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
-- 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
- 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