Water Crisis in Jharkhand
21 Apr 2016

The Chhotanagapur plateau of south Jharkhand and the Santhal Parganas in the north and northeastern part of the state comprise some of the least irrigated districts of the country. Agriculture in Jharkhand has remained predominantly rain-fed, dependent on the vagaries of the monsoon and the annual distribution of rain. When normal patterns of rainfall are disrupted agricultural cycles can be severely affected. In most districts, less than 10 per cent of the cultivated area has irrigation facilities provided by the government. The most common traditional sources of irrigation have been bandhs, ahars and ponds, while farmers with-both large and smallholdings have also relied on homestead wells for irrigation in the dry season. In some districts, Persian wheels are used to lift water from wells and into field channels. The main problem remains in the hilly upland areas where the rocky terrain and lateritic or shaly soils make investment in water-retaining structures like ponds a costly proposition for the average small farmer.

Micro Lift Irrigation – PRADAN Model

The Lift Irrigation programme evolved for Jharkhand was based on a detailed analysis of local constraints and assets: small land holdings, scarce or non-existent electricity in rural areas, the presence of a large number of semi-perennial streams and rivers as well as relatively homogenous groups of traditional farming communities, specially in tribal areas, that provided a congenial social environment for collective effort. Financial aid from the government’s ongoing Rural Development schemes was used to meet a large part of the capital cost of the Lift Irrigations.

The Women Managed Lift Irrigation Schemes

In Hazaribagh district, PRADAN an NGO introduced Lift Irrigation schemes with a difference– it inspired the women’s savings groups to organize under its micro-credit programme to own and manage the schemes. Few women own agricultural land in Hazaribagh but they form the bulk of the agricultural labour as in any other rice producing area in eastern India. In the programme, the women members of the farming communities are first organized into self-help or savings groups (SHGs). The SHGs take a decision to set up LI schemes in consultation with their men folk. The NGO provides the technical inputs with its multi-disciplinary team of engineers and other professionals. Working capital is taken by the women themselves, often from their own savings, with matching funds given as loans from banks. For large projects, women depend on government funds dispensed by the district rural development agencies (DRDAs).

One wonders how the Mahila Samiti manages to exercise its control over the irrigation scheme within a conservative social milieu. At the site of the intake well, the Mahila Sinchai Samiti appears to be in control of the earthwork being done there. Samiti representatives are busy supervising the work. Each beneficiary family has to contribute labour for the construction of the intake well. The proportion of labour contribution are decided by the Mahila Sinchai Sanchalan Samiti and decision is carried out by the men folk.

The women managed LI scheme at Purchara was installed in May 1995. Finance came from the District Rural Development Agency (DRDA). While the women of Purcha were ready to shoulder the responsibility of managing the LI scheme, the men of the village initially resented female encroachment in what was considered to be an exclusive male domain of agriculture and irrigation.

The Li scheme at Purchara, to all accounts, is doing well. The Samiti representative received payment for irrigation charges and issues a coupon to the landowner. The operator runs the pump to supply water only on receipt of the coupon. For the members of the Mahila Sinchai Samiti, the irrigation charges are Rs. 15.00 per hour plus the fuel cost. Out of it, Rs. 4.00 per hour goes to the operator appointed by the Samiti. The rest goes to the Samiti funds. Truly, the LI has changed the face of agriculture at Purchara. There was only one paddy crop earlier of local variety and its yield was poor even in best of times, reports Sohua Devi, a Samiti member. “ Now , with irrigation facilities, we get not only wheat and potato but also a much better yield of paddy”, she adds. At Lathia village in Barhi block, the men refused to accept women’s control over the LI system and refused to buy coupons from them. It took a number of meetings there before the menfolk eventually recognized the women’s ownership over the scheme. Right now, all-women Mahila Sinchai Samities run 50 LI Schemes in different blocks of Hazaribagh, Godda, Lohardaga, Kodarma and Dumka districts. It is not that women have already assumed full control over these schemes. Illiteracy, lack of technical training regarding the maintenance and operation of pump-sets as well as the patriarchal tradition remain obstacles on the way.

Traditional water harvesting structures are found all over Jharkhand. In the undulating hilly areas of the Chotanagpur plateau have relied on ponds that harvest rain run-off from higher locations. The water retained in such structures seeps into the layers of clay to the bottom from where it travels by gravity flow to irrigate fields situated at lower levels. Traditional wisdom had determined that a contiguous group of such ponds has a greater effect than the sum of many individual ponds in dispersed locations.

In Diuri village, Tamar block, Ranchi District. Dr.Ram Dayal Munda, former VC of Ranchi University, and his wife Anita told that the original pond was dug by his father over 50 years ago. His phua (paternal aunt) Sumitra remembers how exited everyone was when the scheme was undertaken. “ I was that small when they dug the tank” she says showing her height as a 10-year-old girl. “ It holds water throughout the dry summer months and irrigates fields way down there about half a mile away”. The women of Diuri demanded from their men folk similar ponds in their adjacent plots. When the homestead wells run dry in summer women do their washing and bathing in these ponds.

Coal Mining leaves people landless and waterless

Even as the government of Jharkhand is initiating a Rajiv Gandhi National Drinking Water Programme to ensure drinking water in every village in Hazaribagh district, a village whose water supply has been destroyed by mining is threatened with police action for protesting about the same. Agaria Tola is a hamlet of 18 tribal and scheduled caste families, in the West Bokaro mining area of Mandu Block, where the Tata Iron & Steel Company (TISCO) has a captive coal mine. The village once had a natural spring of ever-fresh water, a permanent supply. Women from 110 families in 6 neighbouring hamlets would come to this spring, so precious to them that they called it”naihar”, our mother's home. It was also a place for socializing, not only for the women as they collected water but also for nature. There were several water snakes in the spring, whom the women treated as their own. The spring was a place of fresh, pure water; it was a place of life.

In 2000, TISCO bulldozed that spring of water. The spring was at the edge of the coal bearing area of their West Bokaro colliery, and they waned the coal. Production figures had to be met, that area was in the mining plan.

Did the planners know about the spring? Did they include its value in the cost of their mining? If the spring were costed, its value would be many thousand times more than the value of the coal. But the point is, the company saw coal production figures, not the lives of ordinary people, or a spring of water whose cost could not be determined. The village people ask: If the people destroyed the Company colony water supply, there would be criminal charges. But if the Company can destroy the peoples’ “nahar” how is it something different?

The people had proposed that a certain area be marked off for the preservation of the spring. The spring was on the edge of the mine lease, so it could easily have been done, even ensuring a suitable catchments area. During those summer months two years ago there were many angry exchanges between TISCO and the people. Blasting came close to the spring and next to a boundary wall of the village. Several times the women had gone into the mine and stood in front of the machines to stop them, and several times the company called in security and police when they protested.

The company then dug an alternative well, and in the meantime provided alternate supply of water through tankers. The people ask, can dependence on a mechanical tanker, to bring and pour water into cement troughs, be a substitute for a living spring? Even then, the tanker they used was a converted oil tanker, and the water tasted of kerosene!

Near Agaria village mine of Central Coal India has destroyed the water table and the well. Now the well has dirty, shallow and stagnant water. Appeals to the Company have gone unheeded. So the water collectors, the women, have protested, in the only language the company seem to understand. They stopped the mining during the summer of 2002. The woman went twice in large groups into the mine and stopped the working, pro-testing, “Are we too not citizens of this free country, to live in human dignity? Must we live like animals in our own village?”

High and dry between the Piparwaar and Ashoka mines

Benti village, situated in the southern tip of Tandawa block, Hazaribagh district, is the largest of the nine villages displaced by the Piparwar mine, India’s biggest open-cast coal mine, started with Australian aid and expertise in the early days of liberalization, 1988-99 by the Central Coalfields Ltd (CCL). It was to be a ‘model’ mine, fully mechanized with in-pit crushing machines, conveyor belts, a modern washery, and a railway line to transport the coal to distant New Delhi for the capital’s thermal power plants. Mine authorities promised strict environmental management and ecological restoration of the mined out pits, using Australian techniques of segregating topsoil and overburden and backfilling of the pit as the mining advances.

Piparwar is the first of the 23 mines planned in the North Karanpura valley which will displace hundreds of villages, devour prime cropland and forest and turn the upper basin of the Damodar river into a bleak, scarred, pitted and polluted moonscape. The very names of these mines – Ashoka, Ajatasatru, Chandragupta – suggest the new imperialism of India’s mining industry, now supported by international finance.

The 700 odd people of the first village to be displaced, Piparwar-Mangardaha, live resentfully in two inhospitable, water-scarce resettlement sites, already proving too small for the growing population. The tube well provided by CCL yields reddish unpleasant tasting water, The village comprised of mainly agricultural households, both tribal and non-tribal, with a few landless and artisan families. When the lands were acquired through the Coal Bearing Areas Act and the Land Acquisition Act starting in the late 80s, people were not compensated on a land-for-land basis, because there was no land to be found for them to move. They got meagre cash compensations and some jobs on dubious criteria. The big landlords who first offered their lands to the company also cornered the most number of jobs for their sons, plus contracts for ancillary works like building of roads, culverts and drainage channels and fencing of the industrial area.

In Bhuiyan tola, the well, 10’ wide and 50’feet deep, was made by the block office. As the Ashoka mine went deeper the well went dry. To date the entire Bhuiyan population lives without its own water source.

The only working hand pump is in the Sau tola, Karmi Devi Bhuiyan, grey-haired, about 60, says it takes her 2.5 hours to fill water from the handpump each day. Another lady Asha Devi says, “ When we go there we get a number and wait in line.” First the Sau fill their pots and buckets. If we happen to have come first we move away”. Her husband Ganesh complains:” Sometimes the food gets burnt because it takes her so long to get the water”, Santi Devi says, 5-6 large gharas of water will do for one household’s daily needs. Each ghara takes 15-25 liters of water: the big ones take over three buckets of water each. The women carry 100-150 litres per day to their homes.

Some women prefer to go to the Barwatola pond 2 km away. Others take a hazardous trek down into the mine to collect the water that gets continuously pumped out of the lower levels from where it is directed towards the Damodar river. But isn’t that full of coal dust? Ka kariti, says Rupni Devi, ha, kala to hai ( What to do? Yes, it's black). “ Before the mines came we were surrounded by forests and had plenty of water from the stream flowing by”, recalls Karmi Devi. “ As soon as the Ashoka mine started our well went dry. Now there is a daily struggle for water, which we have to get from tolas in the village.

One lady Shanti says: “ A lot of people have come to us with note books and pens like you. They went away and never did anything for us. Will you do the same?” What do you want us to do? we ask. We ask the men what they had done about the women’s water problem. In 1994 when the well ran dry they agitated and stopped work at the mine. They damaged some of the vehicles and burnt their tyres. People were arrested. They lost many days of work and had to pay the police to let him go. Then CCL got the block to build a couple of cement tanks – all in the Sau tola – for common use. These were filled by pumps, but after a year the pump broke and nothing has been done about it since.

The general water problem seems to have been relegated to the level of a women’s problem because it is the women who must collect and carry over water each day back to their homes. They wash their clothes and utensils in other hamlets and bring home drinking, washing, cooking and bathing water for the family. Those who can’t carry water or make the trek – the aged, the sick, pregnant women and children have to do with less. All the small children have eye infections and present an unwashed appearance.

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