reluctance to incur debt. However, in most case arrears in recovery from farmers have rapidly put the autonomous agency in an untenable financial situation. This does not appear to be the general solution. In plans for "privatization" of facilities (transfer of ownership to cultivators) which are increasingly being pressed by development institutions, the problems of cultivator aversion to debt and very poor repayment record will be key considerations.
In the efforts of development institutions to improve the efficiency and productivity of smallholder irrigation, possibly the most frustrating experience is the very common occurrence of theft and vandalism of facilities, frequently by the cultivators themselves. Where the structure concerned imposes some constraint on the individual or local group, such as a gate at the entrance to a water-course, interference with the structure is understandable even if it is clear that increasing the diversion at that point will diminish the supply to others further downstream. If the supply channel can in anyway be regarded as a "government" channel, conscience is apparently clear (if conscience is a factor). Considerable ingenuity can be exercised by the cultivators in such operations, for instance herding water-buffaloes into a distributary canal, as a portable dam, causing the upstream level to rise and break through, with major flow into a nearby drainage channel from which water flows to the fields of the perpetrators. On removal of the buffaloes flow through the breach continues, but no evidence remains that the hand of man was involved. Theft of items which are either saleable or of use on the farm or in the home is also very common. Saleable items include anything of copper, aluminum or brass including transmission lines or motor windings in tubewell areas, and brass hardware on gate structures. Theft of transmission lines is probably by professionals, not by cultivators, but theft of concrete or stone slabs from channel linings comes nearer to home. The fact that their theft causes much increased seepage loss from the channels serving the same cultivators is not apparently a sufficient deterrent.
More difficult to understand is simple vandalism, in which there is no illicit benefit other than the dubious pleasure of simple destruction. For instance the cattle-herder whiling away the time in the hot sun, sitting on the side of a brickwork irrigation flume and quietly hammering away at it with a heavy stone. The solution was a basalt coping, proof against such demolition, but costly.
There are situations in which cultivator interference with irrigation facilities is prompted by their incorrect design or location, such as the inappropriate location of an outlet to a watercourse. The solution in such cases is simply better design, and consultation with cultivators in the first place. In other situations the problem stems from factors outside the control of the designer. For instance a poor monsoon may result in drastic curtailment of supply to an irrigation scheme, and restriction of deliveries. "Less than farmer expectations" is the phrase often used in excusing illegal diversions in such circumstances. However, farmers living in the areas concerned are well aware of the occurrence of good and bad water years. Simply advising them of the likelihood of need to curtail deliveries in some years and the means of sharing the deficiency is unlikely to avoid illegal operation and conflict in such circumstances. A standing crop about to fail for lack of water, the crop which was to be the sole means of sustenance for the family for the next year, is a powerful incentive to steal water from a nearby canal.
The problems discussed are of much lesser occurrence in purely farmer-owned schemes, as the villagers police their own systems. Furthermore they are generally small in area and being close to habitations are subject to informal surveillance by all concerned. However, it is clearly impractical to treat every major irrigation scheme as fully farmer owned and operated, and it is the large schemes with substantial storage reservoirs which supply the major part of canal irrigation in adverse water years. Operation of tertiary canals of major public systems by wateruser groups may reduce the problems of interference with irrigation facilities, but as already discussed such an arrangement does not carry full conviction of farmer-ownership.
Tampering with structures and illegal diversions result in reduced supply to the unfortunate downstream tailenders. There are exceptions of course, witness the bearded turbaned Sardarji, draped with cartridge belts, sword, shotgun and pistol. The terrified villagers pointed him out as the principal tailender. Did he have problems? He apparently thought it was a silly question. His reply, waving imperiously to the sky "When a man is thirsty, he drinks." Obviously this is not a universal solution to the tailend problem.
There is room for much further sociological study of cultivator motivations and means of reducing the incidence of interference with irrigation facilities and theft. The small cultivator, popularly cast in the role of victim of irrigation problems, is often the villain. With few new sources of irrigation available, further increases in food production will be contingent on increasing the currently very low efficiency of most existing irrigation systems. This will involve introducing improved technology, however simple, and better management. Success in both areas is at present very limited, largely due to cultivator problems. In the present situation a key factor in the design of improved irrigation facilities has to be their resistance to interference and damage. This obviously puts a limit on the level of technology which can be introduced.