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To each according to his needs

By Anup Sharma

In villages along the Indo-Bhutan border in lower Assam, where the deepest wells are dry, communities rely on the traditional dong community water-harvesting system which operates on sound principles of water management and judicious distribution

A Dry river bed in Bhutankhuti village along the Indo Bhutan border.

If one were to ask any villager along the Indo-Bhutan border for a glass of water, he is likely to get you a glass of milk instead. Water is one of the most precious commodities in the 200-odd villages here, spread over roughly 300 sq km.  

The groundwater level in these parts is so low that although people have tried digging wells they have failed to find water, forcing them to rely on the seven seasonal rivers that pass through the region. 

Villagers living along the Indo-Bhutan border, in lower Assam’s Baksa district, meet their water requirements through an ancient diversion-based irrigation system called ‘dongs’ (‘small canals’, in Assamese). The dongs, which have been in existence since the 1930s, are among the oldest existing community water management systems in India.  

Under the system, small dams are built on a river and the water routed through canals to paddy fields and into household ponds. “Dongs operate on sound principles of water management, ensuring that there is no waste, and water is distributed judiciously and equitably. We have dong committees that strictly monitor the supply and use of water. A dong is opened for a few hours, at periodic intervals, like once a week for one village so that the residents can store water in their ponds. The next day, another dong is opened for another village,” says Teknath Parajuli, a resident of Bhutankhuti, near Nikasi. Parajuli explains that all the villagers contribute manual labour towards the construction of small stone dams on the rivers, and then regulate the flow of water through long canals.   

Some local people collecting boulders to make diversion in the river bed.

Jogen Barman, a teacher who lives in Sonajuli, adds: “It would sound strange to anyone who is not familiar with the area, but seriously, the villagers used to treat any thirsty person to a glass of milk instead of a glass of water to quench his thirst. Water is the most valuable thing in our area.”  

The water scarcity has led to strict rationing; people get water only according to their needs. The rules of sharing water are precise: for example, a person with a pair of bullocks and a couple of bighas of land will get less than a person with two pairs of bullocks and four bighas of land. Similarly, a family that owns two pair of bullocks has to send more men to work on the canals than a family that owns a single pair of bullocks. Everyone respects this arrangement and ensures that there is no violation of the laid-down norms, says Barman.  

“The committee also monitors the distribution of water. If someone is caught stealing water there is provision for the slapping of a Rs 200 fine on him,” says Haren Boro, another Bhutankhuti villager.  

The vast landscape of the Bhutan foothills is crisscrossed by a number of rivers and streams originating in the hills. Most of these turn into frothing torrents during the monsoons; in the winter they are a mere trickle. That’s when the dong system really comes into play, when water is scarce even for drinking. 

A Dong or canal that take waters to the individual ponds in each households in the areas. There are about 15000 such dongs in the entire area.

“Pagladiya, Diring, Gongor, Sukia, Boga, Kaldiya, Diya and Basfola are the rivers that cover the 300 sq km area. We have a large network of dongs on all of them. The people have entrusted the overall management of the dongs to the Uttar Anchalik General Dong Bandh Committee that functions as per provisions of its constitution,” Maheswar Barman, a retired teacher and resident of Jala Basti, says.  

The traditional community water-harvesting system has led to greater camaraderie among the various communities living here. “We have Assamese, Bodos, Nepalis and adivasis living together in the villages. Since community-managed water management has a major bearing on our lives, it has also cemented our ties,” says Kamal Sarma, a farmer who also holds a government job.  

But, says Barman, although the dongs have helped alleviate much of the area’s water problems, the state government must install permanent water sources. “No doubt the dongs have been a great relief, but the problem has turned more acute in recent years with the rivers drying up alarmingly during the winters,” he says. 

Goma Ghimire, a housewife of tarabari village in the area.

Echoing Barman’s feelings, Goma Ghimire says that the water shortage is perhaps the biggest problem plaguing the villages. “We need at least six days to build a diversion with boulders, which, again, needs frequent repair during the rainy season. Till now, we have been getting whatever little water during the dry season from the dongs. But the government should give us a permanent source of water as the rivers are drying up faster than before.”   

“We cannot work anywhere else as we have to work on the canals. During the monsoon season, the existing boulder diversions are washed away by the overflowing rivers and we have to spend time repairing them,” says Padma Goutam, a housewife from Tarabari village.   

The situation is worse in villages on the fringes of the Bornadi Wildlife Sanctuary in Udalguri district, where people draw water from a 100-foot-deep community well just outside the sanctuary. “The water level is so low that we have to really struggle from dawn to dusk to draw water to meet our requirements. As we are poor we cannot go in for individual deep wells, so we have to bank on community water sources,” says Bisu Tanti.  

A Girl filling her pail with mud filled waters of the dong for household use.

Although government efforts at ensuring a basic need like water are conspicuous by their absence, the NGO Gramya Vikash Mancha has managed to mobilise locals and boost community participation. “We are helping through technical and financial assistance in different initiatives such as diversion irrigation and restoration of lost wetlands and river channels,” says Gramya Vikash Mancha’s president Prithibhusan Deka.  

He adds: “We are trying to help them (the people of the village) by adding technological sophistication to boost the existing diversion-based irrigation system. We are trying to install two sluice gates to centrally control the movement of water from these rivers. We are also putting up net boulders to improve the diversions. This is going to reduce the workload of the villagers.”  

(Anup Sharma is a Guwahati-based freelance journalist and a current fellow of the National Foundation for India) 

Infochange News & Features, April 2010