Water and the community
A long, rectangular, unpainted brick building stands covered with a roof of metal sheets supported by wooden rafters. On weekdays, it houses three classrooms of a government primary school. On this particular Sunday, a sultry summer morning, it is the premise of an all-important community meeting. The smoke from incense sticks, burnt to keep flies away, rises lazily over the heads of the hundred-odd men gathered together. A yawn here, a pair of eyes glazing over there – unless the speaker is a good orator, sitting through presidential addresses is a colourless affair everywhere. Yet no matter how monotonous the speaker, the apparent boredom of the audience does not last long here. This is because it revolves around one of the main necessities for survival – water.
The people here have gathered for the annual meeting of the No 1 Diring Bandh-Dong Committee in a school in Dihira, Baksa district, one of the four of the Bodoland Territorial Area Districts (BTAD) of Assam.
Ask any farmer in these regions – the Bodo belt bordering the Bhutan foothills – what their greatest challenge is, and the answer is unequivocal. Water.
The state of Assam, in general, does not have a great track record of providing irrigation facilities for farmers, especially in the poorer districts of western Assam, also called Lower Assam. Going by the state Agricultural Department's 'Profile of Agri-Horti sector of Assam' report published in February 2013, only 30 percent of the net cropped area is under assured irrigation from both agricultural and irrigation schemes. This neglect is felt even more in the disturbed areas, now under the Bodoland Territorial Council, which gained autonomous administration in 2003 after a long ethnic conflict. Though Assam receives over 2000 mm of annual rainfall, water continues to be a scarce resource due to the fast run-off caused by sloping terrain. Groundwater is largely inaccessible as well, and with high iron contamination, its quality also leaves much to be desired.
Notwithstanding the adversities, water-intensive paddy cultivation has survived in these conflict-ridden regions and it owes a lot to the indigenous canal systems of dongs. The dong system involves building temporary bunds on permanent stream or river courses – the rivers originating from the eastern Himalayan foothills of Bhutan, which flow south to eventually meet the mighty Brahmaputra. The next step is to divert part of the water through the dongs so that water reaches fields and homesteads in the downstream villages. Typically, a dong network starts at the point of diversion from a river or water source, in this case, the Diring river. The larger dong systems comprise subsidiary channels, around three to five feet wide, taking off from the main dong channel (7-12 feet wide). These subsidiary canals break off eventually into jamphai or field channels that supply water to the agricultural fields. Each point in this intricate network is overseen by these community institutions called dong-bandh committees, which have emerged over the decades to manage these indigenous irrigation structures. These committees are found intermittently throughout the four districts of BTAD, Kokrajhar, Baksa, Udalgiri and Chirang. Some dong committees, such as the Dihira committee, are more functional than the others.
According to Sanjib Baruah in Durable Disorder: Understanding the Politics of North-East India, before the British colonial land settlement policies of the 19th century, different peasant communities in Assam, both tribal and non-tribal, practised shifting cultivation. Settled agriculture only began to get dominant in the second and third decades of the 20th century with the arrival of East Bengali peasants into the region. This fits in with what the present-day members of several old dong committees say; most of them trace the origin of the committees to the early 1940s.
In a sense, these committees are an example of Participatory Irrigation Management and Water Users Associations being put into practice well before these terms were in vogue. A smaller committee like No 2 Jorthan Subhansiri Boghpara Bandh Dong Committee in Mushalpur, Baksa covers only 90 households in four villages. However, a prominent committee like No 1 Diring Bandh Dong Committee, which has seven branch committees, may have additional groups under it. The Diring network supplies water to 27 villages, irrigating an area well over 300 sq km and serving a population of more than 50,000, according to committee members.
Present at this particular meeting in Dihira are farmers and committee representatives from 27 villages connected to the Diring dong network. The representatives were chosen from among the farmers of the community. The general body of a dong-bandh committee comprises the male head of every farming household and the executive body for branch and central committees is selected from among them. This executive posts of president, vice-president, secretary, treasurer take decisions on the day-to-day operation, maintenance and administration of the dong systems. These positions are usually held for one-year terms.
Incidentally, the selection of core committee members was one of the prime agenda at the Dihira meeting. When a vacant post is announced, a member in the audience nominates a candidate, which has to be seconded by somebody else. The nominee is selected to the post if there is no objection raised. So rather than a voting, it is an informal consensus decision. However, voting can take place if two candidates get nominated, but this, members say, rarely happens.
What is noteworthy about this selection procedure is the presence of farmers from various ethnicities – Bodo, Nepali, Assamese, Adivasi, Santhal, Rajabongshi and so on. In Assam, where identity politics and ethnic clashes are common, and Bodoland in particular is susceptible to this, one would expect wars to be waged over water as well. But anybody who tries to bring in caste or identity factors is immediately discouraged by his fellow members. During the selection procedure at the Dihira meeting, a Bodo farmer stood up and stated that since the positions of president and secretary were held by Nepali community members the previous year, this year it ought to go to a Bodo member. But the demand was promptly shot down by the 'election commissioner' of the day, who asserted: "This is not the place to raise issues of community and political differences. Please remember this is a bandh committee." The audience assented, and the Bodo farmer who raised the matter rested his case. Finally, a Nepali president was nominated by a fellow Nepali, whose nomination was backed by a Bodo member, and affirmed by the majority at the meeting. "Water", Dayanand Bhandary, of Nikasi village, states in an aside later, "is for everyone. No one community has a right over it over another. Nobody here believes that. Committee members are selected based on their individual merit, not based on which community he belongs to."