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Reviving Traditional Water Harvesting in Bihar

By Savita Gokhale

08 May, 2003

The traditional water harvesting system that existed in the Indian state of Bihar during the time of the Chandragupta Empire is amazingly relevant today as it was then- perhaps even more. Present day India is no stranger to natural scourges like floods, drought, famine and hurricanes and it would well to learn from the clichéd but true wisdom of traditional customs of water harvesting system like ahar and pyne from the Magadh area in south Bihar.

Between the Chotta Nagpur Plateau and the south bank of Ganga is Magadh. The thin strip of land along the Ganga runs down from south to north and all the major rivers coming from the plateau meet in the Ganga then to the sea. Due to the rocky terrain and loamy soil construction of big tanks is feasible, but expensive. The ground water level in this area have been falling at an alarming rate for the past 50 years, stripping the land of tree cover which in turn gives away the top soil making the place arid and unsuitable for agriculture of any kind.

The only silver lining in this dark and dry cloud is the reviving traditional water harvesting system effectively revived by the local population, called ahar (field reservoir) and pyne (channels) system, which provides water after the rainy season and reduces floods, thus increasing the groundwater level.

Most of these traditional structures were under the ownership of the influential zamindars and landlords of Bihar. Soon after independence the land ceiling act and other land reforms were introduced, which reduced the land holdings, and consequently the interest in maintenance of these structures. Unfortunately, the British legacy of big dams continued even after independence, which was handed over to the newly created irrigation department. The last 30-40 years continued to witness a decline in the condition of these structures, which have silted and reduced the water holding capacity, making it impossible to grow even two food crops that could provide food security to the local population. What contributed to this already degraded system was the British interest in cultivation of cash crops like sugar, cotton and indigo, instead of the local food crops. By 1974, it was impossible to cultivate even one crop when the monsoon was below normal. This instability gradually led to increase in migration to urban areas, particularly in the neighbouring Jharkhand where most of them end up as daily wage labourers.

Ironically, this was the region that had abundant supply of food grains during Chandragupta's reign and flourished due to its other rich resources like mica and other minerals. Even the British India's Irrigation Commission, in 1901-1903, clearly highlighted the efficiency of this system which was capable of irrigating 676000 hectares of land, which is larger than half of the present day Gaya division and with the exclusion of the Son river command area, it is capable of irrigating 75 per cent of irrigable land within the division.

Lately, efforts of the local community under the initiative of "Institute for Research and Action" (IRA) have paid off and the Hadadwa ahar and pyne, which comprises 170 small and big ahars and 45 kms of pyne was revived. The strenuous task of desilting and reviving the system was carried out within seven months by forty villages from three blocks and four Panchayats from the Fatehpur Block in Magadh pramandal in Gaya. In these forty villages, the IRA constituted the 'gram sinchai samitis', who further nominated some of its members to constitute " IRA prakhand committee" who had 35 members covering total 40 villages. (small tolas were considered part of their main village for the representation in the Prakhand level committee) the core group to manage the day-to-day planning and execution of the desilting work. Twelve engineers from the government assisted the IRA by conducting a survey across the entire length of the system. The organization also conducted value education to the village children and persuaded the adults from migrating to urban areas and instead motivated them in rebuilding the dying structures, which would consequently help in increasing their income.

There are 170 ahars that joins the Hadawa pyne (every ahar is given its own unique name). Pynes and ahars are the local names for channels and Reservoirs. The channels divert rainwater to the dam / reservoir where it gets collected and lasts till the next rainy season. The pynes serve a dual purpose - the big ones carry floodwaters over a long stretch for storage, while the smaller ones that emanate from various ahars carry water to irrigable lands across a number of villages. The water stored in ahars help in irrigation, reduce flooding and facilitate the recharge of groundwater on a continued basis. As the water retention capacity of the soil is low in this region the seepage helps to maintain the groundwater level, thus extending its availability to hand pumps even during the dry season. The ahars are generally three to five metres deep, spread over four to five sq kms capable of irrigating upto 400 hectares of land.

The ahars are generally drained around the fourth month during 'shashthi', just before diwali and the moist beds are utilized for cultivating rabi crops. The Hadadwa pyne and ahar have 22 diversions locally known as mohane, which are connected to 22 revenue villages called mouje. Prior to the desiltation project, the Hadadwa pynes and ahars were crumbling and in a pathetic condition reduced to small drains and flat fields. The IRA tried to persuade the ahar owners to stop draining away the water, as it would help them to increase cultivation to three crops in which one could be a cash crop and the rest being food crops for their own sustenance. They also convinced them that the groundwater quality would improve, as the percentage of fluoride would reduce to an acceptable level. With the availability of water there would be more humidity, leading to an increase in the tree cover in the private and forestlands.

This has been achieved by 7 month long community work. This is not a mean achievement, considering all kinds of impediments in the path of people cooperating with each other. IRA formed "graam sinchai samities" in all these 40 villages. These samities further nominated some of their members to a "core group" with IRA. The work started in Jan 2002 and initial round of deepening of the whole Hadadwa finished in 7 months and it was made functional. the work is still going on to increase the water holding capacity of the system. This Prakhand level IRA sinchai samiti and individual village's own IRA gram samiti also look after the management of work and also solve disputes.

Twelve engineers of the government cooperated with IRA, surveyed the entire length of the Hadadwa Ahar and Pyne system. Hadadwa is a name of a pyne , all the ahars have it's own name . In this ahar and pyne system hadadwa is the name of the pyne which joins 170 ahars. These 40 villages do not all fall in one Block, they spread over 2 blocks and 4 panchayats. They came together, to desilt and revive Hadadwa Ahar and Pyne system. IRA's offer was - you do the kaccha mud work and IRA would arrange funds required for pucca works.

What are Ahars and Pynes ? What is their role in the accumulation, storage and distribution of water for irrigation?

Small check dams are constructed to divert rainwater through Pynes to the Ahars, which get filled during rains, and when rains stop, and floods recede, great amount of water is still left in the Ahars and presently it is used for about 4 months, at the end of which they are drained by the owners of the land of the Ahars to take rabi crops in the still moist beds of the Ahars. The draining is done on the day of "shashthi" before divali. If this is not done, the Ahars are capable of holding water well upto the onset of the next rainy season.

Hadadwa Ahar and Pyne system has twenty-two diversions called mohane, connected to 22 revenue villages called mouje. Before the IRA's project started, the pynes were all silted up. They were looking like small drains and the Ahars looked like flat fields. Bunds of pyne, which are called "Bhind", were crumbling and were in bad shape.

Pynes serve in two ways - bigger ones join one Ahar to another, helping to carry floodwaters over many kms for storage. Smaller pynes emanating from different Ahars, carry water to all irrigable lands of individual villages. Water stored in Ahars helps to:

-- reduce flooding

-- irrigate vast area by rainwater

-- facilitate recharge of ground water on a continuous basis, as water retention capacity of soil here is low this continuous seepage helps to maintain good ground water quality, extending availability of water to capitals and hand pumps during the dry season.

These above were the benefits even before the project, when landowners drained the Ahars before dial. IRA tried to persuade people to agree not to drain water from any Ahar on the ground that this would really help them to achieve following -

- enable people to take two, three crops of which one can be a cash crop and another can be vegetables, this after paddy.

- improve quality of ground water i.e. percentage of fluorides can be brought down to an acceptable level

- trees would grow better, gradually improving humidity and humus in the soils.

- with availability of water, it would be easier to persuade people to plant broadleaved trees and fruit trees on their private as well as forest lands.

In historical times, Ahars were of different sizes, depending on availability of land and area required to be irrigated. Ahar is constructed by deepening through removal of soil to a depth of 2 to5 meters, excavated soil is used for bunding on three sides and partially on the fourth side. Some Ahars spread over 4 to 5 sq.km area and have the capacity of irrigating upto 300 to 400 hectares. Some cover few hundred s.meters land. All this Ahar and Pyne systems hold and collect rainwater which is our only primary source of water. Lot of work needs to be done in making people and government aware of the huge possibility of irrigating the whole Magadh division through this ingenious traditional rainwater harvesting system developed during Chandragupata and Kautilya's times.

In 1901 to 1903, British India's Irrigation Commission had made adverse comments on this system and thence the system fell into neglect. This system used to irrigated 676000 hectares of land, which is more than half the area of present day Gaya division. If we separate Son river command area, then this system irrigates 75% of the irrigable land of gaya division. After 1974 BodhGaya bhoomi andolan, many OBC and BC got small plots of lands but without any irrigation. People were not able to take even one crop, without good rain. and when the rain was less than normal they could not even take that one single crop.

Migration increased as people found some daily wage works in nearby mines, now in Jharkhand. IRA has been working in this area for the last 4 years to give value education to the village children. This way they won peoples confidence and their suspicions go. After Sarita and Mahesh visited Gujarat after the January 2001 earthquake, they realized that water is very important for survival and decided to concentrate on finding out possibilities of rainwater harvesting. They surveyed the area and started talking to the people in Fatehpur block, as they were already accepted by the villages.

Sarita and Mahesh took upon themselves to repair and beautify the Hadadwa pyne and started motivating people and giving them confidence that if they made up their minds, they could do it. So, in the last year and half, Hadadwa has been revived, 40 villages are happy, and Shabdo is one of them.

[The writer can be reached at: savitag2000@yahoo.co.in ]