The political economy of canal irrigation in south India

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Social Sciences


Susan S. Wadley


Social structure, Cultural anthropology, Agricultural economics

Subject Categories

Social and Cultural Anthropology


In arid and semi-arid regions of the world like south-eastern Andhra Pradesh, India, water is a critical resource. To feed hungry populations during droughts the Indian state has built long canals in this region designed to 'protect' as many villages as possible. A contesting motive has been the intensive use of irrigation to increase agricultural production. Irrigation policy, as the articulation of these priorities, tells a fascinating story of how an exogenous technology is inextricably bound up in the politics of ruling. In practice, canals in South India are used intensively at the headends while tailend villages get little or no water even though they are supposed to. In some tailend villages, however, local collective organizations exist and they effectively mobilize and distribute water. In this dissertation, I contextualize irrigation as a politically significant resource that transforms social and production relations and has different implications for different classes and categories of actors--politicians, bureaucrats, cultivators, laborers--locally, regionally, and nationally. I use field-based methodologies to provide information on detailed current local realities and historiography to situate contemporary understandings in historical context. In addition, I integrate my analysis of the ecology and technology of water with an ethnography of the bureaucracy and the local agrarian system in three villages at the tailend of a large government-managed canal in Andhra Pradesh. In this dissertation I ask: what are the politics of irrigation policy formulation and implementation in India? What are the reasons for the poor performance of canals? How does the state bureaucracy interact with local communities? How is local social structure related to local collective irrigation organizations? How are the costs and benefits of local irrigation organizations shared among different agrarian classes? And, can local irrigation organizations be the ideal institutional structure to implement irrigation policy? At this historical moment in India (and elsewhere), when there is an inexorable trend towards breaking down inept state bureaucracies to turn things back to "the local community" or "the market" in irrigation and practically every other realm of life, my dissertation offers a cautionary critique.


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