Ahar pynes, traditional flood water harvesting systems can help revive agriculture in south Bihar

An account of the indigenous floodwater harvesting system prevalent in South Bihar and the need for other agencies to undertake its renovation & management.
26 Jan 2013
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Ahar Pyne system in Gaya, South Bihar (Image: Hindi Water Portal)
Ahar Pyne system in Gaya, South Bihar (Image: Hindi Water Portal)

Ahar pynes are traditional floodwater harvesting systems indigenous to South Bihar [1], and have been the most important source of irrigation in this region. Ahars are reservoirs with embankments on three sides and are built at the end of drainage lines such as rivulets or artificial works like pynes. Pynes are diversion channels led off from the river for irrigation purposes and for impounding water in the ahars. It is mostly to the credit of these that paddy cultivation has been possible in this otherwise relatively low rainfall area, when compared to North Bihar. The system attained its highest development in the district of Gaya [2].

This article provides an account of the ahar-pyne systems of South Bihar and the need to build organizational and institutional capacities of civil society and government agencies to undertake ahar pyne renovation and management.

Agricultural development in South Bihar

Agriculture in Bihar has remained stagnant in spite of the rich soil, abundance of easily accessible water and a rich peasant tradition. The stagnation has been ascribed to several factors including the state’s colonial legacy, ecological conditions, demographic pressure and most importantly, the land tenure system and the agrarian structure it supports. These factors are believed to have impeded the transition of Bihar’s agriculture from a semi-feudal to capitalist production system, an essential condition for agricultural growth [3].

Due to rapid groundwater development, agriculture in eastern India made a rapid turnaround in 1980’s, yet the growth in agricultural production and productivity in Bihar was at a much slower pace. To offset the inequity in landholdings, several scholars [like Tushaar Shah, Vishwa Ballabh, Jawahar Thakur and others] have advocated (a) machine reforms, which would be adopted by small cultivators, and (b) an emphasis on the role of local markets in technological inputs to overcome the constraints posed by technology.

The dependence of poor and middle peasants on big farmers for loans at very high rates to cover the consumption and input costs (which have risen sharply through the 1990s) has increased. And, wherever small and marginal farmers (who were formerly into subsistence agriculture) have adopted high yielding varieties, it has more often than not, been in order to pay rents and service debts.

The first phase of agricultural development marked by widespread introduction of tubewell and pumpset irrigation in Bihar saw a process of accumulation among larger cultivators. In the second phase, these inputs were adopted by the small and marginal cultivators mostly through hiring of diesel pumps, electricity being a problem since 1980’s in Bihar. Machine owners can as a consequence extract high monopoly rents. The cost of groundwater which is relatively more abundant in the region is very high, given the dismal power situation.

It is in this backdrop, that the ahar pyne systems hold a lot of potential for providing irrigation in South Bihar.

Ahar pyne irrigation systems of South Bihar

Although the area irrigated by the ahar pyne systems has witnessed a sharp decline [4], yet they even today constitute nearly three-fourths of the total irrigation facilities in South Bihar [5]. More than sixty percent of these are defunct and the rest are poorly managed. Nirmal Sengupta attributes the decline of the systems from 1930’s onward, to the large-scale commutation of produce-based rent to fixed money-based rent systems, whereby zamindars (landlords) lost interest in maintaining the systems.

Subsequent to the abolition of zamindari system, the local people could not evolve a new management system in the changed socio-economic scenario. The government too did not show much interest in their rehabilitation. The state busied itself in developing canal irrigation instead of understanding the crucial design aspects of the indigenous systems.

Private and community management of small-scale irrigation and feeder systems has proved effective where communities have been able to organize and appropriate the benefits with low bureaucratic or political interference [6]. While there has been substantial private investment in tubewells, the poor state of electricity supply and high cost of diesel acts as a limitation. In this backdrop, ahar pyne qualifies as a cheap source of irrigation with a widespread network, notwithstanding its present decrepit condition.

Recent research by Esha Shah (for tank command areas), Anjal Prakash (for tubewell command areas) and Peter Mollinga (for canal command areas) show the imprint of social hierarchy on technical design of irrigation systems. The questions raised by these researchers give insights into the complex issues, which emerge when looking at politically contested resources like water.

 However, the efforts so far on ahar pyne renovation have not been founded on an understanding of the diversity in ahar pyne designs as well as technical nuances like of maintaining a ‘slight meander’ in the pyne to prevent sand deposition.

Nor have the efforts on renovation taken into consideration the transformation in the wider context of commercialization and diversification of agriculture. The system, which was historically designed for paddy followed by pulses and oilseeds in rabi, has met with considerable alterations vis-a-vis the paddy-wheat combination, which is in practice now.

Detailed inquiries have not been made into how equitable the patterns of water distribution in ahar pyne commands are. The contestations and conflicts in the present command have not been looked into adequately. Furthermore, mobilizing of the dusadh community, which was traditionally involved in maintenance and management of these systems, is becoming increasingly difficult.

The traditional ‘communal’ system, and the corresponding institutions, which were in place, cannot be recreated in current circumstances and doing so will lead to anything but ‘egalitarian’ institutions. In the Rajayin ahar pyne system in Gaya, labour contribution was being drawn for renovation of the main pyne from the tenants, according to the produce sharing arrangement.

Whereas in the case of renovation of ahar pyne systems in Gaya by late Sarita and Mahesh, care had been taken to establish a system of labour contribution where the landowners were made to contribute for the labour and the tenants were exempt from it. The size of ahar pyne systems (at times running into dozens of villages) as well as its spatially dispersed nature requires setting up of proper management systems at various levels like the – main pyne/ sub pyne / village level.

What needs to be done ?

Many voluntary development organisations have attempted the renovation of ahar-pyne systems but have left the task unfinished. The major reason was the lack of understanding of technical and social design of an apparently simple system. There are a number of factors related to the natural conditions and physical configuration such as uniform slope of terrain, heavy rainfall in the hills in the southern part of this belt leading to swollen torrents and characteristics of the river (wide and shallow because of non-cohesive sediment) which have facilitated the development of these diversion cum storage systems.

The key feature of the system is the use of natural flow of river without creating any obstructions. Wherever obstructions like diversion weirs have been constructed, widening of the river has taken place. A slight meander of the pyne is yet another overlooked feature of the system for tackling sand deposition.

On the social side, the existing land tenure, lack of land consolidation and caste/class conflicts are a hindrance in the renovation of the system that requires regular removal of sand through collective means like the traditional system of gomam (community labour). Unlike in case of canal irrigation, which is supplemented with extensive agriculture extension work, areas of ahar pyne rehabilitation have not witnessed this because of which the gains in productivity have been limited.

The success of the revival effort at the system (individual ahar pyne) level will depend upon a proper understanding of the natural conditions that have historically shaped the technical design of the system, the social factors that have shaped water distribution in a certain fashion and the emergence of a new section(s) that have stake in water. Based on these, an equitable arrangement for sharing additional water available in the system after renovation needs to be developed.

River-flow characteristics need to be analysed to estimate the variation in discharge in the river over the years and the variation in duration (period of flow) over the years. The other aspects to be studied include soil, river catchment characteristics, land slope in the area, slope of the pyne (which follows the land slope) and losses in the pyne.

The impact of all of these on the water availability in ahar-pyne system needs to be estimated. Changes after the system became defunct (because of irrigation structures upstream) also need to be found out. Maximum discharge in the main inlet and the monthly variation (either the variation is because of variation in river-flow or breaking of the temporary obstruction) needs to be determined. Based on all of these, participatory estimation of the variation in availability of water in the ahar-pyne in different years can be done.

There is a need to build organizational and institutional capacities of civil society organisations (CSOs) and community-based organisations (CBOs) to undertake ahar-pyne renovation and management in a manner that would improve livelihood opportunities for the poor. Studies relating the specificity of existing ahar-pyne systems with morphology of respective rivers and topology of land will help fill the gap in present knowledge.

There is a need to create models of ahar pyne renovation in which democratic systems of institutional arrangements have been worked out to manage the systems in a sustainable and equitable manner. Finally, workable arrangement between the community, facilitating organisations, and the government needs to be explored for large-scale renovation programme in the area.

This article is based on the author’s field-work in Satyapath’s work area in Gaya, Bihar.


 [1] South Bihar falls in the agro-ecoregion – Rohilkhand, Avadh and South Bihar plains, hot, dry-subhumid eco-subhumid eco-subregion (N8Cd5).

[2] This includes Jehanabad, Aurangabad and Nawada which were formerly in undivided Gaya.

[3] Several sources in Avinash Kishore, Understanding Agrarian Impasse in Bihar, EPW, 2004.

[4] The extent of decline according to Nirmal Sengupta (Indigenous irrigation in South Bihar: A case of congruence of boundaries) for the whole state is thus – 0.98 mha (1920), 0.94 mha (1930s), 0.64 mha (1971), 0.55 mha (1975-76), 0.55 mha (1997).

[5] Nirmal Sengupta, The indigenous irrigation organisation in South Bihar, 1996.

[6] Bihar: Towards a development strategy, World Bank, 2005.

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