Thursday, March 9

The vanished streams of Panchkula

Right through what is now Panchkula, just fifty years ago, ran five water streams. With them, a whole culture and ecology of sustenance have vanished, reports Gagandeep Singh Ghuman
The singular and final proof of a civilisation is its relationship with water
There were times when cities were built by water. That was when water was seen as a resource. These days, when water is seen as a commodity, cities have stopped keeping that company. Anyone who hears of Panchkula ((which means the city of five streams) might imagine a dash of Venice in it. Panchkula may not lack much compared to other cities of India; a scenic expanse in the foothills of lower Shivaliks, wide tree-lined roads and cleanliness, almost a virtue for an Indian city. What it lacks is just its own meaning. No other city belies its name so thoroughly as Panchkula.
Where have the five streams gone? Ask your urban planner. Or ask Gargi Prasad. Just 45 years ago, when Gargi was a little boy, water was as abundant as air or earth or sky. He never knew he would have to think of water just as he thinks of things that you buy and consume. Gargi lived among five streams fed by nearby Ghaggar river. He lived in a Panchkula that was yet to be robbed of its meaning.
He remembers the best game of those days; grabbing fish in the streams. These days children do play in water, but it isn't grabbing fish. Gargi thinks either he is losing his sense of proportion or the world has grown unreasonable. No, it's not that his grandchildren no longer grab fish, it's something else: A ticket for water. He describes the new water game he takes his grandchildren Ankit and Kundan to play: 'You stand in a queue and pay fifty rupees to buy a ticket. All for being put in pools and pipes of stale water.' That's the game at nearby water park, a far cry from his own childhood game of grabbing fish.
The new urban game that leaves out geographical features like water streams, which sustained life for so long, may leave you with a ticket far more expensive than fifty rupees.
"Today it's ticket for water, who knows, tomorrow it may be murder for water," says Gargi. That tomorrow came last summer in Rajiv Colony, Pannchkula's worst slum, and knocked at the doors of Ram Nivas.
It was almost 9 O'clock in the morning and his wife Kala Devi was late for collecting water. Just as she picked her three buckets to start the small 200 mtr journey from her house to the community tap, she wished she would not see what she had seen for years now. The long serpentine queue that was breaking slowly to encircle the tap like a mob. With the heat rising, tempers fraying and water about to make its 9 am exit hastily, she could not imagine the long day without her three buckets of water. In her frantic attempts to claim the water that she had lost because of her coming late, a minor scuffle broke out. Someone hit her on the head with a steel bucket. After 15 days in the bed, she succumbed to her injuries. She got a few columns in newspapers, just like such a death warrants these days.
Not far from Rajiv colony, you can see a faint trail of almost invisible trench filled with small forest shrubs and waste. If you look close enough, you will see here the dying history of Panchkula that unfortunately could not become its present. These are the remains of one of the five kuhls (streams) that gave your city its name and once enough water so that people don't think of water parks or murders.
Fifty years ago, Kanti Prasad Bhalla would have laughed at these improbables. He loved those streams and they are etched in his memory like grooves. "They used to tale off from the upper reaches of the river Ghaggar and flow through several villages. One flowed from Manimajra to Mauli . The second would take off from Chandimandir to the villages of Chandigarh. Another ran along Ghaggar river, irrigating villages as far as Haripur. Yet another ran behind Suraj theatre. All intersected at a point called Panchkula, behind what is now Red Bishop hotel." The kuhls, or streams, quenched their thirst, irrigated their fields, their children bathed in them and by them they also washed their clothes. Kuhls also supported a primitive industry; 'harhats' or flour mills and brick kilns that used water from the kuhls. There was a little bit of the kuhls in every act of the day.
The kuhls, or streams, were both about the new god of democracy and the old god of water. "With no government authority to control or regulate them, the kuhls belonged to the people and the distribution of their water was truly democratic, with everyone getting water according to his land needs," Bhalla remembers. They used to put small dams on the kuhl of Chandimandir to divert water according to community needs. "Twenty people, one from each village, went to the kuhl early morning, putting sticks, mud and wood into it to divert water. What followed was a yajna, where the villagers worshipped the water god. They called it Khwaja Devta," Bhalla narrates.
And then happened what we now know as Panchkula. The new development idiom cared little for the old, indigenous grammar of water conservation. Urbanisation brought in its tow the mining industry that reduced mighty Ghaggar to an expanse of shallow water and kuhls to dirty drains. Now the kuhls bubble only in the old, nostalgic minds or the yellowing maps tucked away in decrepit cupboards at the revenue office.
"Anyone who had seen the kuhls would agree that they were an efficient, dependable, cost-effective and perennial water source," says Bhalla. Talking of perennial, you could still use that adjective for water in today's Panchkula but in a different context ---- Perennial water shortage. Panchkula draws water from the ground reserve and it uses 105 tubewells to do it, which are, well, perennially overworked. As the population increases, five or six new ones are added even as five or six existing ones break down. On the last count, the depth at which they nabbed water was alarmingly low ---- 1,000 feet. The water table receding fast every year, and there is little means to replete it.
From being available round- the-clock to being strictly regulated, water has indeed come a long way in Panchkula. Along this way, it has got dirty too. Water pipes often burst open and carry with them dirt, mud, worms and even snakes. This explains why most people use water purifiers.
Another water game Gargi Prasad remembers playing in the kuhls was 'hold your breath'.
You held your breath in the water, trying to remain down longer than the others. "There was a heady feeling of water around you, about you, over you. Then to come up on the surface finishing last, with your eyes red and head heavy with victory. It was kidding with death," Gargi remembers.
The new urban water game at play in Panchkula may also prove to be kidding with death, but this time without any water.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

BRILLIANT Article. You deserve appreciation for the effort. Well researched, aptly scripted. Panchkula is dying (or is already dead). Our LUST for land and comfort has destroyed this gem of shivalik. We are the murderers of those virgin hills.Today's Pachkula is a den of Corruption, land grabbing, filth, THIRSTY, Insensitive.
I did like to quote a verse from Ishopnishad:
" This universe is the creation of the supreme power that stands for the benefit of all his creation. Individual Species MUST, therefore, learn to enjoy it's benefits by forming a part of the system in close relation with other species. LET NOT ANY ONE SPECIES ENCROACH UPON ANY ONE ELSE's RIGHT"