Ancient Mauryan engineering has brought water back to the undulating and rocky terrain of Magadh, the grain bowl of Bihar that had turned almost entirely arid because of abortive modern irrigation policies.
The Magadh region, comprising 10 districts in south-central Bihar, was reeling from its worst water crisis over a decade ago, forcing farmers to board trains to distant cities such as New Delhi and Chandigarh and work there as migrant labourers.
Rainfall was scant, people had long abandoned traditional reservoirs that caught and stored rainwater run-off, the water table in aquifers had depleted from overuse, and modern irrigation canals covered only a small area.
Gaya itself was a modern nightmare as most of its ponds overflowed with garbage. The water table had dipped below 200 feet, and taps and tube wells had gone dry. The water crisis was so acute that people sold their houses in posh localities at throwaway prices. The government promised to build a 100km canal from the Ganga, but the project failed.
The crisis looked irreversible but Rabindra Pathak, who taught Pali and Sanskrit at a college in Arwal, was certain that the answer lay in the long-forgotten and crumbling aqueducts and water reservoirs that irrigated the fields that fed ancient India’s most glorious empire.
He pored through old books and scriptures, and found that reviving the dilapidated network of pynes and ahars was the lone solution.
Pynes are channels carrying water from rivers. Ahars are low-lying fields with embankments that act as water reservoirs. This combined irrigation and water conservation system dates back to the Mauryan era that flourished in Magadh 2,000 years ago.
Pathak founded the Magadh Jal Jamaat in 2006, a network of individuals working to revive the neglected pynes and ahars. “There was no other way to solve the recurring water crisis threatening to turn the region arid. Reckless use of tube wells for irrigation without adequate recharge complicated the scenario,” he said.
Convincing people to participate was not easy in a fragmented society, where nobody was willing to part with an inch of land.
“Villagers shrugged off the idea of collective participation initially, as they couldn’t fathom its impact,” said Kanchan Mistri at Khaneta-Pali village. “When the government with all its resources failed, how could a group (like ours) do it? That was the common refrain.”
Besides, the local mafia interested in contracts for government projects posed a big threat to the voluntary initiative. A years before MJJ’s formation, in 2004, social activists Sarita and Mahesh, working on an irrigation system in Gaya, were murdered by the mafia.
But Pathak was determined to do the unthinkable — bring water to the area. He got ample help from his professor-wife, Pramila, and trader Prabhat Pandey.
They persuaded villagers to form committees and donate anywhere between ~100 and ~1,000, depending on the size of agricultural plots they owned, and revived the 125-km Jamune Dasain pyne and 159-km Barki pyne. These two complex channels, rebuilt with help from social worker Chandra Bhushan, brought water from Falgu, a tributary of the Ganga.
The impact was instantaneous and miraculous. About 150 villages along the Jamune-Dasain pyne and around 250 villages along the Bar ki canal have been able to irrigate their fields for the kharif and rabi (monsoon and winter) crops, and grow vegetables, pulses and oilseeds as well.
The farm distress eased significantly. Life changed for marginal farmer Jairam Bhagat, who wanted to kill himself when his paddy crop failed in 2007, after he met volunteers of the Magadh Jal Jamaat. He joined the group, discarded plans to return to Chandigarh where he worked as a plumber, and contributed his mite for the irrigation system.
Bhagat, 45, from Shabaazpur village in Gaya was among thousands of people from about 700 villages who used to migrate for work — not by choice, but by compulsion. He now stays home and reaps a good harvest from his amply irrigated farm.
People began to say the water system’s revival was the second-best thing to have happened to Gaya after the Buddha’s enlightenment. In Gaya, residents, officials, military and police personnel joined the mission to build check dams and clear ponds of encroachment and debris.
“Recurring protests over water crises are now a thing of past in the district. Hand pumps and wells that were abandoned are now working,” said Rajesh Kshitij, a lawyer in Gaya.
The social organisation’s initiative drew accolades from environmentalists Anupam Mishra and Magsaysay winner Rajendra Singh.
In 2011, chief minister Nitish Kumar asked the irrigation, public health and engineering, and the revenue and land reforms departments to replicate the Magadh Jal Jamaat model.
The Magadh region has four medium and major irrigation projects, including the Sone canal. But these irrigate only 30,000 hectares in parts of Gaya, Arwal, Jehanabad, Aurangabad, Nalanda and Nawada districts.
The North Koel reservoir scheme in Jharkhand’s Palamau and Punpun barrage in Gaya were launched in 1972 and 2006 respectively. But they never took off.
The Gaya circle irrigation department’s executive engineer, Ashok Kumar Choudhary, said the existing canal system works only for the kharif season, or monsoon crop.
But the restored pyne-ahar system helps farmers grow paddy in 150,000 hectares, wheat in 100,000 hectares and pulses and oilseeds in about 30,000 hectares in Gaya alone.
The Mauryan network brings water to the remote countryside, which seldom got any help from government agencies because of Maoist insurgents active in those areas.
The Magadh Jal Jamaat responded positively when at least seven villages in the Maoist heartland of ImamganjDumaria requested for a check dam to be built to conserve rainwater. The area is about 22km off GT Road, but barely accessible.
“Our volunteers worked two months, built a check dam and rejuvenated a pyne, which is now irrigating farms of over a dozen of villages and recharging ahars and ponds,” said 60-year-old Kameshwar Yadav of Pachman, ploughing his field after a decade.
The move encouraged a farm turnaround and migrant youth working in Delhi returned home to sow oilseeds.
“We built the dam with ~44,000 in 2014 when the state would have spent ~50 lakh and taken a year. This year, we hope to grow fish and reap a bumper rabi crop,” said Niranjan Yadav, a 30-year-old who worked at a retail shop in Delhi.