The unsilenced valley

The Bhils of Madhya Pradesh are armed with a simple, effective and practical system of irrigation to mend the ruin inflicted by the state's impractical and rudderless schemes

By Rahul
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

The unsilenced valley

-- (Credit: Photographs: Rahul)VISITORS to the remote Sondwa block of Jhabua district in Madhya Pradesh (MP) are often taken aback by the sight of water scaling the steep hills to irrigate fields. This seeming defiance of the law of gravity is a system devised by Bhil tribals which takes advantage of the peculiarities of the terrain to divert water from swiftly flowing hilly streams into irrigation channels called pats. Within a period of four decades, the Bhils have developed the pat system, a practical and ecologically sound method of water manage- ment. The development of this tech- nique could be seen as the Bhil retort to the state's destructive practices which have ravaged the region's environment.

The Bhils belonging to the Vindhya and Satpura hills -flanking the river Narmada - traditionally practised swidden (slash and burn) agriculture. The region's soil loses its fertility within four or five years and needs to be left uncultivated to regenerate itself. As was the case elsewhere in MP, the British disapproved of the practice as it clashed with their plans of commercially exploiting the timber resources of the state. The Bhils of Jhabua, Dhar and Khargaon districts in MP, however, remained relatively free to follow an independent lifestyle because these areas were ruled by native princes and did not come under the purview of the British. The situation changed in the post-independence period when the state of MP came into being in 1956. The areas inhabited by the Bhils were now under the control of the modern Indian state. Shifting cultivation was terminated and the Bhils were forced to settle on the land they happened to be cultivating at the time. The management of the forests was handed over to the forest department, and logging contractors in collusion with corrupt forest department officials not only logged more than the prescribed number of trees, but even made char- coal out of the non timber varieties of trees. Raisingh Anga of Attha says, "1 used to be the forest guard's acquaintance and at night, when we would go out, he used to fix the hammer's mark on trees in excess of those marked for felling."

This combination of being forced to settle on inferior lands with steep slopes and the destruction of their forests severely affected the tribals' livelihood. Lower yields from agriculture, animal husbandry and minor forest produce disturbed their well-balanced subsistence economy.

Under these circumstances, the Bhils must have been forced to think about ways in which they could increase the productivity of their farms. It is not clear as to who really hit upon the idea of the pat for irrigation or the idea of plugging gullies to create new fields. Chena Ajnaharia of Badi Vaigalgaon had built his own pat in his youth and operates it even now. "One day it just occurred to me that water could be brought up to my field and I began studying the stream next to my field. I somehow knew how to do it," he recollects. Like many others, this too might have been an accidental discovery.

The people of Bhitada village (located at the confluence of Kari, a stream, and the river Narmada), have developed this unique system to possibly its best form. Kahariya Runsingh, a resident of the village and one of the architects of the communal pat says, "My grandfather and his brothers fled from Attha, a village high up in the hills to escape the begar (free labour) being imposed by the raja of Bakhatgarh." The villagers have built typical country tile-roof huts on their own fields, rather than in a cluster. Even though the bed of the Kari, at its confluence with the Narmada is positioned about 20 in below the farms on its banks, the fields are lush green with maize and gram, grown with water brought by a four km-long pat from a point upstream.

According to Bansingh Gulabsingh, one of the younger farmers, "After harvesting the kharif crop of bajra (millet) and maize, one member from each family is spared to join others in the repair and building of the diversion bunds." The process is quite a labourious one. The diversion bunds across the stream are constructed by piling up stones and then lining them with teak leaves and mud, to make them leak-proof. The pat channel has to steer through the nullahs (deep ditches) that join the stream, before reaching the fields. Stone aqueducts are built to span these nullahs in a manner similar to the diversion bunds. Particularly skillful is the manner in which the narrow channels have been cut in the face of the sheer stone cliffs. The villagers irrigate their fields by turns. The channel requires constant maintenance and it is the duty of the family irrigating its fields on a certain day, to take care of the pat for that day. It takes about two weeks to get the pat flowing and the winter crop is sown in early November.

Chelarsingh and his brothers are doubly industrious because they cultivate a patch of land on the bed of the Narmada - where it leaves a deposit of silt on receding after the monsoons - in addition-to the field near their house. The brothers construct a pat over the rocky river-bed, to transport water to the silted patch. They carry the water over intervening depressions in hollowed out trVe trunks. Says Chelarsingh, "When our fathers first constructed the pat they gave up because there were not enough people in the village to do all the work. But now our sons have grown tip and we can muster enough people. Over the past five years, we have double-cropped some 100 more hectares because of the pat."

The tragedy is that most of Bhitada is going to be submerged by the Sardar Sarovar dam, being built on the river Narmada. It is no wonder that the people are angry at this destructive interference by the government, just when they had managed to make their land yield plentiful harvests. Highly critical about the government and its attitude, Banbai says, "The government thinks that we are like the monkeys in the hills, which run away at the very sight of human beings. But we are going to teach it a thing or two about caring for people and watering fields without drowning them." Patel Bhangia laments the loss of the village's traditional summer fishing points. He also says that the forests cared for by the villagers of Sondwa block were under threat. The government had jailed these villagers when they protested against the harm caused to the water and soil.

A steep eight-kin-long climb up the hills and valleys from Bhitada is the Karabara, the ridge that separates the watersheds of the Kari and the Kara streams. It also marks the dividing line between the part of the forest directly accessible by road and that which is not.The catchment area of the Kara is much more denuded than that of the Kari. The Karabara is held in considerable reverence by tribals; who come from far and wide to pay homage to the holy stones placed on the ridge. The Karabara is a barrier which separates not only two geographical watersheds, but two altogether different worldviews.

The people of the first two villages in theifatchment area of the Kara - Gendra and Attha - have organised themselves to protect their forests. In thee areas too, people have constructed bunds across the Kara to irrigate their fields through pats. In addition, a number 6f bunds have been constructed on the farms itself to prevent soil erosion. Around-20 persons in the two villages ha'va'got together and used the las system, a traditional labour-pooling practice to plug the deep nullahs between the fields.

By doing so, Guhtia Naikda, a farmer, has been able to create terraced fields spanning around half-a-hectare in the past decade. His self-created farm is now irrigated with water from the pat and he produces maize, gram and cotton. In many of the villages in the hilly areas of Jhabua, Dhar and Khargone districts of mp and Dhulia district of Maharashtra, the Bhils have adopted this novel method of irrigating their fields. In other villages like Sakri and Kosia, people have utilised the concrete checkdams built by the government as diversion bunds. In yet others, Polythene pipes supported by wooden struts have been pressed into service as improvised aqueducts. In Gulvat village, one such improvised aqueduct was being used to span a distance of 30 m, before the government constructed a permanent-one.

Within a period of four decades, the Bhils have developed land and water management techniques to try and ameliorate the destructive policies and schemes of the government. Yet, the locals have been continuously pressurised to abandon their mores and adopt these schemes instead. The flip side of the pat story is equally interesting. Apart from largescale deforestation, the area has witnessed a series of short- sighted and ecologically harmful schemes introduced by the government.

Since the mid-70s the massive deforestation caused by the forest department had turned Jhabua and parts of Dhar and Khargone districts into chronically drought-prone areas. Consequently, these areas have received a lot of attention under the drought- prone areas programme. The main thrust of the programme was to construct earthen dams. While the smaller ones served as soil retainers and tanks for watering animals, the bigger ones were used for canal irrigation. Over the past two decades however, it has been observed that such earthen dams have not been cost- effective in the hilly terrain. Also, the rates of siltation have been alarmingly high and the loss of water during the course of distribution has been greater than 60 per cent. The command areas arc seldom bigger than 100 ha. Officials from the department of irrigation when confronted with these facts admit - on condition of anonymity - that there has been a colossal misjudgement by the government authorities, sometimes even willful. The officials have succumbed to the opportunities for corruption that projects as big as this offer.

An even more wasteful scheme proposing largescale lift irrigation was initiated in 1989. Group irrigation schemes involving hundred of members and electric motors (with a capacity of 150 horsepower or more) have been set up. The earlier scheme, it can be said, erred only in scale but had its environmental logic intact. But this particular one has both wrong. The rock strata of the Vindhyas and the Satpuras are not amenable to bearing water in quantities large enough to tap for largescale irrigation. Due to heavy deforestation, the streamshdo not have sufficient flow. As a result, in only five years, these lift irrigation schemes have begun to fail. The situation has been worsened by the shortage of both electricity and diesel. Ddusingh of Geda village in Jhabu *a district, where the first group-scheme was initiated, says, "There are 31 pumpsets and we spend most our time fighting each other to get water from the Kara, which has almost dried up."

The residents of Patkhet hamlet in Attha village, which is called so because of the long pat that has been diverted to it from the Kara stream, were lured into abandoning their pat land starting a group lift irrigation scheme in 1991. Today, they are ruing their decision for as Tarji Ramsingh says, "We do not get electricity on time and we do not know how we are going to pay back our loans." In Attha village, a lift irrigation scheme has been started which draws water from an earthen reservoir built earlier to provide irrigation to the farmers in Badi Vaigalgaon, down- stream. The issue has generated so much friction over the past two years, that it has led to a few killings. Government officials have earned enormous kickbacks from the motor and pipe-selling traders, while the latter have also pocketed profits by supplying inferior quality goods.

Nevertheless, there are many who have tried to make the government mend its ways. The people of Vakner panchayat on the mp-Gujarat border used the funds provided under the Jawahar Rozgar Yojana to undertake contour bunding work. Later, on hearing of a new scheme called the Employment Assurances Scheme - which had been started specifically for this purpose - they applied for assistance under it, only to be disappointed. According to the district collector of Jhabua, Manoj Jhalani, these funds could be accessed only by those government agencies or non -governmental organisations which were capable of formulating and presenting elaborate plans. Consequently, most of these funds have been allotted to the Narmada Valley Development Authority (NVDA) for catchment area treatment in the Narmada basin. But the NVDA is going about it in a hamhanded manner, without involving the people of the region. As a result, there is tension in the air because the people of Vakner are resolute about not allowing the NVDA to carry on its work in the area.

The introduction of the Sardar Sarovar Project, lift irrigation schemes and catchment area treatment plans threaten to displace the Bhils from their ancestral lands. But the locals are refusing to buckle under such pressure. Their perseverance is most evident from the fact that the area under pat irrigation is increasing every year.

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