Vanishing wisdom


Across Uttarakhand, traditional systems do the disappearing act, reports Amitangshu Acharya

Preserve Women in Uttarakhand build secure futures with traditional chaals
Photo: Rakesh Bahuguna

SITTING ON the mud porch of his house in Uttarakhand, 80-year-old Maulya Singh looks stoically at the burnt stumps of pine a few metres away and talks philosophically of the land drying up. His daughter-in-law is, however, more concerned about the practicalities. As most springs in the village are dry, she is forced to trudge farther and farther afield to get drinking water. Maulya Singh interrupts, “If there are no chaals, where will the water in the springs come from?”

IN THE year gone by, Uttarakhand reeled under the impact of a climate gone awry. The rain required for the main crop, wheat, was 90 percent less than normal. Average temperatures in summer had soared to the highest in 39 years. The temperatures in turn lead to severe forest fires which charred 2,426 hectares of forest. In the Garhwal region, there were 665 forest fires.

Maulya’s question about the land drying up is innately connected to the rising temperatures. It is a connection that elders in villages across Uttarkashi and Tehri Garhwal are talking about as they worry about the disappearing chaals. But what is a chaal? Many years ago, shepherds looking for drinking water found small ponds between hill crests. In an effort to harvest the water, earthen walls were constructed around the ponds, which came to be known as chaals.

When colonial policies expelled graziers from the hilly forests, they moved to new locations and started building chaals in new pastures closer to villages. Elders in Lodhna and Thandi villages in Dunda block told us that they noticed that when a chaal was constructed above a spring, not only did the volume of water increase, the springs began to yield more water in summers than normal.

Soon, chaals became a critical component of healthy watersheds. 35 years ago, chaal construction and management went through a sharp decline due to migration by rural youth to towns out of distress. The wisdom in maintaining chaals was left to village elders. As a result, decision-makers in today’s villages often think chaals are mere storage bodies. Government rural development programmes, hence, attempt to “modernise” chaals based on this misconception. The budgetary and grassroots-level decision-making provisions in the NREGS provided a seemingly excellent opportunity for chaals to be revived in Uttarakhand. Unfortunately, this wasn’t meant to be.

Making a chaal involves no purchased material and just a day’s worth of labour for a group of people. Hence, NREGS funds allocated to a gram panchayat would largely go unspent if chaals continued to be repaired or constructed using local mud and rocks. Gram Pradhans and Block Development Officers decided to increase costs, thereby utilising funds –and increasing the kickbacks they would receive.

A MASSIVE CHAAL concretisation drive is underway in Tehri Garhwal and Uttarkashi. Chaals that could easily be made for about Rs 2,500 are being budgeted for a lakh. As cement doesn’t allow water to percolate, catchments suffer, decreasing the availability of water for consumption and irrigation. Gulab Singh, a farmer from the Chopriali village in Tehri Garhwal talks of how concrete chaals retain water only for a while after monsoons. Moreover, traditional chaals are easy to repair but breaches in concrete chaals cannot be fixed locally. When such breaches happen, they remain in disrepair.

The silver lining is the inspiring work done by individuals and organisations. Over the last 25 years, Sachidanand Bharati has, through collective action, built 12,000 chaals in 136 villages in the Ufrainkhal region in Pauri Garhwal district. Solely through efforts at collective action, an astonishing 12,000 chaals have been built in 136 villages. Through chaal construction alone, he has managed to revive a river now being called the Gadganga. His work is drawing visitors from across the world to this remote and idyllic location.

But these initiatives have had little impact on the state’s Water Supply and Rural Development departments. Uninformed interventions continue unabated. In passing conversations, some government officials promise reform, even as improper and kickback-riddled construction of chaals continue.

Unless better understanding and political will come together, the villages of Uttarakhand will continue to suffer inordinately from severe droughts and forest fires.

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