Chittaragundi Tank

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 Location Ecosystem Type   Conservation Type   Area(hectare) Legal status 
 Ramanathapuram, Tamil Nadu Wetland Species Protection 700 Protected Forest

Case Study (2009)

Background

Chittarangudi is a small village located 8 km from Muthukulathoor town in Ramanathapuram district. Chittarangudi tank, a traditional tank, is situated on the northern side of this village. About 4 km in length and about 2.5 km in breadth, Chittarangudi tank is an important heronry. There are several other tanks around Chittarangudi. Vettangudi and Kanjirkulam bird sanctuaries are two other important ones from the point of view of bird conservation. This area has experienced a severe drought in 2000 and 2001 and the number of birds coming to these tanks has therefore decreased.

Traditionally, Chittarangudi villagers have treated birds like children, as they have realised the importance of bird droppings in agriculture and thus their economy. Sentiments associated with the birds cut across all class and caste barriers in the village. The importance of the tank in the lives of the villagers can be gauged from the fact that they explain their history mostly in relation to the tank.

In earlier times there were nearly twelve castes in the village: thevars, konars, pallars, vellalars (pillai), sakkiliars, chettiyar, brahmins, Muslims, asariyars, poosaris, vannars (washermen), and ambattayars (barbers). Now the Muslims, brahmins and chettiyars have completely left the village. Among the nine castes that live in the village presently, Kondayan Kottai Thevars are in a majority, with nearly 55 families. Most of them are engaged in agriculture; some of them own cattle as well. The four servayar families are in a position of authority here. The village heads have been mostly from this community and even now the panchayat president and the society president belong to this community. 

The next most important caste in the village is Konar, with about 25 Konar families in the village. Most of them own cattle and also practice agriculture. The Pallar community also has about 25 families in the village, who are engaged in agriculture and cutting of Prosopis juliflora. The sakkiliar community comprises mostly of labourers who are engaged in the cutting of juliflora. However, there is unity among all castes and socially the entire village stands as a single unit. The people have good relations with each other and the Chittarangudi tank seems to be a common factor that binds them all.

Seasonal agriculture is the main source of livelihood in the village. Being located in a rain shadow zone, this area receives very little rainfall. Rain is received from September to November (northeast monsoon) when the tank also fills up. Paddy is grown in the wetland and chillies in the dry lands. In the off-season the land is left fallow. During the dry season people grow some vegetables in the dry tank bed (each family has occupied some land in the tank). Till the 1980s several crops were grown in the dry areas of the tank. Around that time the FD planted acacia and disallowed the villagers from using the tank.

The major source of income for the village is charcoal-making from Prosopis juliflora. In the dry lands Prosopis grows naturally and is cut every 3 years. Normally an acre of land produces 5-20 tonnes of charcoal and fetches about Rs 3000 per ton. People also produce charcoal from their own fields; sometimes the land is leased for Rs 3000-5000 per acre for charcoal production. Due to a long drought and limited natural resources, there has been an increased migration to nearby towns and big cities.

Politically, the village is divided between two major political parties in Tamil Nadu—the DMK and the AIADMK. Political positions and loyalties are stronger than the caste differentiation in the village. If at all there are clashes or conflicts in the village they are largely party politics-based. Divided political loyalties have ensured that the village lacks most infrastructure facilities, as the proposals from one group are shot down by the other.

Traditionally, the village has been administered by a village committee. This committee includes 8 to 10 members from all the communities in the village. The functions of the committee include:

1. To store the water in the tank and pond and to regulate the supply of water. Tamil Nadu 663 case studies - tamil nadu

2. To maintain the tank.

3. To collect taxes from the villagers.

4. To organise village festivals.

5. To solve disputes and conflicts within the village.

6. To solve disputes with other villages.

7. To maintain the temples.

8. To protect the village from thieves and strangers.

9. To act as a mediator with the government.

This traditional system functioned well in the past but its efficiency has gone down in the recent times mainly after the introduction of the official Panchayati Raj1 system of administration.

The present official system of administration in the village is the panchayat. The panchayat comprises three villages: Chittirangudi, Erachikulam, and Veppangulam colony. In Chittarangudi, though, even today the actual power of authority of the village is with the village committee. The panchayat only acts as an executor of government schemes.

Another important administrative unit is the District Forest Office (DFO) of the forest department (FD), which came to the village in 1979. The FD has planted Acacia sp. around the tank and in the dry parts of the tank under the Social Forestry Scheme. This plantation is maintained by the FD for the birds that come during the season.

Chittarangudi tank is the most important asset for the livelihood of the village. In 1800 a canal from the Ragunatha Kaveri river was linked to supply water to the tank. The tank has a total waterspread area of about 7 sq km and has an ayacut (irrigated area under a tank) of 350 acres, which consists of 54 ayacutdars (the beneficiaries of an ayacut). There are 5 sluices, all of them in the southern side of the tank. The bund height is about 4-5 ft on the southern side, while it is only about 1-1.5 ft on the northern side. The tank at its full capacity irrigates nearly 600 acres. The tank gets water only during the rainy season and dries up by the end of February.

In 1920, the neerkatti (one who irrigates water to the fields) system of water distribution was introduced to the village by the village committee. Under this system, the committee appointed two persons for distributing water to different fields in the village. Initially they were paid half or one anna for their work, which has now risen to Rs 30-50 per day. This is paid from the village fund. The village committee collects 10 rupees per acre of irrigated land from each farmer. The job of the neerkatti is to see which land needs water and to irrigate it without any bias. There are different sluices in the tank to irrigate different sizes of land.

The neerkatti after discussing with the committee and the villagers looking after the level of the water in the tank has to irrigate the land according to the wish of the village and the committee. During times of scarcity, there are more people to guard the sluice gates and a rationing system of water sharing is followed. Anybody caught stealing water is fined heavily by the village committee.

Chittarangudi attracts a large number of waterbirds, which roost here in the monsoons, and is hence referred to as Chittarangudi heronry. For the birds to continue to visit a waterbody, it is important to have an assured food supply and good cover for nesting. A heronry needs other waterbodies in the vicinity as well to provide food to the birds. Chittarangudi has many tanks in its vicinity, including Vettangudi and Kanjirkolam, which are also legally notified bird sanctuaries. The other small tanks in this region have now gone dry because of mismanagement. In recent times, however, interests in tank management and upkeep has revived. Birds visiting Chittarangudi include storks, ibises, herons, egrets, cormorants and several other migratory birds. Chittarangudi is very safe for the birds as there is practically no poaching or stealing of eggs. The canopy cover in the surrounding area is good and there is adequate food, as fishing is not allowed in the tank. 

The villagers have great love for the birds and are committed to safeguarding them. The following steps have been taken by the villagers to ensure safe and favourable habitat to the birds: 

1. Villagers do not burst crackers during Diwali (which falls in the month of November) as they feel it would frighten the birds during the nesting season (which is around October and November). 664 Community Conserved Areas in India - a directory

2. Many other tanks have been leased out by the village panchayat for fishing. This does not happen here as it would disturb the birds and would affect their food consumption.

3. The eggs of the birds are not collected by the people (in some other heronries close by, the local villagers take away eggs by bagloads). The villagers neither hunt the birds nor allow anybody else to hunt.

4. The villagers do wish to cultivate a second crop in February but the water in the tank is usually not enough for irrigation, and they leave it for the birds. It is possible that lack of consensus of how to share the water for the second crop might result in not using it for cultivation.

5. One of the important functions of the village committee is to safeguard the birds; in this task it is supported by the entire village. The villagers quote an incident: ‘Some strangers walked into the tank one night to steal some birds. Then some of the birds flew over to the village and made a big noise. The villagers ran with some weapons to stop the strangers; in the struggle one of the villagers was very badly hurt and was admitted to the hospital.’ This is to indicate the importance placed by the villagers on their winged seasonal guests.

Constraints

1. Ever since the plantation of acacia trees around the tank by the forest department, the villagers are not allowed to use the dry tank bed for vegetable cultivation. This has caused resentment among the villagers, as vegetable cultivation is an important source of supplementary income.

2. After the declaration of the sanctuary, cutting of karavel trees for fuelwood was banned. This has further intensified the conflict between the FD and the people.

3. Excessive silt in the tank has reduced the storage capacity. Lack of regular desiltation leads to inadequate water supply for irrigation. Also the water table in the village has dropped because of a long drought. This has had serious impact on the economy of the village, as agriculture is the primary source of livelihood and the tank is the main source of irrigation. Management of the tank and regular desilting was a responsibility of the village committee in the past. The forest department, which is currently in charge of tank management, has (for several reasons) not been able to manage the tank effectively. One of the reasons cited is that management of Chittarangudi sanctuary is low on priority in the FD’s allocation of funds, and even when funds are allocated they usually come at the end of the financial year and not when money is required. This seems to have had an impact on the nesting birds as well; according to the villagers, the bird population in the monsoon of 2000 was much less than in previous years.

Threats

1. The number of trees in and around the tank has gone up (mainly Acacia nilotica) but canopy cover has gone down, and many of the old trees are dying because of age (and excess bird droppings on the leaves of the trees). This will have an impact on the nesting birds in the heronry.

2. The nature of association between the villagers and the tank is changing. There is increased out-migration of young people and thus agriculture may not be the primary source of livelihood for the village anymore. The reduced dependence on the tank may have negative impact on the heronry.

Chittarangudi sanctuary presents a strong case for joint tank management. It is strongly felt that given the tradition of the villagers protecting the birds and the fact that they depend on the tank for their livelihood, joint tank management would help in protection of the heronry. A management strategy can be worked out jointly by the forest department, villagers and NGOs working in the field of community-based tank management.

Tourism as a source of revenue is a distinct possibility. The people here take great pride in the tank and the birds that it attracts. The infrastructure is very poor and at the best of times there is only a single daily bus trip from Mudukulathur to this village. There is a watchtower, which is not in good condition and needs repair. Yet eco-tourism, if carried out with social and ecological sensitivity, can provide revenue and incentive for conservation.

  This case study has been contributed by Shantha Bhushan, member, Kalpavriksh, in 2002. The primary research for the case study was done by P. Anand Kumar from DHAN Foundation, Madurai. Mr Karruppsami and his colleagues from the Muddukulathur office of DHAN contributed by providing a complete picture of tank restoration in Ramanathapuram district. DHAN Foundation was also very helpful in arranging the field visit and establishing contact with the villagers.

Shantha Bhushan
Kalpavriksh
Apt. No. 5, Shri Dutta Krupa,
908, Deccan Gymkhana
Pune 411016, Maharashtra
Ph: 020-25654239
E-mail: [email protected]

DHAN Foundation
18, Pillaiyar Koil Street
S.S. Colony, Madurai - 625 016.
Tamil Nadu
Ph: 0452-2610805
Email: [email protected]

1 Under the current system, the first unit of administration is the panchayat, the village executive council, constituted of the elected members of the villages which fall under the panchayat. The panchayat system does not take into account the existing traditional systems of administration in a village.

This case study was part of the Directory on Community Conserved Areas (2009), published by Kalpavriksh. The directory can be downloaded here.

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