Inspired by a professor, villagers in the south-central Bihar donated money, built traditional channels and embankments to irrigate fields

Ancient Mauryan engineering has brought water back to the undulating and rocky terrain of Magadh, the grain bowl of Bihar that had turned almost entirely arid because of abortive modern irrigation policies. The Magadh region, comprising 10 districts in south-central Bihar, was reeling from its worst water crisis over a decade ago, forcing farmers to board trains to distant cities such as New Delhi and Chandigarh and work there as migrant labourers.

The crisis looked irreversible but Rabindra Pathak, who taught Pali and Sanskrit at a college in Arwal, was certain that the answer lay in the long-forgotten and crumbling aqueducts and water reservoirs that irrigated the fields and fed ancient India’s most glorious empire.

He pored through old books and scriptures, and found that reviving the dilapidated network of pynes and ahars was the lone solution.

Pynes are channels carrying water from rivers. Ahars are low-lying fields with embankments that act as water reservoirs. This combined irrigation and water conservation system dates back to the Mauryan era that flourished in Magadh 2,000 years ago.

Pathak founded the Magadh Jal Jamaat (MJJ) in 2006, a network of individuals working to revive the neglected pynes and ahars. “There was no other way to solve the recurring water crisis threatening to turn the region arid. Reckless use of tube wells for irrigation without adequate recharge complicated the scenario,” he said.

Convincing people to participate was not easy in a fragmented society, where nobody was willing to part with an inch of land.

“Villagers shrugged off the idea of collective participation initially, as they couldn’t fathom its impact,” said Kanchan Mistri at Khaneta-Pali village. “When the government with all its resources failed, how could a group (like ours) do it? That was the common refrain.”

Besides, the local mafia interested in contracts for government projects posed a big threat to the voluntary initiative. A years before MJJ’s formation, in 2004, social activists Sarita and Mahesh, working on an irrigation system in Gaya, were murdered by the mafia. 

But Pathak was determined to do the unthinkable — bring water to the area. He got ample help from his professor-wife, Pramila, and trader Prabhat Pandey.