The Value of Tanks: Maintenance, Ecology and the Colonial Economy in Nineteenth‑Century South India


Tanks are technologies used to store water for irrigation in south India since ancient times. Scholars have been divided over the reasons for the decline of tanks. In the late eighteenth century, when the British colonial government took control of large parts of south India, tanks were in a decrepit state and unusable. Over two hundred years of colonial rule resulted in tanks diminishing in importance to agriculture, and many were replaced by canals and well irrigation. While some scholars have blamed ‘modern’ colonial policies of profit for the decline of tank systems, others have argued that tanks were neither managed perfectly nor egalitarian institutions during precolonial times. This article furthers this analysis and examines policies of tank maintenance in the specific context of an expanding nineteenth-century colonial economy, focused on producing ‘value’ and eliminating ‘waste’. The article shows how the colonial state, in the wake of a famine, undertook renewed efforts at maintaining tanks in the late nineteenth-century. However, tank maintenance intersected with expanding railways and large scale deforestation, which were cornerstones of the productive colonial economy. The article shows how tanks occupied an uncertain space within the ‘waste’ and ‘value’ dialectic, unsure of how maintenance policies and ecological changes produced them within these underlying conditions of the colonial economy.