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TOPIC :- Indigenous irrigation Organization in South Bihar

Submitted To: Submitted by :

Dr. C. Shambu Prasad Ranjan Mishra (36)

XIMB Vivek Kumar (60)

Xavier Institute of Management, Bhubaneswar

Post Graduate Programme in Rural Management

There are different methods of irrigation in country. Everyone knows of canals and dams, wells and tube wells. Even sprinkler and drip irrigation are not unheard of. But those are not the only ones. There are other methods of irrigations in different states like Bihar. On the basis of its physical features, the Bihar state of India can be divided into three regions – the North Bihar plains, the South Bihar plains (the area north and south of Ganges respectively) and the Bihar plateau also known as Chotanagpur plateau. Ahar-pyne system of indigenous irrigation is historically the most important source of irrigation in South Bihar and even today provides a shining example of participatory irrigation management. "This indigenous system is the outcome of the natural conditions and physical configuration of the country, and has been evolved to meet the obstacles which they place in the way of cultivation. This mode of irrigation is widely prevalent because of scanty rainfall, a rapid slope off which the water quickly runs off, and a soil which is either a stiff clay or a loose sand equally unretentive of moisture. “Ahar” is actually a tank which receives its supply from small rivers through diversion channel called desiyan “pyne”.

What are the “ahar” and “pyne”?
Ahars are reservoirs and consist of a major embankment across the line of the drainage with two side embankments running backwards up to the line of the drainage gradually losing their heights because of the gradient of the surface. Thus, an ahar resembles a rectangular catchment basin with only three embankments, and the fourth side left open for the drainage water to enter the catchment basin following the natural gradient of the country. These are very different from the regular tanks in that neither their beds are dug out nor do the regular tanks have elevated embankments as do ahars. Water supply for an ahar comes either from natural drainage after rainfall (rainfed ahars) or through pynes where necessary diversion works are carried out. Water for irrigation is drawn out by opening outlets made at different heights in the embankment. Ahars, with sides that are more than a km. long, irrigating more than 400 ha are not rare, though smaller ones are more common . However, the average area irrigated per ahar during the early twentieth century was said to be 57.12 ha .

Pyne is the local name for the diversion channels. These channels may be of various sizes. The small ones are those found originating in ahars and carrying the water of the ahars to cultivable plots. The large ones have their origins in rivers from which water is diverted through these artificial channels by erecting embankment in the river beds. They are led some way upstream above the level of the land they are intended to irrigate. It is often 3 to 5 kms before the water of the pynes reaches the level of cultivation. Some of the biggest pynes are 16 to 32 kms. In length, and some of the them known as dasian pynes (pynes with 10 branches) irrigate many thousand acres of lands of hundreds of villages. An ahar is a catchment basin embanked on three sides, the 'fourth' side being the natural gradient of the land itself. Ahar beds were also used to grow a rabi (winter) crop after draining out the excess water that remained after kharif (summer)cultivation. Pynes are artificial channels constructed to utilise river water in agricultural fields. Starting out from the river, pynes meander through fields to end up in an ahar. Most pynes flow within 10 km of a river and their length is not more than 20 km.

The ahar-pyne system received a death-blow under the nineteenth-century British colonial regime. The post-independent state was hardly better. In 1949, a Flood Advisory Committee investigating continuous floods in Bihar's Gaya district came to the conclusion that "the fundamental reason for recurrence of floods was the destruction of the old irrigational system in the district."
Compared to the Himalayas or even the Western Ghats, the Eastern Ghats have gentler slopes. The diversion structures found in this region have therefore been included in the next section. In the Chotanagpur Plateau there are some steeper hills, and the diversions of the small hill streams in these areas can be included in the current section. These streams are seasonal but the greater degree of rainfall in the Chotanagpur area allows extensive use of such diversion methods. Here too, a diversion channel in its passage picks up the seepage along with the direct flow from the catchments it intercepts. Quiet often it passes through the foot of the hillocks from which there may be heavy seepage. Even if such a channel starts feebly, it swells with the distance traveled.
The ahar-pyne system of irrigation was overwhelmingly more important in South Bihar, where it was irrigating about 35% of 2.5 mha of cropped land during the first two decades of twentieth century. Compared to it, the irrigation in North Bihar was a mere 3% of 3 mha cropped area. During this period, of the 0.98 mha area irrigated by ahar-pyne, 0.88 mha area was irrigated in South Bihar, while only 0.1 mha was irrigated in North Bihar . Today the area irrigated by ahar-pyne system in whole of Bihar has come down to about 0.53 mha constituting about 12% of all irrigated sources, compared to about 18% in South and North Bihar alone during the first two decades of twentieth Century. The main reasons for the decline of the ahar- pyne system in South Bihar are the abolition of the Zamindari system which had the capital resources and vested interest in maintaining the ahar- pyne system. The second, a large number of alternatives have come before the farmers during the post independence period in the form of new canal schemes and tube wells. This has been aided by high doses of government subsidies in case of private tube wells. Even in 1970-71, the area irrigated by tube wells in Bihar was about 17%, this reached above 48% in 1994-95.

In South Bihar the most common system of water distribution is that the water first goes to the upper reach field which is closest to the irrigation channel and then goes to the next field. This field to field irrigation is resorted to because ahar-pyne irrigation is used mainly for the paddy crop, where even a little extra water does not cause any harm to the crop. As pynes served many villages, each village had its fixed turn of days and hours to have the water. These turns known as parabandi were most equitable and just modes of water allocation. The equity aspect of water distribution among individual cultivators which continues even today is obtained because all farmers, rich or poor and big or small, have plots in head and tail positions of the irrigation channel. As a result, adequacy or shortage of irrigation water is equitably shared by all cultivators of the irrigation command. The reliability and timeliness of ahar irrigation is ensured because water is stored in the reservoir and is utilized when pynes do not have any water left and rains are not forthcoming. This is the likely scenario during the hathia period, when water is critically needed by paddy.


The routine upkeep work involves cleaning and desilting of ahar and pyne and maintaining the water conveyance network, while the system is in operation. As a result, ordinary maintenance such as the periodic clearance of silt, the repair of small branches of the ahars and field channels is done by the cultivators themselves under goam system and it starts before the onset of monsoon. Thus, people's collective action finds place in operational as well as in maintenance works. The maintenance work includes desilting of ahar and pyne beds, regular repair of embankments. Apart from these routine activities, an important task is to keep constant vigil, particularly during monsoon against sudden damage of protective works which may occur due to natural cause or due to man-made reasons. The operational works include cutting and closing embankments for diversion, erection of bandhs or garandis across the pynes, opening and closing of outlets and at times even resorting to manual water lifts to irrigate uplands.

The cost of ahar-pyne maintenance is quite low compared to canal maintenance which comes to about Rs. 5000 per ha. In case of ahar-pyne, it varies between Rs. 500 to Rs. 1000, depending on the extent to which goam is utilized. Further, the quality of construction is quite good because those who get engaged in the repairs are themselves the beneficiaries. Further, in some of the repairs the material used is the one which is locally and easily available. The use of mozar which is obtained by mixing the wet mud with paddy straw quite effective in the repairs of embankment, including in raising its height.


The sustainability of ahar-pyne system can be judged by the fact that these modes of irrigation are in existence for centuries. Writing in the early part of this century. All the ahar-pyne systems that exist today are at least nearly hundred years old. The main reason of the sustainability of these indigenous systems is that the advantages emanating from them are two fold. First, these systems utilize water which otherwise would be wasted. Second, these systems, particularly in the past, saved the plains of South Bihar from the recurrent floods which otherwise would have devastated the countryside regularly.


Considering the fact that today's per ha cost of irrigation comes to about Rs. 80,000 and 46% of the total annual precipitation of 350 mm in India is lost to the sea as river flow, the rejuvenation, development, and integration of ahar-pynes system with new diversion schemes present wide scope. The reason being, it mainly involves mobilisation of local material and man power resources with very little financial requirement (about Rs. 1000 per ha). This is especially important at present times when financial crunch surrounds Bihar government from all sides and participatory irrigation management is the rhetoric quick-fix.


Dr. Nirmal Sengupta is currently working as Professor at Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research. Earlier, he was Director of Madras Institute of Development Studies. Educated at the Indian Statistical Institute (M. Stat., Ph. D.), his areas of interests are Economics of Institutions, Law and economics, International Trade and Water Resources. He has also worked in various capacities at the Bihar State Planning Board, Union Ministry of Commerce and Industries, National Institute of Rural Development, Institute of Philippine Culture, Indiana University, FAO, UNDP, Netherlands Minister for Development Cooperation, World Commission on Dams.

some of his important works include-

  • “Sustainability, Equity And Efficiency of Irrigation Infrastructure”, (jointly with S. Sheladia and E. Ostrom) in Robert Costanza, Bobbi S. Low, Elinor Ostrom and James Wilson, eds. Institutions, Ecosystems, and Sustainability. (Ecological Economics Series), Lewis Publishers, New York, 2000.

  • “Salinity Prevention By Rainwater Harvesting”, keynote address, Indian Society For Ecological Economics, 2nd Biennial Confc., 2001. published as “Traditional vs. Modern Practices in Salinity Control”, Economic & Political Weekly, 2002: 37(13), March 30.

  • Biodiversity And Quality Of Life, edited (with Jayanta Bandyopadhyaya), New Delhi, Macmillan India, 2005.

  • “Fragmented Landholding, Productivity and Resilience Management”, Environment and Development Economics (forthcoming in August 2006 issue).

1. Sengupta, N. 1991. “Traditional type of organization” in Managing Common Property, SAGE Publishers, New Delhi /Newbury Park/ London: 107-109.
2. Sengupta, N. 1993. "Storage Works" in User-Friendly Irrigation Designs,

SAGE Publishers, New Delhi /Newbury Park/ London: 46-47, 88,132.

3. Sengupta, N. 1996. "The Indigenous Irrigation Organisation in South Bihar" in B.C. Barah (ed), Traditional Water Harvesting Systems - An Ecological Economic Survey, New Age International Publishers, New Delhi: 175.

1. Tanner, E.L. 1919. Final Report on the Survey and Settlement Operations in the District of Gaya, 1911-1918. Bihar and Orissa Government, Patna.

2. Water Harvesting Systems: Traditional Systems.


3. www.indiawaterportal.org/arghyam/rainwaterharvesting.htm

1. Traditional water harvesting have been often ignored and misunderstood. These systems have withstood the test of time. Their history of survival could have been regarded as proof of their eco-viability and efficiency.
2. Modern engineering knowledge would certainly improve the traditional water system.
3. Compared to the modern irrigation methods , the traditional ahar and pyne system proves to be more efficient and economical and is being adapted in foreign countries like UK and Philippines.

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