Four Engineers and A manager
We are at the gateway of the Indian Thar desert. Domes dot the sandy fields of the village of Lahsedi in district Churu, Rajasthan. At the edge of each dome are little holes, surrounded by a clean circular area. They look like upturned cups in saucers staring at the sky. So does Ran Singh, who has made many of these. Habitually, he looks or points towards the sky. Awaiting rain. The structures are kundis. Small, covered tanks to store rainwater captured by the neat surrounding 'saucers'. Under the dome is a well which holds the water. They are the main source of water for the villagers, The saline groundwater is no good.
Official statistics put the average annual rainfall in Churu at 325 mm. There is a government pipeline some two km off Lahsedi. It supplies water once a week. For two hours. Or as and when the administration remembers that Lahsedi needs water. But villages here do not depend on the vagaries of the administration. They rely on Ran Singh and his kundis.
The tall, well-built jat is sure-footed, even though 62 years have taken their toll on his physique. He knows what he is all about. And of the five protagonists featured in in this section, he is the most articulate. He likes to speak. He has opinions. On everything.
"Pipeline is unpredictable. The government waterworks are like waterless eyes that cannot see. What is their use?" he demands. He does not remember how he learned to make kundis. His early childhood memories describe a Muslim craftsman who came to the village from Ramgarh to make a kundi. Ran Singh was impressed by the structure.
He saw. He learned. And he made kundis. About 400, he recounts. Or 450. He made his first kundi at the age of 13. Who did he learn from? "God is my guru. I just improvise from what I see. God is responsible for rain, without which we cannot exist," he says. This is characteristic of the man. He is philosophical about everything, exhaling smoke from his hookah.
Singh's philosophy is rooted in his observation. He is a man who has seen. Watched closely. He understands rain. The behaviour of water, how it travels and how it should be stored. "In the three months of the monsoon, we are okay if it rains thrice. If it is less, then we are in trouble. If it rains four times, then its time to sow chana (gram)," he says between pauses. But what marks him out as a kundi-maker are his engineering skills. As he stands near one of his kundis, the farmer on whose land it was built explains: "There are others who make kundis. But the water is either bad in quality or inadequate. Ran Singh's kundis are more reliable. His understands the depth and width very well." Ran Singh says the villages prefer him because he finishes his work in little time.
Making a kundi is no easy task. It takes about 25 days. After selecting an appropriate area, the first consideration is the incline towards the holes. The inclination should catch as much rainwater as possible.
At the same time, it should not be too steep to send too much sand with water. The depth of the well is varied, depending on catchment and requirements. Generally, it is about 5 metres deep and 2.5 metres in diameter.
However, the most important consideration is leakage. Any flaw in the plastering and the water will seep out into the greedy sand. Ran Singh uses cement. After the walls have been plastered, the convex lid is placed on top. This is made with cement.
Kundis have brought Ran Singh the respect of his village. Visitors are a regular feature at his house throughout the day. As he moves about, people salute him. They joke with him. Despite his age, a good joke is never lost on him. He catches it like water. Kunhikannan Nair's gait is easefully languid, verging on sloth. There is an unmistakable economy of movement. But his hands are different. Varicose veins wrap around supple muscles. Symbols of endless toil and latent power. He looks very young for his 55 years. Just like the man who will carve out a surangatn, a 300-metre-deep tunnel in rock, which collects rainwater from the ghats. Nair's fields in Village Kodom Vellur of district Kasargod, Kerala, are a thick green, characteristic of God's own country, as the state is called. There is coconut, areca nut, rubber, pepper and a little paddy. Although plantations have mushroomed in this northern part of Kerala, there is not a lot of money to make in the fields.
Nair recalls the sleepless nights he used to spend thinking about water for his fields. Kerala is one of the wettest states in India. But the slope of the Western Ghats makes it difficult to store the water from the heavy rains during the monsoon.
The region's answer to the problem is the surangam, a two-feet wide tunnel that is about as high as an average person. It collects rainwater from the hilly catchment above. A study by the Centre for Water Resources Development and Management (CWRDM}, Kozhikode, found some 570 suningams in district Kasaragod. "I always wanted to make one. But it requires money. I did not have it earlier. Besides, I had too many other things on my hands," says Nair, dressed in a red lungi rolled up to his knees.
At age 53, he arranged for a loan of Rs 5,000 from a cooperative bank to make his first surangam. Making a surangam means as much hard work as money. It is only about two-feet-wide and only high enough for a person to barely stand. For 45 days, Nair hammered and chiselled at the hard weathered laterite of the ghats to carve out his surangam. He had to hire labourers as well. He will get it extended to catch more rainwater when he has the money.
The surangam means no more sleepless nights for Nair. He has assured water supply for paddy. He now saves the money spent on hiring a pump-set. The yield of coconut has risen. There is enough water for daily needs in the house. Enough to spare. Throughout the year. This is the striking aspect of Nair's surangam: it has water round the year. As surangams go, this is not very common.
The surangam is a curious structure, as much in terms of engineering as history. It is quite similar to the qanat of western Asia, which were popular in Syria, Iraq, Iran and Palestine in 700 BC. Researchers have not been able to establish any link between the surangam and the qanat. But it is widely believed that Kerala's structure came from western Asia.
The technology of making a surangam is quite intricate. Nair, a man of few words, struggles to explain it. His knowledge of the terrain and behaviour of water has not come from a formal school. It is a result of toiling on the fields. But Nair knows that there is water where there are pala trees (trees with white milky sap). He also knows that water is limited where there are rubber trees.
After deciding on the catchment, the hammering begins. By instinct, Nair knows the gradation of digging. The CWRDM has studied the digging of a surangam. There researchers will tell you that it is most appropriate right above the layer of granite, which does not allow water to seep in. The weathered lateritc rock overhead, on the other, gives passage to water. Nair knows all this without ever attending school. Like so many other farmers in the region, his calculations are solid. The failure rate of surangams is only 10 per cent in northern Malabar. Sitting in the neat and simple brick structure that is his house, Nair says the government should provide more loans for making surangams. He does not want much more.
He is capable of doing the rest himself . If you met Ganesan on the street, you will never know that his work requires the skills of a top-of-the-drawer business executive. He manages the water supply of Madaivini Patti, a hamlet on the outskirts of Village Vairavan Patti in district Madurait Tamil Nadu. He is a neerkatti (the irrigator in Tamil). The chief ministers of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka will do well to use his water management skills to settle the Cauvery riverwater dispute. There has never been a major dispute among the farmers of his village regarding water. Madaivini Patti consists of some 35 families. Poverty, though not abject, is clearly visible. There is only one child who has completed higher secondary schooling. In the off-season, the entire village works as casual labour in neighbouring areas.
Agriculture is limited to subsistence. There is hardly any surplus. Paddy is the main crop and water is essential. The only source is the run-off from the monsoon. This travels down the invisible slope of the Eastern Ghats, and collects in the age-old kanmoy, as tanks are known here. Effective water management is crucial to social harmony. Ganesan provides it. He comes from the pallar caste, which is listed as a scheduled caste in the state. But there are no special benefits from the government for Ganesan. He lives on what he earns. Which includes the respect of the entire village. His caste status never clouds the recognition and appreciation of his skills. Pa/Jars have traditionally managed the water supply in this area.
At all community functions, the village priests have to accompany Ganesan to the market to make purchases, a symbol of his special status. He is the authoritative mediator, the honest broker, the village elder. In not just the water disputes but even the social disagreements within the village. Says S Subramaniam, executive committee member of the village's Tank Farmer's Association: "The neerkatti tradition is of great benefit. Faith in the neerkatti is crucial to the smooth functioning of agriculture. Otherwise everyone will fight."
Ganesan knows the topography of the village like the palm of his hand. He knows exactly where the water comes from and where it should go. He knows the water need of each and every farmer, each and every crop. His work starts before the monsoon. He walks through the channels, digging and clearing in rhythmical motion. Singing a song or two.
Then there is the maintenance of the embankments of the kanmoy. But the most crucial part is the operation of the wooden sluice valves that release water in the channels. This is where the fate of all the farmers rests. While operating the valves, Ganesan is dealing with the life-blood of the village economy. One mistake in the calculation of waterflow and timing of the valves can ruin a poor farmer's crop. Yet it never happens.
Ganesan's social status apart, his economic condition is no better than the rest of the village. For maintaining the channels and the kanmoy, he receives rice from each farmer in proportion to the size of the fields (4.5 kg of rice per 60 cents of crop area). In addition, he gets 4 kg of rice from each farmer for operating the sluice valves. If he requires an additional hand or two in his endeavours, it is his own headache.
However, work in the village is restricted to the monsoon. That, too, once in three years. He has two brothers who are also neerkattis. They take up water management in turns.
In the off-season, Ganesan has to go looking for daily wages to either the neighbouring fields as agricultural labour or to the nearby towns as a loader. Some days are good. He manages to earn Rs 50. Others are bad. Ganesan's two sons and four daughters are not interested in carrying on the neerkatti tradition. But as long as there are paddy fields, the limited water will need to be managed with care. There will have to be a neerkatti. A traditions
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