A traditional irrigation system developed some 100 years ago in Assam’s Baksa district reduces dependence on climatic conditions for agriculture. Amarjyoti Borah a SAMUHA Water Fellow reports from Baksa on how the community developed a system that is based on ‘Shram Dan’.
Ask a farmer in Assam’s Baksa district on the Indo-Bhutan border if erratic monsoon or absence of irrigation facilities have ever affected his crops and he would be rather surprised.
Baksa as over 149,288 cultivators and another 94,591 agricultural labors in the district but unfortunately there are no irrigation facilities there.
Yet irrigation has never been an issue.
What they have is a century old traditional irrigation system and is looked after by a proper committee. The legacy has been passed on to subsequent generations, and this over the years has ensured that the farmers don’t face any water shortages in their fields.
The age-old indigenous irrigation system called ‘Dong’ enables the villagers to meet their water needs throughout the year but its utility is felt more during the prolonged dry winters when even drinking water becomes scarce.
“The dong-bandh system has been in operation since human settlements started in the once-thickly forested areas almost a hundred years back, and in this system small dams are built on a river and the water is routed through canals to paddy fields and into the household ponds,” said Chakradhar Talukdar, a project officer associated with the non-profit Gramya Vikash Mancha, which is working on these traditional irrigation networks.
The situation is ideal there for such a system as a vast landscape on the Bhutan foothills is crisscrossed by a number of rivers and streams originating from the hills.
“Pagladiya, Diring, Gongor, Sukia, Boga, Kaldiya, Diya and Basfola are the rivers covering an area of around 300 sq km where the local people have set up a large network of dong-bandh on all of them. This takes care of the water need, and for this the farmers are not affected even during drought periods,” said Talukdar.
“This area is rocky and has traditionally been water deficit as it is very difficult to dig wells or install hand pump, so over hundred years back the people here had started this irrigation system,” said Talukdar.
This traditional irrigation system, locally known as Dong-Bandh system, has been a blessing for the farmers in the district, who mostly cultivate rice, maize, vegetables, tea cultivation, betal nut and leaves.
This irrigation system involves making a small canal from a nearby river, and it has been dug all the way to the cultivation fields. This way systematically smaller or sub channels are made to take the water to the cultivation fields.
“The main canal is made from the river so that water flows through it, and after the canal reaches areas where there are fields, smaller canals are made so that water could be taken to all cultivable areas,” said Talukdar.
The committee entrusts one member for each sub-canal, whose duty is to monitor the canal everyday and report to the committee about any damage or any repair that might be needed.
Such a committee has a 50 member team, which includes the president, vice president, advisers and a few watchmen.
There is an office of each Dong-Bandh system, where meetings are held regularly to discuss important issues and before taking any decisions.
Any new household that wants to avail this service has to apply to the committee and has to deposit a fee of rupees one thousand. After this they become a member of the committee, and also get access to the service.
The tenure of the committee is one year, and the annual audit is presented every year before the monsoon, usually around the month of May to the stakeholders of the system.
“The watchman inspects the canal on a daily basis and if any repair is needed, immediately informs the committee president or secretary, and they in turn ask some member to go and repair the canal where it has been damaged,” said Talukdar
Violators who don’t turn up for work are immediately fined, and the fine is Rs. 100 a day.
Talukdar further added that all the committee members follow the concept of “shram dan”, and there is no cash transaction.
Even the charges for water are in kind and not cash.
Every household which avails this service has to pay an annual fee every year—40 kg of rice. The watchmen and committee secretary are each paid 1600 kgs of rice a year for their services from the total collected by the committee.
Farmers pointed out that they have never been affected even in the drought periods from water scarcity, and said that even without any irrigation facilities they don’t face any problems.
One such dong-bandh is the Okaladonga Barnadi Ashama Aranga Bandh Dong, and it has been able to benefit over 500 households and provides water to over 14000 bighas of agricultural land.
“This area has been traditionally water scarce as a result of the rocky land here, and our ancestors who were basically farmers had started this system of irrigation, and as a result of that, till today we are reaping the benefits from this system,” said Monu Lahkar, 38, secretary of the of the Okaladonga Barnadi Ashama Aranga Bandh Dang Committee.
“I have 12 bigha of land, and though there are no irrigation facilities here, I don’t have any difficulty in cultivating in my plot of land,” said Lahkar.
“I have 10 bighas of cultivable land, and in that I cultivate rice, maize, and vegetables, and I am able to do three crops a year, and this is solely as a result of this irrigation network,” said Monindra Choudhury, a 44 year old farmer, who also benefits from the network.
The state government is still to set up a irrigation project in the district, and when approached, Assam irrigation minister Ranjit Dutta, said that the department is reeling under fund crisis.
“Many of the department’s existing projects are pending as a result of funds, and under such a situation it is very difficult to focus on new projects,” said Dutta.
The Assam agriculture department also acknowledges the contribution of this traditional irrigation system to the higher yield in the Baksa district compared to the other districts in the state.
According to data from the Assam agriculture department, in the year 2014-15, the yield of autumn paddy in the district was 4704 kg per hectare, while the state average was 3414 kg per hectare.
Similarly, in the year 2013-14, the yield of autumn paddy in the district was 2864 kg per hectare of land while the state average was 2301 kg per hectare of land.
“The period of cultivation of autumn paddy is around February to June in the state, and this is the period when the farmers are highly dependent on irrigation facilities, as during this period there is little rainfall,” said Mawsam Hazarika, a senior official of the Assam agriculture department.
“The irrigation network helps the farmers to a great extent by providing water throughout the year, and this is one reason why the areas within the districts doesn’t reel under water crisis even when there is a drought like situation or drought,” said Nurul Islam, a senior official of the Assam agriculture department.
Citing an example, Islam said that in the year 2006 there was a major drought in the state and the state government had to provide pump sets and diesel to farmers, but in Baksa the farmers were not facing water crisis.
“We found that many of the farmers in the Baksa district were not being affected as a result of the drought, as they were getting water through this system,” said Islam.
Following requests from the villagers and the civil society groups, headed by GVM, the Bodoland Autonomous Council, under which the Baksa district falls, has built sluice gates to help regulate the flow of water in a better and coordinated manner.
“5-6 sluice gates are being built on the mouth of a few channels to help regulate the flow of water, but those are still under construction and will deliver good results after completion,” said Pritibhushan Deka, director of GVM.
As an icing on the cake for these farmers, GVM, with a grant from the Tata Trust, has further restored and institutionalized the irrigation network and the traditional wisdom in the past 4 year.
“Through community action over 183.7 kms of canals been restored through cleaning & dredging work, and the restoration work would benefit over 18,000 bigha of cultivable land,” said Deka.
According to Deka this has benefited over 32 thousand farmers and fisherman.
Deka further added that they have also formed a Central Canal Management Committee of Ghogra Jan (Canal) by giving exposure visits to the Dong Bandh Committees and have also formulated a constitution.
“The Central Canal management Committee was formed taking 21 executive members from all the Branch Canal management Committees. An amendable constitution is also formulated which would be followed by the Committee to resolve any problem regarding distribution of water,” added Deka.