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Becoming Urban Wastelands

The Evolutions of the Catchment Areas of the ‘Traditional’ Water Management System of Tamil Nadu (India)

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Abstract

The city of Chennai still showed, on a map of 1908, large open water reservoirs and a multitude of waterbodies. They were the last remnants of the ‘traditional’ water management system that existed in the villages of Tamil Nadu. These reservoirs, as water storage structures, are the visible elements but only a part of a much larger system. The efficiency of this system is based on a range of practices related to land use planning. The lands surrounding the reservoirs belonged to the village community and participated fully in the territorial system. The system was based on an organization around the tanks made of community-owned lands and managed by the village authorities. However, these common lands are perceived (since the colonial period) only as uncultivated lands and are indicated on cartography as ‘wastelands.’ This, coupled with societal and institutional changes, the evolution of agricultural methods, the gradual transition to individual pumps, and the increase in land pressure, leads to their gradual functional abandonment. These lands are often ignored by public policies and territorial planning, and are frequently (more or less illegally) occupied and built on. We will focus on the process that has driven this change in perspective, which transforms lands that were once useful to the community into ‘wastelands’ to wildly urbanize.

Keywords

  • Water storage
  • Monsoon
  • Common lands
  • Reservoir
  • Water management system

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Parallel to the Bay of Bengal, in a north-south direction, over a length of about 420 km, the Buckingham Canal, built during the British period for transport purposes (navigation ended in 1975), connects the State of Andhra Pradesh to the State of Tamil Nadu.

  2. 2.

    The authors chose to use the word ‘traditional’, even if not exactly adapted, since it is still the least inadequate in describing these systems. By this term, the authors mean systems stemming from tradition, not static but evolving over a long period of time, reflecting the sociocultural, economic, and political structure of society and influenced by many factors like the environmental, societal, and technical/technological conditions.

  3. 3.

    The Zamindar and the Inamdar were landowners. They ruled on both cultivated and uncultivated lands and reserved the right to collect taxes from peasants on behalf of the powers that be. They would allocate to tenants the cultivation of the land, and would authorize tenants to use uncultivated land, graze their cattle and have access to water resources. The zamindari system, which ended in India in 1951, had never been massively present in the South of the subcontinent, while the inamdari was primarily present in the states of Maharashtra, Karnataka, and Gujarat.

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Acknowledgements

We warmly thank:

Frédéric Landy (Director of the IFP French Institute of Pondicherry) for use of the pictures of the Aya Aiya Kulam.

Ayesha Ahmad, Saloni Shrestha, and Julie Lausin for their help with the English proofreading and with the logical framework and coherence of the article.

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Correspondence to Laura Verdelli .

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Verdelli, L., Balasubramanian, G.C., Harishankar, R.R. (2021). Becoming Urban Wastelands. In: Di Pietro, F., Robert, A. (eds) Urban Wastelands. Cities and Nature. Springer, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-74882-1_15

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