Modern practices are threatening to break up an unusual water-tapping and water-sharing process in Himachal Pradesh. Devised hundreds of years ago, it converted barren land in Spiti into fertile fields.
Himalayan water-sharing system endangered
THE SPITI area of Himachal Pradesh is a cold desert, but surprisingly, agriculture is its mainstay. Transforming Spiti's lunar-like terrain into an agrarian success story was made possible by an ingenious system devised centuries ago to tap distant glaciers for water. But short-sighted developmental policies, though well-intentioned, now threaten both this unique irrigation system and the social consciousness that spawned it.
Spiti is an important trading post on the route connecting Ladakh and the plains of Himachal Pradesh. Villages in the Spiti sub-division are located between 3,000 m and 4,000 m, which means they are snowbound for six months in the year. Rainfall is negligible in Spiti because it is a rain-shadow area. The soil is dry and lacks organic matter. But, despite these handicaps, the Spiti valley has been made habitable and productive by human ingenuity.
The cropping season in Spiti is between May and October. Wheat and black peas are grown on black soil, green peas on sandy soil and black peas and barley on yellowish soil. A remarkable feature of farming in Spiti is the meticulous utilisation of every available space, however small. Even the boundaries of fields and the edges of pathways are used to grow fodder grasses. Fertilisation in winter is done with human waste collected in a novel way: Spiti's houses are double-storeyed and each is equipped with a dry latrine on the top floor and the waste is collected in a room below.
But Spiti's unique contribution to farming is kul irrigation, which utilises kuls (channels) to carry water from glacier to village. The kuls often span long distances, running down precipitous mountain slopes and across crags and crevices. Some kuls are 10 km long and have existed for centuries.
How kuls work
The crucial portion of a kul is its head at the glacier, which is to be tapped. The head must be kept free of debris and so the kul is lined with stone to prevent clogging and seepage. In the village, the kul leads to a circular tank from which the flow of water can be regulated. For example, when there is need to irrigate, water is let out of the tank in a trickle. Water from the kul is collected through the night and released into the exit channel in the morning. By evening, the tank is practically empty, and the exit is closed. This cycle is repeated daily.
The kul system succeeds because Spiti residents cooperate and share. The culture also is instrumental in maintaining the carrying capacity of the surrounding cultivable land. However, this system, carefully nurtured through the centuries now runs the risk of being upset by government intervention.
Because of the limited water availability, inheritance laws in Spiti traditionally seek to prevent fragmentation of landholdings. The eldest son inherits not only the land, but also the farm implements, the family house and the family's water rights. His siblings either serve in the common household or, more likely, become monks or nuns in Buddhist monasteries. Thus, a sort of population control has been evolved, which serves to stave off pressure on the landholdings.
Water rights are owned exclusively by members of the bada ghars (big houses), who are descendants of the original settlers or founders of the village. This system, besides establishing the pre-eminence of the bada ghars, has also installed a local social hierarchy with the bada ghars on top. The greater the share of a family's water rights, the more land it controls. In Kaza, for example, water rights over the single kul irrigating 32 ha are shared by 18 bada ghars. Other families in Kaza have to buy water from the bada ghars, and payment is generally made in kind or providing labour, but often the water is given freely. Water transactions are based on trust and are neither written down nor codified.
When a good snowfall assures abundant water, kul water is freely dispensed, but when water is scarce, equality gives way to a preferential system. During a water shortage, bada ghar members irrigate their fields first; others get water only later in the season. This practice has the advantage of ensuring that the labour demand is spread over the entire harvest season, because the bada ghars' crops ripen early, when other families are free to help in harvesting. This spacing-out of labour does away with demand peaking at the same time throughout the valley and provides a firm basis for community labour. These cooperative efforts also mean that time and effort do not become areas of conflict between those who require labour and those offering it.
When tensions occur
Nevertheless, water distribution from kuls can create tension for when there is a water shortage, the bada ghars in effect are in a dominant position and suffer the least, unlike those with secondary access who have to await their turn, but are not certain if their share will be adequate.
But even among bada ghars, the distribution of water shares may be unequal. The factors that determine sharing among them are not clear and probably were settled when the kul was constructed. Padma Dorjea, a Kaza schoolteacher, says the family that contributed the most in labour and other resources when the kul was constructed, gets the largest share under water rights passed on through generations.
The unit of kul water is one day's supply. Between sowing in April and harvesting in September, water availability is for approximately 70 days. But should a family whose share is 30 days need kul water for only 20 days, it can sell its surplus.
In Kibber, water is supplied by three kuls whose shares are owned jointly by 32 bada ghars. The kuls, named Phil, Phizur and Shrik, together irrigate 73 ha of land. Eighteen bada ghars use the waters of the Phil kul, whose supply is sufficient to irrigate 4 ha daily. The 18 families using it are divided into two groups of nine families each, and the water supply is alternated between the two groups on a daily basis. Water from Shrik, the smallest of the three kuls, is shared by six bada ghars, also divided into two groups. But the eight bada ghars that share the Phizur kul, are divided into four groups, with each getting water just once every four days because the kul's capacity is limited. Other families in Kibber have to acquire water from the 32 bada ghars.
Water shares are renewed and adjusted every season according to need, but a share cannot be lent, sold or disposed of in perpetuity. This restriction preserves the position of the bada ghar families.
Enter the government
Over the past 15 years, however, the Union government has slowly made its presence felt in the Spiti valley as a modernising agent whose actions are profoundly changing traditional production practices and social patterns. Its sponsorship of facilities ranging from schools to hospitals has opened up a variety of government jobs and agriculture is no longer the valley's only source of sustenance and employment.
The irrigation department has taken control of the kuls and introduced a number of technical and physical innovations. Kul heads, for example, have been reinforced with cement or concrete and some of the kuls have been complemented with rubber pipe. Old kuls are repaired and renovated in this manner and new kuls have been constructed.
These interventions, along with the increasing dominance of a market economy, a rise in labour mobility and the availability of alternative sources of employment, have doomed traditional social mechanisms for the repair and maintenance of kuls. Traditionally, community labour was used to repair kuls and each household contributed either in labour or in kind to keep the kuls in repair. But residents of Kibber, Losar and Sagnam villages complain the irrigation department's intervention and the lack of labour because of alternative job opportunities have resulted in the breakdown of the traditional system.
Furthermore, the government's stipulation that kul water must be distributed equally is jeopardising the valley's traditional social order and the bada ghars face the loss of both control over water and their position in the village hierarchy.
However, the disbanding of the traditional hierarchies does not automatically result in egalitarianism because the emerging social order is based on market forces and money power. This means that access to kul water will no longer be based on availability and need and the monetisation of this resource will leave many of Spiti's families impoverished.
---Rohan D'Souza is an M. Phil. candidate at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.
We are a voice to you; you have been a support to us. Together we build journalism that is independent, credible and fearless. You can further help us by making a donation. This will mean a lot for our ability to bring you news, perspectives and analysis from the ground so that we can make change together.