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.”
The responsibility of maintenance of the dongs is shared by all households of the region. Here is where the concept of shramdaan, or contributing labour, comes in. Dredging or clearing a canal, repairing a broken bund etc are done by the farmers under the supervision of the core committee members (usually the ‘captain’, the head of the dong system at the village level). Either the farmer must go himself or send an able-bodied male in his stead (women and children are not allowed to work). If a farmer fails to turn up, he must pay a fine set by the committee. Repeated absence and defaulting penalty payments would result in the committee stopping water to his fields.
Apart from shramdaan, individual households also have to pay a nominal fee, either in cash or kind, for the maintenance of the dongs. This is usually in proportion to the land owned by the farmer. For example, a member belonging to the Diring Committee will have to annually pay INR 10 for every bigha (1 hectare = 7.5 bigha, roughly) he owns to the central committee and the same amount to the branch committee. Additionally, he may also have to set aside 20 kg of paddy so that the committee can pay the salary of the chowkidaar. But this varies from committee to committee.
It is from these annual fees and shramdaan that the dong bandh committees get the funds to run the system. Members can make corrections or seek clarification on expenditure of the committee during the meetings. In Dihira’s meeting, for instance, one of the figures stated by the auditor for a particular work done in a village was found to be incorrect by the ‘captain’ of the said village, and was duly corrected.
Most committees have their ‘constitutions’, which lay down rules for everything: how water is to be distributed, how much each household should contribute, penalties for not obeying the rules and for stealing water in the night, how the core committee members are to be selected, how funds should be collected for the managing the dongs, and so on. These constitutions are open to amendments too. The proposals for amendments are read out in the general body meetings, and are passed only if the majority clears them. For example, it used to be the rule in the Uttar Jorthan Nijora Bandh Committee of Subhansri village, Baksa, that if a farmer repeatedly defaulted on his contribution to the dong maintenance, the committee would go to his home and confiscate some of his possessions. This form of penalising has been done away with, and now the default procedure is cutting off the person’s water supply from the dong.
The need for dongs is felt keenly in the dry winter months after the rains are over, between October and January. At this point, water is supplied in turns, and this system is known as ‘pala’. Each branch committee, village and individual field will get water periodically according to a strict schedule. In the Diring Dong Bandh Committee, for instance, each village gets water only every 15 days. Then water is stored in tanks at the individual level. For how long a village gets water depends on the number of its households, and population. In turn, how long a farmer gets water depends on the size of his land under cultivation.
In the pockets where the dong-bandh committees are active and run efficiently, they are able to do so because they have stood the test of time.
However, this is not to say that the functioning committees do not have their share of troubles. The vagaries of the monsoons take its toll on these systems, which are largely fed by rainwater. In years of relatively less rainfall, committee elders like Bhim Bhattarai and Haren Kalita say, there is the obvious problem of scarcity. In times of heavy rainfall, there is the danger of flash floods, which could damage the dong structures.
Another major problem they face is the number of working days lost because the dongs need constant repair, especially when they are breached during flash floods. Since the bunds or embankments are made of natural materials such as bamboo, mud, stones and other vegetation, they are easily breached during heavy rains. This requires farmers to take time off from their fields to come and work on the repairs. For example, the diversion point of the Lakhi dong on the Barnadi river near Guwabari village breaks down frequently and it requires around 300 people to come and work on it for around two-three days to restore it. Furthermore, other than the loss of working days, the breach of bunds and embankments also causes floods, leading to crop damage and loss. The eight-kilometre stretch along the Lakhi dong canal in Guwabari village is particularly vulnerable where the breach of canal has resulted in farmers having to replant their fields.
This has led to the slow intrusion of concrete bunds as the committees are opting for permanent structures. The concrete structures have been built mostly through the involvement of NGOs, such as the rural NGO Gramya Vikash Mancha, after consultations with different dong committees.State assistance – to hear the committee members tell it – has so far been inadequate. “Some engineers of the Irrigation Department did construct a sluice gate for one of the committees, but they made a botch of it,” said Bhim Bhattarai, an octogenarian in the Diring Committee. “They didn’t take us into consultation and thanks to the way they constructed the structure, it ended up removing water from the dong channel instead of feeding it. We had to dig a new channel that by-passed this structure.” The State Agricultural Department Comprehensive District Action Plan (CDAP) for Baksa district in 2009 observes “the district is endowed with a large number of dongs…with farmers using dong water for irrigation since long” but does not mention the agency of the committees.
Officials of the state agricultural department I spoke to mention dongs only in terms of irrigation statistics and fail to see them as devices for equitable and sustainable distribution of water. Neither do they take cognisance of dong-bandh committees as a driver of a sound irrigation system in the region. In the absence of infrastructural support from the state, it is to be seen how the dong-bandh committees fare in maintaining the structures.
~ Aparna Unni is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Water Policy and Governance at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.