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Overcoming Water Woes: Using ADR to Resolve an Irrigation Issue in Karukkakulam

Aasirvatham Sabarimuththu, 71, is known locally and professionally as the ‘Gama Vithanaiyaar’ or ‘paddy[1] officer’ of his village in Karukkakulam[2]. Here he lives with his wife and grandchildren, and was one of the beneficiaries and participants in a project carried out by one of SEDR’s partner organizations, the Federation of Institutions for Rural Management (FIRM).

71-year-old Aasirvatham Sabarimuththu, the ‘paddy officer’ of his village in Karukkakulam

One of FIRM’s interventions centered around resolving a community dispute arising from one farmer’s decision to extend his fencing line and encroach upon land owned by the Department of Agrarian Development (DAD). This action had blocked the natural flow of water downstream since 2017, robbing neighbouring farmers’ paddy lands of proper irrigation. Over time, the irrigation channel became dilapidated, and around 150 acres of paddy land belonging to the Velanankulam Tank became adversely affected due to unpredictable irrigation. And as Sabarimuththu’s profession involved controlling the water flow to surrounding paddy lands, he was left frustrated by the numerous complaints he received by neighboring farmers about either a lack or an excess of water flow to their paddy cultivations.

As the encroached land belonged to the DAD, and therefore had to be resolved between the department and the encroaching farmer, the dispute could not be taken to the local Community Mediation Board - which could only handle individual disputes among non-state parties. This meant an under-resourced DAD undergoing an arduous and lengthy formal court procedure, if the problem were to be ended. As such, no redress was taken since 2017 and resentments (combined with a communal sense of resignation) grew within this farmer community in Karukkakulam.

However, 2021 saw the commencement of a SEDR-funded grant project implemented by FIRM, where groups of local youth were selected and given extensive training in alternative dispute resolution (ADR[3]). Through practical sessions and guidance by experts and field staff, the youth were trained to identify disputes within their communities and help resolve them jointly with relevant stakeholders via specific community initiation tasks. Similarly, in the case of Mannar, youth from the Valarmathy Community Centre were trained in this manner and then deployed back to villages like Karukkakulam. One group of youth met Sabarimuththu and his farmer organization, and thereafter, came upon the farmers’ ongoing irrigation dispute. In an attempt to resolve this issue, a series of consultations (facilitated by FIRM) took place between the trained youth, the farmer organisation and the encroaching farmer himself.

Sabarimuththu working together with his fellow farmers

After many negotiations and consultations where members of the youth group used and applied their ADR knowledge and skills, the encroaching farmer eventually agreed to relinquish the ill-gotten land. As part of these consultations and a win-win approach, communal consensus emerged to renovate the now-damaged irrigation channel, a community-owned solution beneficial to the whole community.

Utilizing a small community initiation grant from FIRM and contributions by the farmer organisation, an excavator was used to dig through the overgrown vegetation blocking the abandoned irrigation channel, and the encroaching fencing line was also removed. Furthermore, the farmers themselves got practically involved by using their tractors to remove the discarded soil and debris, and they cleared the irrigation land thoroughly.

Community initiation: getting rid of overgrown vegetation using an excavator

This activity yielded positive results: with the fencing line back to its original position, the natural water flow was re-established, allowing the adjoining farmers’ paddy cultivations to receive timely and sufficient irrigation through Sabarimuththu’s control. An almost decade-long local community dispute had been settled, enabling the village farmers to increase paddy cultivable area by 70 to 80 acres when they utilised the collected drain water for the next cultivation.

Sabarimuththu and the farmer's organisation were not only pleased with this result but also grateful for the youth who had applied ADR methods in this situation, which ultimately contributed towards resolving this seemingly intractable dispute.

Satisfied and grateful: Sabarimuththu and his fellow farmers now carry out business as usual

[1] Paddy is a small, level, flooded field used to cultivate rice in southern and eastern Asia.

[2] Karukkakulam is a rural village in the Mannar district in the Northern province of Sri Lanka, where a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural community resides. Most of them are paddy farmers.

[3] In this context ‘ADR’ refers to informal mechanisms or processes facilitated by local actors to resolve community level disputes/grievances/conflict without the involvement of the formal justice system.

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