Friday, August 05, 2005

Is there actually a water shortage ? How Ancient India Coped

Kusum Choppra

The wisdom of our hoary traditions indicates that as a monsoon dependent country, India needs to conserve its sheet flows of rain water in any and every way possible.
In fact, by the end of the sixteenth century, we had cultivated such expertise in water conservation, that in some parts of the country, as much as 60 % of the precipitation was being harnessed. Major R H Sankey, a chief engineer in Mysore in 1866, (quoted in Water Management Systems in India) records :
" Of the 27,269 sq.miles covered by Mysore, nearly 60% has, by the patient industry of its inhabitants been brought under the tank system. Unless under exceptional circumstances, none of the draining of these 16,287 sq.miles is allowed to escape. To such an extent has the principle of storage been followed that it would now require some ingenuity to discover a site within this great area suitable for a new tank ...."
In our times, annual precipitation, an estimated 400 million hectare meters ( MHM ), against the 2000 annual requirement of 100 MHM translates into 300 MHM excess !
The 400 MHM come in major bursts. During the monsoon, intensity of rainfall per day veers around 20 mm per day, an average of 300 hours or 12 1/2 days throughout the year. Of the 300 hours, half the rains falls in less than 30 hours. In places like Jaisalmer, Bangalore or Bombay, 100 cms of rain come within 30 hours, spread over a rainy season of 100 days.
These sheet falls flow away as floods into the seas; some evaporates, some build up soil moisture, a little percolates into the deep aquifers; now, this last is diminishing rapidly.
And conservation has been hit hard by a shift from people based community efforts to officialdom which is unable to cope with the monsoon’s flash floods and sheet flows.
The only areas where the water table is not falling dramatically is where deficiences in canal construction or the over-use of water is leading to water-logging, obviously a man-made disaster.
Since Independence, governments’ obsession with short term measures such as tanker supplies, hand pumps etc., offer lucrative spin-offs under the table on a recurring basis.
The term “ safe drinking water “ itself is an anamoly. Officialdom would have it that households with piped water have safe drinking water, never mind of those pipes are routinely and periodically corroded and carriers of disease; ironic, in a country with a history of an amazing variety of water conservation techniques.
Villages with deep sweet water wells, but no piped supply pop up in the ‘ no water ‘ list, although the citizens have healthy and duly hydrated. This amazing feat surfaces thus:
In 1981 a survey of rural households with safe drinking water put the all India average at 26.50 % with Punjab topping the chart at 81.80% households and West Bengal coming next at 65.78.5 households with piped water supply. Kerala with its astounding development in other social sectors came at the bottom of the table with 6.26%.
Investigation revealed that Kerala has an astonishing number of well-maintained wells which are the chief source of drinking water. If the surveyors had taken these into account, the percentage of Kerala’s rural households with access to safe drinking water would be well beyond 88 %, much higher than Punjab or West Bengal.


What did our ancestors do, before the import of dubious Occidental genius which spelt doom to the legendary prosperity of Ancient India and to her systems ?
The genius of Ancient India dictated that water be stored wherever it rained,‚ i.e. in hundreds of thousands of reservoirs, all over the countryside, known by different names in different parts of the country.
The sheer variety of names given to the water storage units reveals how widespread the practice was throughout the different parts of the country :
the eri, the kulam, the jheel, the sagar, the johard, the talab, the sar, the nadi, the khadin, the kund, the kunta, the katta, the pukur,the bandh, the ahar, even irrigated fields such as paddy, surrounded by bunds, which allowed percolation, built up soil moisture, reduced soil/land erosion and maintained atmospheric humidity.
Besides, there were also sub-surface tankas, deep stepwells in the urban areas and roof water harvesting, in which rain water was piped down to basement reservoirs or sub-surface tanks, to provide drinking water throughout the year ... the modern day version of which may just be the new found interest in percolation wells in commercial complexes and public places like gardens.

In ancient India, it was not kings alone who built the intricate and amazing variety of reservoirs and tanks. They could be funded by any charity-minded persons, even a penance-minded one, as the inscriptions on an ancient tank which reveal that it was funded by the community prostitute.
The creation of these tanks provided employment in times of need, besides binding the community with a common asset which enforced an element of cooperation; the annual clean-up operations had many social and economic spin-offs.
The philosophy of dam building in Ancient India was considerably different from ours : dams of longer bunds and smaller heights were built by local communities, in valleys and plains where irrigation was both feasible and in fact necessary. Thus both canal expenses and transmission losses were reduced to a minimum.
In our times, dams are built in hilly tracts, far from the irrigable areas. Modern dams uproot the already underprivileged to provide irrigation and other water facilities down lengthy canal systems to areas far downstream, which draw the economic benefit of the facility created with public funds.
Unlike modern day dams which trap at best 10-20 percent of the precipitation, allowing the rest to flow away to save the massive dam structures, all the above mentioned reservoirs were designed to capture the flow from a designated catchment area. When full, the overflow was routed to similar reservoirs further downstream, all the way down until it reached the river or the sea, with enough stoppages of water on the way to allow sufficient percolation into the underground water table.
The virtually unending series of tanks and ponds dotting the countryside served not only for storage of water, but also reduced the damage from flash floods and from soil erosion, improved percolation and soil moisture, but also encouraged more greenery ( and therefore more rains) and maintained the atmospheric humidity regime.
At one time, of the 43477 tanks in Karnataka, nearly 50% irrigated less than ten acres. The emphasis was 'small is beautiful' and self help. Large tanks were funded by philantrophy or kings.

Another specific example is the complex system of "overflow irrigation" which gave ancient Bengal its legendary prosperity; the destruction of which has bred nothing but malaria and poverty. Described in detail by Sir William Willcock, the system appears to have been constructed in the Ganga and Damodar valleys during the Chola regime 2000 years ago, inspired by Egyptian irrigation systems on the Nile.
Long, continuous, fairly parallel broad and shallow canals covered the region. At the head, they carried river water and at the tail rainwater drained from the fields. Irrigation was performed by breach in the banks of canals which were closed when the floods were over.
After heavy rainfall when the rivers received floodwater, the banks embanked with mud were breached at appropriate times and the flood waters were taken into the canals. If not diverted at the appropriate time, this could wreck havoc with inundation.
The heads of the canals were so located that the upper layer of muddy water from the floods, rich in fine clay and free from coarse sand would enter the canal.
While the rains were sufficient to feed rice cultivation, the light silt soil was easily eroded and needed irrigation of clayey waters. The muddy and clayey early flood waters served the purpose of fertilization of the fields. Excess was then drained off by the field drains.
This engineering marvel served a distinct ecological purpose as well. While the overflow irrigation did its work, the damp bred mosquito larvae in millions. The muddy river waters brought in thousands of fish eggs, which traveled through the canals into the fields full of mosquito larvae, clearing the area of any threat of malaria. And the protein-rich fish ushered in general health throughout the region.
The destruction of the system in the late nineteenth century converted the canals into stagnant pools breeding malaria and poverty.

Imagine the genius of Madhya Pradesh's tribals, who create intricate water systems over terrains, in channels with abysmal rises, ‚to take water UPSTREAM,‚ tens of kilometers around hills to water their fields on the plateaux. The work is extremely painstaking, in the channels, the land rise barely visible to the eye, except when one surveys the end result, actually seeing water travel upstream to heights of even over 100 ft.
Such communities bear great grudges against the modern espousal of tubewells and individual wells, as opposed to the earlier trends of communal assets. They claim that tubewells may bring prosperity to the person who puts down the well, but pumping out the water from deep underground acquifiers drains the wells of the surrounding fields, affecting the harvests of the neighbouring farmers.

The Arthashastra recommends that the king shall construct reservoirs (setu ) filled with water either perennial or drawn from some other source. Alternatively he might provide sites, roads, timber and other necessary things to those who constructed reservoirs of their own accord or on a communal basis.
Since the creation and upkeep of reservoirs was a communal effort, rather than an official governmental one, the reservoirs must, of needs, be of a manageable size.
Annual maintenance and repairs of the water systems was a communal voluntary effort, almost like a village festival; according to the Arthashastra, even compulsory for all, either in person, or by the sending of deputies.
Punishments are laid down for " defaulters ":
“whoever stays away from any kind of cooperative construction ( sambhuya setubandat ) should send his servants and bullocks to carry on his work, should have a share in the expenditure but should have no claim on the return. The natural overflow of water from higher tanks to tanks lower downstream shall not be stopped unless the lower tank has ceased to be useful for three consecutive years."
Severe punishment is prescribed for offenses, including emptying a tank of its water. Persons found letting water out of the tank or stopping the water from the fields of others during their time are to be fined.

After the arrival of the British and their known penchant for " divide and rule ", the tensions generated between landowners and tenants and lower castes first undermined and finally totally removed the voluntary system.
Appalled by the quantum of effort involved, the British tried to bring in laws and legislation to enforce the maintenance; but its caste chickens came home to roost and all efforts at enforcing communal maintenance failed so miserably that there was no alternative but to take over maintenance which did not happen. Finally most of the systems fell into woeful disrepair, as no funds were budgeted for canal maintenance.
The dependence of modern Indians on the government of the Sovereign Republic of India is appalling and to a large extent, responsible for dreadful condition of the canal and other networks of modern dams. e.g. Panam and Ukai dams in South Gujarat are less than 50 years old ;
their canals are either non-existent or in such an appalling state of dire disrepair that the potential created by the dam has not been achieved .
State and central governments routinely allocate funds for the construction of dams, sometimes for the canals also. Even in the case of the Narmada Main Canal, touted as the largest canal system in the world, ultimately, the Narmada Nigam has had to virtually steal the dam funds, possible only on account of the stay on the construction of the dam. Once the Supreme Court gave permission for the raising of the height of the dam, work on the canals has stalled and flash floods are the order of the monsoon day.
British India, with its rural vested interests such as zamindars, ryots and transferable village officials spelt the death of communal responsibilities and communal control over communal assets. This lasted for centuries until the creation of the modern panchayat system with its electoral conundrums.
It took the imposition of foreign systems in all administrative and other walks of life during the British era to subvert them, spelling doom to village democracies, and the systems dependent on them. This covered all facets of village life, from revenue and assessment to water courses and distribution, down to even a social structure like caste.

Social Commentor Ram Swarup holds that“ " Old India had castes, not casteism."
The original connotation of caste was perhaps a social grouping with a common factor. Yet every caste was woven into the life of the community as a whole, with no outcastes, as known today. Caste in ancient India was a cooperative, cultural principle, offering a vocation as soon as one was born ... a dream for those threatened with chronic unemployment.
Rigidity in caste was a convenient myth, for there was no dearth of social mobility. Nor was there, in ancient India, the plethora of castes, legacy of the British fervor for documentation.
Megathenes relates a 7 fold division of society; Hsuan Tsang, the Chinese pilgrim of 650 A.D. mentions four castes. Alberuni too mentions four main castes, with some other groups which did not strictly belong to the caste system. Manu mentioned not more than 40 mixed castes, related by blood. Even Chandals were Brahmins on their father's side. But under the British, Risley enumerated 2,378 main castes, 43 races and endless lists of sub-castes. The 1891 census recorded as many as 1156 subcastes of chamars alone !!
Coming to the water scene, it was the low caste landless caste, variously known as Nirkuttis, Nirganti, Nir Paychi, Patkaris, Havaldars, Kohlis etc. who had the responsibility of irrigating every field in the system, according to its requirement or the norms laid down by the farmers' association.
The Nirkattis were selected as a traditionally landless community; it was reckoned that they would have no personal stakes or caste patriotism to interfere with the dispassionate distribution of water. They took pride in their impartiality and would not suffer any farmer to touch the water works,sluices or vents in the fields. Once the norm of distributions as laid down, the nirkatti followed them regardless of their effect on individual farmers and their possible attempts to tamper with sluices or water courses, which were reported.
While labour was generally communal, the design and engineering of the water systems required specialized skills. Certain families, such as the Yellamma Reddys of Andhra Pradesh, specialized in the construction of reservoirs; other caste communities, wadders, boyis etc., specialized in earth and stone work, for tanks, wells, roads etc.. To this day, the scions of such families form the main source of labour for the irrigation and R & B departments.
With government created water resources ruling the roost, virtually free of charge, unencumbered by any duties or responsibilities towards regular maintenance, community water resources, ancient tanks, anicuts etc. have fallen out of favor.
Tanks are filled up for valuable real estate in semi-urban and urban areas, or used as garbage dumps, bus stands etc. Stepwells are now historic ruins; supply channels and catchment areas lost to sight with weeds etc. As village communities hand over their own control of water resources to the government, they end up losers. The alternatives provided by the government, both in irrigation and drinking water are sub-standard.

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