By PRADEEP SINGH
Water has been central to the growth and stability of all civilisations that have appeared ever since homo sapiens discovered that they were the chosen ones amongst all species by the virtue of having two thumbs, which enabled them not only to grip objects but do it with dexterity. Water that was abundant was also uncontrollable and destructive but had immense potential to provide security amidst an unpredictable environment. The need for food security to increase size of social groups that sought a stable supply of essential commodities impelled the adoption of socially relevant norms and institutions to deliver on this prime necessity. Thus, from its formative stages, a civilisation sought means to control access to water and its distribution to its members. Control over water gave nascent states their power over the people and their livelihood. Several millennia later, water continues to be the most controlled commodity and an exclusive state monopoly.
In the Doon Valley, the need for a structured and well planned water distribution system was realised early by the British following their annexation of the region after the Anglo Gurkha War of 1814-15. Through the most commendable engineering efforts of Sir Proby T Cautley, a network of canals was laid out across the Valley ushering in agricultural prosperity on a sustained basis using the ready availability of fresh water sources at the upper end of the Valley. The success of Cautley’s canals has entered the annals of Doon history and the hall of fame of Hydrology.
There is yet another but less talked about success in the story of Doon’s canals and water channels. While Cautley’s canals tapped the northern springs of the Valley, in the southern part of the Doon, the Mothorowala wetland gave its plentiful waters to numerous villages that were left out of the system designed by Cautley simply because in his days this portion of Doon was considered a bad proposition for any investment, since the area was marshy and malarial and a habitat for wild elephants and other predators. Not surprisingly, this has been proved true by the establishment of the Rajaji National Park in the very same area.
On the periphery of the vast Sal forests of Siwalik range were villages like Mothorowala, Daudwala, Mohammadpur Badkali, Khattapani, Kamery, Dudhli, Nagal Bulindawala, Nagal Jwalapur, Simlas Grant, Bullawala, Kurkawala and a few others which – used as they were to facing an hostile environment – collectively devised a solution to their water woes. These villages predominantly lay on the left bank of the Suswa River and by years of being under forest cover prior to felling and clearing of these forests were blessed with a top soil rich in humus. This top soil was capable of producing two of the chief cash crops that had been introduced into the valley in the mid-nineteenth century, namely sugarcane and basmati. But both the crops were water intensive crops for much of their life-cycle.
To ensure that this natural resource of nutrient loaded soil was made to yield its bounties, the villages needed a reliable method of irrigation which could be depended upon during the summer months. The canal network of the British had already overlooked these villages and the zeal to do anymore in this direction had abated as their focus was shifting towards getting the railways into the Valley.
Thus these ‘ lesser villages’ decided to design their own irrigation grid. Their only perennial source of water was the Suswa River flowing out of the Mothorowala wetland to the north of these villages.
Falling back on an age old recourse, boulder check-dams were made across the river at levels upwards of these villages to create a temporary reservoir. From this, reservoir water could be tapped and diverted to channels that would feed the various villages. Through voluntary but back breaking manual labour, these check dams were made as were the feeder channels called ‘kools’ that were dug out and earth packed on the sides to provide a sufficiently deep passage for the water to flow. Devising a gradient for these hand hewed kools to ensure optimum flow for the entire length would have had the approval of Cautley himself.
For over a century, the Suswa River did not fail these villages and continued to bless the fields of the villages with alluvium rich deposits along with the water.
The system devised was not free from teething troubles and water sharing had also to be ingrained in a feudal system for its smooth operation. Despite the need for a cooperative and collaborative approach to managing the water supply, strong arm tactics were often attempted to seek precedence in irrigating a particular landlord’s fields. But, on the whole, the system was an inspired achievement of the farming communities of the region that was, both, enviable and praiseworthy. These villages produced for decades the famed basmati rice irrigated by the ‘kools’ till the water of the Suswa was rendered less fresh by increased effluents in its upper course. But sugarcane plantations still flourish to be a major supplier to the Mill at Doiwala.
About a couple of decades ago, these ‘kools ‘ were lined with brick and mortar making for faster flow of water but ended the charming meandering of traditional channels that flowed with their own whims and fancies. At places, these were broad as streams and had beds of small boulders and pebbles and trees grew on their banks and became a micro habitat for a range of birds. Convivial spots could be found along the banks for bathing in summers to the sound of gurgling water heading to distant fields.