Way beyond the salt pans of Greater Rann of Kutch lies the ancient ruins of Dholavira, part of the Indus Valley Civilisation. One of the key attractions of these ruins is the cascade water tanks system which was ingeniously built to store, channel and harvest water in a water scarce region. Looking at the dry Kutch geography, it’s easy to understand just how important these tanks were for the once flourishing city-state of Dholavira. The middle aged guide who was explaining me the mechanisms of the tank system, later remarked in a frustrated tone, “If we can adopt this system of tanks now, most of the region’s water problem would be over.” Although electricity and mobile phones have reached a lot of villages in Kutch, people still have to depend on tankers or wells for their daily water requirements.
With a thrust on urbanisation, technology and innovation, these traditional knowledge and practices are often looked upon as ancient, archaic and sometimes even superstitious. But the key thing that is usually overlooked is that civilisations, kingdoms and communities have not only survived but thrived on these knowledge and practices. Most of these practices were based on a critical understanding of the region’s ecosystem, climatic conditions, topography and sustainable use of natural resources, and meant for the benefit of the entire community not just individuals.
The system of churpun or water-lords in the high altitude cold, dry and semi-arid region of Ladakh ensures effective control and management of water in villages. Under this system, a person or water-lord is selected democratically for a year and this position is rotated until all households in the village are covered. A system of channels and canals supply water from glacial streams and/or springs for irrigation and drinking separately. While the responsibility of the churpun is to ensure that the canals/channels are kept clean, functioning properly throughout the year and supply water to all farms, the community on its part ensures that water is not wasted by blocking canals after their field is watered and releasing water in canals meant for other fields. No activity such as washing etc. is allowed near streams or canals which supply drinking water so as not to pollute water downstream.
In Nagaland, most tribal villages once followed the old tradition of learning in a ‘Morung’ where adolescent boys of different age groups stayed together till they became adults. Under the Murung teacher, these boys learnt warfare, hunting, agriculture, various art like wood carving, basket-making, singing, and story-telling and other life skills. This practice not only taught the young community members essential skills to survive, learn their culture and traditions, and connect with nature but also fostered deep trust and life long bonds with their Murung members. In a more egalitarian tribal society of Chhattisgarh, a similar practice of Ghotul was followed where both girls and boys stayed together and learnt life and livelihood skills and community traditions.
The network of more than 100 lakes that make Udaipur the city it is, were built by Rana Udai Singh and his successors from mid 16th C onwards. The surrounding hills and Ahar river acts as the catchment area for these lakes, which have helped the city survive its longest drought from 1997 to 2005. These lakes though now polluted still provide the city with its water supply. Similarly, cascade tanks were once used in drought prone regions of peninsular India to keep the community water sufficient but now run dry and disused. It is only now when ground water levels in parts of Telangana have touched dangerously low levels that the state government has made plans to desilt and revive the system.
Whether it is the practise of sowing barah-anaj (twelve crops) in the rain-fed farms of Uttarakhand, marking of sacred groves and sacred hills in most tribal culture, farming practice of keeping a strip of land untouched in central India, cultivation and use of the hardy and nutrient rich millets as food etc., India is rich with traditional knowledge and practices which have survived for centuries and helped the communities in many ways. All these practices involved and ensured community participation, transfer of local knowledge and skills, deeper understanding of environment, respect for nature, dependence on local resources, regeneration and sustainable use of natural resources, and bio-diversity conservation etc.
In olden days, these knowledge and practices worked well for the communities. We do not face the same problems and issues that our forefathers had faced. Our problems have compounded and issues require innovative solutions and use of technology. However, the underlying principle of living responsibly remains the same. And since our forefathers were good at it, we should be able to respect their knowledge, keep learning from them and build on those learnings on knowledge available to us for an effective and sustainable future.
Bipasha Majumder shifted to the social sector after working in advertising and media for a decade. She loves traveling to the grassroot, talking to the communities, understanding their issues first hand and writing about her experiences. Currently she works as a communication consultant for various NGOs and CSR projects.