Recalling ‘Aaj Bhi Khare Hain Talaab’: Raj Kaithwar

Guest post by RAJ KAITHWAR

As I began to type this review, I struggled to begin with the beginning: how do I present this lively work on ‘talaab’ which does justice to its contents. It was not an easy task. Finally, I decided to begin with the end: the thoughts which clouded over me as I ended reading the book ‘Aaj Bhi Khare Hai Talaab’. How do we see a ‘talaab’ or do we even see it? Why are the modern ways of water conservation failing or are the modern ways even inclined at conserving? Who will protect the societies and ecologies from the rising dangers or is protection even a concern? As I describe some of the accounts from ‘Aaj Bhi Khaare Hai Talaab’ I hope it arouses a curiosity strong enough in the reader to pick up the book and scan through its pages.

 “jo samaj ko jeevan de, usse nirjeev kaise mana ja sakta hai?”

Water is indeed a very important source for life and the inhabitants of this land had understood this very well. As a result numerous man-made ‘talaab’ sprouted in almost every village between 5th century and 18th century. These were called by different names in different regions. Interestingly, names of most of the villages in Rajasthan emerge from the names of these ‘talaabs’ or as they called it: ‘sar’. People in Rajasthan used to settle only where a ‘talaab’ was in the vicinity. While ‘sagar’, ‘sarovar’ and ‘taal’ are still common, these were also called ‘chaal’, ‘toli’ and ‘chaura’ in Himalayas of Uttar Pradesh (now Uttrakhand), while they were referred as ‘pokhar’ and ‘pushkarni’ in Bengal. Regions of Haryana, Punjab and Delhi were more familiar with ‘diggi’ and ‘hauz’. In times gone by there was a huge ‘talaab’ right in front of the Red Fort called ‘laaldiggi’. ‘Hauz Khaas’ is still a part of Delhi but it is no more known for its ‘talaab’. I am familiarized with numerous other names all of which I cannot put in here. However, I am unable to prevent myself from squeezing in a few anecdotes from varied sites on the naming of ‘talaab’. Those in which crocodiles (called ‘magarmachh’ in Hindi) resided were called ‘magar taal’ while those build on the banks of rivers (nadi in Hindi) were called ‘nadaya taal’. A ‘talaab’ surrounded by ghats (steps leading down) on all four sides was referred as ‘chaupara’ or ‘chopara’ and ‘talaab’ from where 10-12 ‘baraat’ (groom’s wedding procession) would have started was named ‘baraati taal’. These were constructed not just by royals and commoners but also by nomads called ‘banjara’. All of this reflects the attachment and importance which was attached to ‘talaabs’ by the people in those times.

Although civil engineers did not populate these villages to calculate the source of water, quantity of water and so on but people knew which part is best suited to situate the ‘talaab’ and how it will be constructed. Jaisalmer, one of the most rain deficient districts of India, is more than 800 years old. A ‘talaab’ adjacent to the city called ‘ghadisisar’, equivalent the size of the city back then, was constructed 700 years ago and it continues to serve the region even today. During its heyday it had become a part of the daily life of the people. Even today its remnants can be seen as people continue to visit its temples and ‘ghats’. Unfortunately constructions such as the city airport and continuous encroachments have dealt a severe blow to the spine of the ‘talaab’. Moreover, this is not a one off incident. Neglected as wastelands and viewed as detached from the ecosystem, these ‘talaab’ do not carry the aura they had in the yesteryears.

 “saikadon, hazaaron talaab achanak shunya se prakat nahi hue the. inke peeche ek ikai the banwane waalon ki, to dahai thi banane waalon ki.”

A ‘talaab’ was constructed and maintained by people from a variety of castes with each having a separate but interlinked role in the process. There were castes of ‘gajdhar’ and ‘silawata’ who would design the ‘talaab’. They used to belong to both Hindu and Muslim religions. Then there were ‘sirbhavs’ who would detect water underground without using any tool, their services are still availed by governmental officers. Experts on soil were ‘matkoot’, ‘matkooda’ and ‘sonkar’ while ‘kori or koli’ caste was known for its expertise in constructing ‘talaab’. These communities were provided land for settlement from which ‘lagaan’ (tax) was waived off. ‘Gond’, ‘dhimar’, ‘bheyi’, ‘dusaadh’ also carried considerable knowledge about ‘talaab’. ‘Bulai’ were men with knowledge about all land deals, ‘amriya’ were involved in works on iron, ‘bheel’, ‘sahariya’, ‘kol’ and ‘meena’ were responsible for managing the affairs related with ‘talaab’. ‘Chunkar’, ‘Banchar’, ‘odh’, ‘luniya’, ‘nauniya’, ‘santhal’ are few others who were also related with activities related with ‘talaab’. Organizing festivals was a way of converting maintenance work into an enjoyable task in which entire village folk were involved in some way or the other. Those who owned land used to reserve a part of it, produce of which was given to people involved in managing the ‘talaab’. This description does not attempt at normalizing the caste related discrimination prevalent during the period, instead it reflects that men and women of certain castes who are considered ‘unproductive’ according to modern standards were active contributors in the society at one point of time. ‘Talaab’ for societies was like a tradition, a family of which everyone was a member.

“…par paani apna raasta nahi bhoolta. talaab hathiya kar banae gaye mohallon mein varsha ke dino mein paani bhar jata hai…”

In modern terminology: the system of water governance began to witness drastic changes during the British colonial rule. The British mode of governance differed starkly from the way resources had been managed over the centuries in a decentralized manner with an active involvement of the citizenry. Now it was about centralized control and the resources began to be viewed from a cost-benefit lens. System’s erosion began with budget cuts and was followed by taking away the rights of the societies over the ‘talaab’. These were handed over to PWD and irrigation departments. The ecosystem of ‘talaab’, ‘kuan’ and ‘neher’ gave way to ‘water works’ of the British. Indictment of the ‘modern, industrialized believes’ is evident through each sentence of the book. The fact that post independence Indian policy was driven by those very believes implied that the future of ‘talaab’ was no more safe. The fear proved out to be correct: numerous ‘talaab’ were destroyed and many which remained could not be maintained. The result of ignoring local, indigenous ways of water management has been appalling and visible throughout India as water scarcity multiplies manifold in the current century.

Post-script: The author of the book is Anupam Mishra. The book is unique in many ways: its title page does not carry the name of the author as he believed that the content should take precedence over the writer. Keeping with the spirit I allude to the author’s name in the end. Anupam Mishra also did not hold the copyright over the book as he believed that everybody should have easy access to the book and anybody should be able to print it. The book was printed in 19 different languages and sold over a 100 thousand copies. Anupam Mishra took his last breath on 19 December, 2016 in Delhi. He was an environmentalist and water conservationist, following Gandhian principles throughout his life. His work will continue to challenge the blind faith in modernity, offering much needed alternatives to the society.

Raj Kaithwar currently works as policy officer at the South Asian University, on a project called ‘Transboundary Water Governance’

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