In 1994–5, community conservation of water in Chamanpur began, based on both indigenous as well as scientific knowledge. The villagers had good knowledge of the land classification as well as the drainage patterns of the area. They also had a clear idea about the problems of the traditional water harvesting systems. The most effective method to ensure that the entire process of planning was participatory was the initiation of participatory resource mapping exercises. A kalajatha (cultural troupe) preceded the mapping exercises and initiated dialogue with the villagers. BGVS volunteers went from plot to plot and mapped the resources of the area in collaboration with the villagers. During this process they gained an understanding of drainage patterns, patterns of production and soil conservation. This was to form the basis of further planning.2
Chamanpur belongs to a watershed comprising a radius of 129 sq km. In the village 235 ha of agriculture land and 25 ha of forest land had been conserved by the year 2000.
According to the local land classification, the watershed region was divided into three land use categories: 1) bahra or lowlands, where rice could grow and which remained moist throughout the year, 2) chawar or the midlands, which had seasonal water shortages and where both rice and wheat could grow seasonally, and 3) darh or the highlands, where only trees and some vegetables could grow. The challenge was to ensure that the water remained inside the chawar throughout the year so that the irrigated area could increase and an attempt could be made to grow two crops a year. A system had therefore to be innovated to channel the excess overflow of water from the bahra into the chawar and darh lands, so that the moisture in the bahra lands was maintained throughout the year. This land classification has played a crucial part in the creation of the system of water harvesting.
Chhattisgarh was earlier known for its traditional water harvesting ponds and check-dams, which were rebuilt by the people every year. The semi-permanent structures were traditionally at regular intervals on the ridge-line where the speed of the water could be broken and slowed down. The conservation of water took place through stop-dams and check-dams and the foothills of the ridge housed traditional ponds and tanks made by the villagers. However, according to the villagers these check dams would get destroyed because of the speed at which the water flowed down the ridge-lines. Under the watershed programme, this system was modified slightly by creating permanent harvesting structures: ponds, checkdams and stop-dams, based on the drainage maps prepared along with the villagers.
In this context, the first year saw the construction of boulder checks on the ridge. The traditional structures were improved slightly to make them more durable in two ways. First, the boulder checks were made of stone and mud instead of just mud; second, they were now made on the intersection of two drainage points in addition to the higher slopes, in order that enough moisture would get accumulated in the soil. Contour trenches were also dug to collect excess water and stop soil erosion. Thereafter the work moved to the transition zone or the zone between the highland and the bahra land. There already existed two old ponds in this zone. These were repaired and stop-dams and earthen dams were built to recharge the groundwater level. These structures were spread over 32–35 hectares and were linked with the natural nala that was used by the villagers to finally drain the excess water from the rice field. This work was completed by the second year and the work on the agricultural fields started by the middle of this period. Transition bunds and checks linked the existing ponds to each other. New structures were also made to link the lowlands with the midlands and highlands. This meant that the excess water could be drained into the chawar and the darh lands. The points of transition between the lowlands and midlands were identified along with village elders, based on their years of experience.3
Institutionally, each of the water harvesting structure has a user group. The group consists of the person on whose land the water harvesting structure stands. It also comprises all those landed and landless people who use the water from a particular water harvesting structure. Each user group is represented in the Watershed Committee of the village and the secretaries of the committee are part of a federation that represents the entire watershed at the district level.
Since most of the area was earlier forested and inhabited by the Kodaku, Korba and Gond tribals, the committees also have a majority tribal representation. It was decided when the programme began that the villagers would contribute 10 per cent of the labour as a local contribution into the watershed works.4
The members of the committee are elected by all households of the village through the user groups that represent all households. Each user group elects their own representatives in the committee. This committee represents the entire village in the district-level watershed committee meetings. It determines how much water is to be allocated to each household and solves inter- and intra-village disputes.
The members of the watershed committees, all villagers and the BGVS activists initially prepared a water use map of the entire village. Accordingly they decided how much water each family would be allocated for their nistari (customary) and agricultural use. If some people are found to be using excess water or disturbing other people’s water supply, they are penalised by the watershed committee and the matter may even be brought before the gram panchayat.