Change is Possible

Change is Possible

Tamil Nadu's Experience with Governance Reform

State :
Tamil Nadu
Involvement : Community
Issues :

The Tamil Nadu Water Supply and Drainage Board (TWAD) is an autonomous corporation set up by the State Government of Tamil Nadu for the regulation and development of drinking water and drainage within the state, barring the Chennai Metropolitan Area.

It is responsible for investigation, design, execution and technical assistance, while operation and maintenance functions are generally the responsibility of local bodies. TWAD prepares its own budget for execution and operation of projects, which is approved by the State Government. It is funded primarily by the Government of India, the State, loans from financial institutions (such as the Life Insurance Corporation and Housing and Urban development Corporation) and the World Bank.

In Tamil Nadu, 96% of all sources of water are groundwater based. The phenomenal spurt of piped water schemes across the state in the ‘80s and ‘90s had its foreseeable impact on groundwater tables. Out of the 385 blocks in the state, 138 were identified as over-exploited, 37 as at critical levels, 105 as semi-critical and 8 as saline. Only 97 blocks were identified as safe. Meanwhile, of the total 81,587 rural habitations in the state, about 27% are affected by quality and, of these, about 25% do not have safe sources.

The issue of water security presented itself at the start of the new millennium. Despite occasional good monsoons, the first five years of the new millennium witnessed the cumulative impact of poor rainfall in the state. Near drought conditions coupled with unregulated mining of water and uncoordinated use for irrigation and industry only brought more to the light the disastrous absence of a rational and integrated water policy framework.

The agencies with the power to govern could not lend themselves to stakeholder inclusive methods and lacked the capabilities to enhance peoples’ participation. There was a lack of ownership and involvement, and a reluctance to participate in ensuring sustainable drinking water use practices.


Coupled with an outdated approach of governance and complaints of inefficient delivery, the water crisis presented itself as a complex multidimensional problem calling for inputs from a variety of disciplines, perspectives and experiences.


Democratising water management: The Process


The current change process was launched at the end of 2003. It was apparent that older perspectives and responses were not only insufficient but also inappropriate in dealing with the challenging situation. It was equally clear that there was no alternative but to launch a serious introspection of current technological perspectives underlying TWAD’s style and nature of functioning. TWAD also needed to review its relations with the community and other stakeholders.

The rural water division of TWAD decided that the only way forward was to start afresh: by going back to ask fundamental questions about the need and relevance of public utilities, the values and vision it should embody, distortions and corruptions in practice, and the change efforts it needed to take to reinvent a role and relevance for itself.


In effect, TWAD launched an ambitious process of personal change and institutional transformation, covering the entire state-wide department. Almost the entire population of engineers covering all levels, underwent personal, group, and collective exploration, and discussion of issues in small groups of 30-35 persons each, in intensive residential workshops of 5 days.


The change workshop was structured around interventions at three levels:

  • Workshop: Space for exploration, where engineers could critically examine, explore and debate issues relating to personal, professional and institutional concerns
  • Village/Community: Site for experimenting with learning, the place where engineers could forge new relationships based on norms of equality, equity, democratic functioning, respecting dignity, ensuring reaching the unreached, and emphasizing collective solution finding.
  • Workplace: Space for internalizing learning into formal systems, identifying the work spot as the place in which changed values, norms and visions of functioning had to be rooted.


Given the hierarchical nature of relations within the TWAD, it was important to create a training context which promoted a sense of egalitarian relationship among participants, free exchange of views uninhibited by official positions, and an atmosphere promoting critical discussion. A traditional Tamil cultural tradition called the Koodam was adapted to present day circumstances and made the basis for interaction among all participants.


Between May 2004 and June 2006, 350 engineers, from the senior to the youngest engineers, were involved in core workshops over five days. The aim of these workshops was to evolve a broad consensus among all engineers that they needed to accept the imperative of change management.


First of all this had to be at a personal level and thereafter be willing to be part of the collective effort to work internally in changing working culture, response patterns and embodying a sense of accountability and responsibility. At the external level, the push was to build strong bonds of egalitarian relationships with the stakeholders in particular and community at large, around issues of community ownership, participation and democratic functioning.


Each participant was encouraged to initiate two small change projects, one in their immediate work area and another in work with the community. The plan of action included a timeline and set of indicators to evaluate their own functioning.

As the change process gathered momentum, a change management group came to be formed, made up of volunteers who came forward to champion the change process within and outside the organisation. Care was taken to ensure that the change management group was as diverse as possible, accommodating people from different age groups, experiences, educational backgrounds and regions.


The film Neerundu Nilamundu, directed by Bala Kailasam gives us a first-hand account of the experiences of the TWAD engineers, their process, and the results of their courageous journey to governance reform.