Women as the Keepers of Kangra Valley’s ‘Kuhls’

By Nirupama Dutt, Womens Feature Service

Move into the countryside in the hills and it’s common to see women washing clothes by narrow streams gushing alongside the roads. The song of trickling water is the continuous magical music of the Kangra Valley in Himachal Pradesh, which is crisscrossed by thousands of irrigation canals. Locally known as the ‘kuhls’, these canals bring snowmelt and rainwater to the fields and hamlets in the alluvial plains that slope down from the snow-capped Dhaula Dhar range of the Western Himalayas. These community-managed ‘kuhls’ date back to the pre-colonial Katoch dynasty (1690 to 1805).

Today, however, the ‘kuhls’ are in danger. Rapid urbanisation, changing lifestyles and socio-economic factors have led to an increase in the levels of pollution in these waters. At many places garbage, plastic bags and bottles are seen floating in the open ‘kuhl’ water and even the drinking water, sourced from here, is not safe anymore.

“A few years ago when the number of patients with water-borne diseases and various allergies started rising, I was alarmed that all was not well with the water,” says Barbara Weiser Nath, an Austrian doctor, who has been living and working in the area since the last 25 years. Nath, who married a local ‘sadhu’, runs the Nishta Rural Health, Education and Environment Centre at Rakkar village. The centre has a clinic that provides free medical help to 20 villages in the area. Besides, it has helped build six toilets at the local government school.

With the population increasing manifold and the rural areas turning into suburbs of Dharamsala, the major town in the region, the water of the ‘kuhls’ has become contaminated. Over the last few years, the area has seen a lot of construction activity. Stores selling consumer durables, beauty salons, restaurants and large shopping areas have mushroomed. As tourists from home and abroad frequent the Valley, there is so much vehicular traffic that one can be held up in a traffic jam for an hour or more. All these factors have contributed to the increase in pollution levels here.

So Nath, through the Nishta centre, decided to launch an initiative to clean and save this largest traditional network of community-managed irrigation systems. The first thing that she did was the engage a private firm to collect water samples and get them tested. As expected, the samples were found to be polluted. Mohinder Sharma, director of the project, elaborates, “The snowmelt and rain water is stored in tanks and then sent through pipes and narrow streams to the villages and the fields. This, besides an odd spring or two, is the only source of water. When we presented the report of polluted water to the Irrigation and Public Health (IPH) Department, they said they would conduct tests themselves.” Sure enough, even the IPH samples indicated increased levels of pollution. This prompted the Department to clean the storage tanks and ensure that water was chlorinated from time to time.

The reason for the pollution of water is that only 12 per cent people have toilets in this area and people defecate in the open. The rainfall is the second highest in the country, next only to Mawsynram and Cherrapunji in Meghalaya. “The rainfall makes the natural filtration ineffective and all the waste and dirt is washed up into the ‘kuhls’. The water showed pathogens, the bacteria found in human waste. Besides, animals also litter the ‘kuhls’. If this continues the ground water will be so contaminated that it could cause damage to the crops,” adds Sharma.

It is interesting to recall that with the massive earthquake in the Kangra Valley in 1905, which had a high human toll and which had led to roads and bridges being destroyed, the original gravity-flow irrigation system was damaged extensively. At that time the British colonial government had got soldiers in the military engineering services to repair it so that irrigation would not be interrupted.

However, J. Mark Baker, a research associate with the Sierra Institute of Community and Environment, USA, who has done extensive research on the community-managed irrigation, points out in his book ‘The Kuhls of Kangra’ that the recent rapid changes pose a threat to these ‘kuhls’. Through the centuries the villagers have participated in the cleaning and maintenance of the ‘kuhls’, with the ‘kohli’, the caretaker, having the supreme authority. The pipes, tanks and open ‘kuhls’ need regular mending of leakages and unclogging of the open ‘kuhls’ to ensure the flow and distribution of water.

“Increased non-farm employment has decreased participation in collective ‘kuhl’ maintenance work activities, increased inequality between head-end and tail-end farmers in terms of water consumption and contribution for repair and decline in the authority of the ‘kohli’ and his ability to enforce customary rules,” writes Baker.

Interestingly, while a man always occupied the position of the ‘kohli’ and men did the maintenance work, most of the ‘kuhls’ have a female deity, called ‘kuhl mataji’ (mother goddess of the ‘kuhl’). Before the onset of the monsoon, on the first day of Sawan, a ‘puja’ is performed to receive her blessings. The ‘kohli’ begins the ‘puja’, which is an integral part of the annual cycle of ‘kuhl’ management. Now, the women are strengthening their participation in the ‘kuhls’ maintenance. Thanks to Nath’s initiative, they have joined hands to create awareness about keeping the ‘kuhls’ clean and educate villagers about the importance of proper sanitation and clean drinking water.

This is being done at the village-level through ‘mahila mandals’ (women’s groups) and youth clubs. Youth clubs are autonomous village level groups to encourage welfare activity. There is government provision at the block level for ‘mahila mandals’. NGOs in the state have rejuvenated these groups so that they provide not only a political platform to women but also become a pressure group for implementation of schemes, and participate in gender sensitisation activity. All women above 18 can be part of these groups.

Mishro Devi, 48, president of the Rakkar Mahila Mandal, says, “Most of the women wash clothes in open ‘kuhls’ and rashes and allergies had become common. Things had become so bad that baby snakes and insects would emerge from the piped drinking water. Our members did a house-to-house campaign cautioning the villagers to boil the water and also take care not to litter the ‘kuhls’.” Kiran Bala, 17, a youth club member from Rakkar adds, “The boys and girls of our club have been demonstrating how the taps and filters have to be cleaned and the message has spread in at least a dozen villages covered by the Rakkar water tank.” The tank is above Rakkar and it serves 12 villages including Rakkar Sidhbari, Mauli and sidhpur.

Shekhar Attri, 28, a resident of Sidhbarhi village, explains, “We always boil the water and then filter it through the candle filter at home. But all the households do not follow this practice. Many simply can’t afford to do this.”

Informs Sharma of the Nishta project, “Cleanliness is especially important during the summers and the monsoons when the water gets more polluted. So chlorination of the water and cautioning the villagers during this period is a continuing process. We also test the water during this period with equipment brought from a company in Delhi.”

However, the Nishta initiative is still the lone one in the Valley and other areas need to follow its example. Keeping the ‘kuhls’ clean should become everybody’s business, from the state to the NGOs and from the experts to the villagers.