Can the system adapt?

A sculpture from a gopuram (tower gate) of the Meenakshi temple

A sculpture from a gopuram (tower gate) of the Meenakshi temple

It seems fitting that the field work for my project on climate change adaptation begins in Tamil Nadu, the south Indian state of my birth and childhood. The nodding, smiling helpfulness of its people, the fragrance of sambhar spice and malligai (jasmine) garlands worn by women in their hair, stones decked up as gods under trees – these are the sights and smells of my nostalgia.

I am in Madurai to visit a project on climate change adaptation run by a non-governmental organization called DHAN Foundation, and funded by the German Development Agency GIZ. Madurai is famous for its 2000-year old Meenakshi Amman temple, brightly coloured sungidi cotton saris and Madurai malligai – a jasmine variety that now has a geographical indications tag, and is used in expensive perfumes such as J’Adore.

 Along with its neighbouring districts, Madurai is also famous for drought.

The region lies in the rain shadow area of the Western Ghats, and mainly receives rainfall only from September to November. It is perhaps surprising, then, that agriculture is the main source of subsistence and livelihood. This was made possible mainly through the support of the region’s early rulers, who invested heavily in rainwater harvesting structures – mainly “cascade tanks”, to efficiently catch and store water during the few months of monsoon rain.

Many of these tanks fell into disuse during the years in which India’s colonial, and then democratic, rulers shifted the focus to dams and centralized water supply. As it turned out, however, these resource-intensive modern means did not live up to their promise, and government and non-government efforts to revive traditional water harvesting methods have intensified over recent decades. 

Guruvammal (right)

Guruvammal (right)

For a smallholder, subsistence farmer like Guruvammal who lives in the village of Kilankulam in Madurai district, a disruption in the monsoon is an immediate threat to her family’s food supply. The increased number of drought years in the recent past forced Guruvammal to eventually take the difficult decision of sacrificing more than half her already small plot of land, to build a farm pond to harvest rainwater. Guruvammal's tank, after a drought year last yearShe was persuaded by DHAN’s work in another village, which demonstrated that farm ponds enhance yield – as long as there is rain.

Guruvammal built her pond before the last monsoon season, but the rains failed that year and she is yet to see the benefit of her investment. She does not regret her decision, however, and knows it will pay off over a few good years of rain. She was assisted by the DHAN/GIZ adaptation project. There are many like her who face such difficult choices because of climate change, but without help from the national or global community.

Although there are state and centrally sponsored schemes in Tamil Nadu to address drought and promote water harvesting structures such as farm ponds, there appears to be a considerable gap between policy and implementation. Farmers are reluctant to sign on to state schemes – they quote the inflexibility of engineers and technocrats in taking on board individual farmer concerns (for instance, in adapting official blueprints for farm ponds to individual needs).

The farmers are equally reluctant to work through formal institutions like Panchayat Raj Institutions (PRIs) that rely on sanction from local officialdom, and would much rather work with NGOs such as DHAN and informal institutions like the Climate Change Committee created by the project. They are surprisingly emphatic that the water harvesting work should be kept outside the purview of the PRIs.

This makes me wonder whether we in the non-government sector should spend less time in doing the work that governments should be doing, and more time in trying to make formal structures more effective and accountable. After all, the Government of India and the state government of Tamil Nadu are spending considerable sums of money on similar projects that are much less effective. 

I understand that this is not a question of choosing one or the other area for civil society intervention – both are needed. The needs of the poor cannot wait for large-scale reform, particularly in the face of climate change. (DHAN, for instance, works simultaneously on making PRIs more effective).

But perhaps we need to be wary of a situation where we are so focused on implementation that we set up a parallel system of informal governance, and leave the formal system (with its considerable potential) to its ineffective ways.

I honestly don’t know. I am very interested in your views. Improving the effectiveness of existing systems and processes that address poverty and the needs of the poor is an important component of addressing their vulnerability to climate change. Are we investing enough effort in making these systems work? What more can we do?









This entry was posted in Civil Society, Climate change, Millenium Development Goals, Poverty, Sustainable Development Goals, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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