While travelling for an assignment to the outskirts of Chennai, the south Indian city where I live, I stopped near a lake to relive memories. It used to be one of my family’s favourite picnic / birding spots.
During a visit years ago, my husband saw a gap in the embankment, and on a whim took the car into the bone-dry lake bed, puncturing the tyre in the process. Well, the story is not about husband and son enjoying replacing the punctured tyre but about an innocuous comment I overheard.
“We are wasting the lake bed’s fertile soil,” said an elderly man, almost to himself. I understood what he meant. Kudimaramathu is an ancient practice of maintaining lakes, tanks and ponds in villages. Kudi in Tamil language means people and maramathu means repair, implying people’s participation in the upkeep of water bodies.
These water bodies were mostly used for irrigation purposes as agriculture was, and continues to be, the mainstay of Indian villages. In summer when a pond dried up, the villagers would clean it up. The farmers would take the nutrient-rich silt that had been deposited by runoff from rains and use it in their fields.
Naturally the depth of the water bodies would be restored so as to receive rainwater during the next monsoon. Where necessary, villagers would strengthen the bunds and embankments.
This participatory management of water bodies met with its end slowly when bore wells became popular. When farmers started sinking bore wells in their own fields, the common resource was left uncared for.
The fertile silt was not only left unused, but the silt accumulation reduced the depth of the water bodies and hence their capacity. Reduced volume of water in the ponds naturally led to groundwater depletion in the surrounding areas. It became a vicious cycle when people started drilling more bore wells to get water from deeper aquifers.
To stop the practice, and to enable proper storage of rainwater and increase the water table, the government of the southern province of Tamil Nadu – of which Chennai is the capital – revived the kudimaramathu practice in 2017.
It was a move that everyone welcomed. And it was what I observed when I stopped by the lake. Workers were removing silt from the lake bed and loading it on bullock carts and small tractors to cart away to farmers’ fields.
Farmers and villagers are hopeful that this periodical water management practice would continue. For it has certainly improved the water situation in many villages. I didn’t get to see the old man during this visit. But I am sure he is also happy that the ancient practice has been revived.