In traditional Ladakhi communities, scarce supplies of water were carefully distributed to the fields of all landowners so everyone could have their fair share of the precious resource. Mann (1986) describes how the villagers engaged churpons, officials who would channel water and avoid wastage. The churpons, paid by the families that received the water, saw to it that the irrigation channels were maintained and that everyone got their proper shares, an arrangement that was very important for the villagers.
Ancient Futures, by Norberg-Hodge (1991), also describes the traditional Ladakhi system of sharing of water under the direction of a village churpon. However, in Leh, the capital of Ladakh, Norberg-Hodge decries unwise changes to the water supply system produced by developments that tended to undercut traditions of people providing for themselves. Water supplies for the city were starting to be imported, at the expense of surrounding rural areas; as a result, she writes, “the age-old system of rotational sharing is breaking down (p.117).”
A paper in a new anthology of scholarly articles about Ladakh by Sunandan Tiwari and Radhika Gupta updates the situation with an analysis of water-sharing practices in Leh at the present time. The authors provide a detailed map of the city to accompany their careful description of the way the water is shared from district to district as it flows down the valley toward the Indus River.
They also describe the many changes that have occurred in Leh over the course of the past decades—the development of tourism, modifications in agricultural practices, migration of rural people into the city, new army settlements, and so forth. All of these issues have affected the uses and distribution of water.
With all the changing conditions of a growing urban area, agriculture is still important in Leh. Irrigation channels still run along roadways, and water is still diverted into ditches and farm fields. In rural Ladakh in general, the authors maintain, the churpon is still an elected or appointed, but annually rotated, village figure—normally, a widely respected man who supervises the village water sharing system. “This reiterates the general impartiality and equity that inheres in Ladakhi society (p.289),” they write.
Some communities draw up written agreements to record the decisions of the villagers and their expectations of the churpon. These contracts describe the payments the churpon can expect for his services, his obligations to the villagers, and his responsibilities. He is expected to make sure that water is let into fields at the proper times, that the irrigation system is properly repaired and maintained, and that minor disputes concerning water rights will be effectively mediated. Apparently, disputes are more numerous where there is less water, so sometimes the duties of the churpon can be onerous.
The proper rotation of water resources should be, in theory, fairly easy to monitor. People are responsible for routing the water into their own fields when the time is right, and if someone takes water out of turn, it is easy to see who has done so and when. Guilty parties could either apologize to the goba, the village headman, or to the churpon. In cases where disputes are not so easily resolved, they will be brought before the local court. But Ladakhis generally downplay these water disputes, a reticence that suggests they want to resolve problems quickly.
In Leh itself, traditionally, a district-level revenue officer cooperated with the headmen of the districts within the city to choose candidates for the churpon positions. A lama at a monastery in the city then chose by lot the churpons for the city districts from all the nominated candidates. All of that has changed. The position of district-level revenue officer has been abolished, and the churpons are now chosen from a list of all the households of the districts.
Residents of Leh have many other things to do than maintain the irrigation system, so they are often hesitant to assume the churpon duties. But they acknowledge that the position is important, so rather than let the tradition die completely, they have modified the way it is administered.
Earlier, seven churpons were chosen for Leh, but now the city has eleven, a reflection of the fragmentation of land holdings and the increased number of families in the valley. But the tradition of going up to a major monastery and offering prayers continues today. The amount of money offered to the churpons has increased, but the rituals welcoming them have continued.
Repairs to the Leh irrigation system have also changed—shifted from being the responsibility of the people in the community to an obligation of the district government. Minor, local repairs, however, will still be done by the people themselves. In the past, the churpons may have been paid in kind, but now they are paid in currency. In the smaller villages, the churpons are paid by the community members, but in Leh they are paid by the government.
Conflicts relating to water usage occur in the districts of Leh, but they tend to be viewed as minor matters that can be easily resolved. In some districts, people rely on the goba or the churpon to resolve the conflicts, but in others they resolve problems themselves. The more heavily populated districts of Leh have less water available and more demands for it, so conflicts are more frequent.
According to Tiwari and Gupta, the people are usually able to resolve their conflicts easily. Their social values—mutual aid, trust, and a sense of equity—still govern their social relationships, despite the changes that recent development pressures have fostered in their society.
In contrast to Norberg-Hodge, the authors argue that, rather than letting valuable traditions die completely, the Ladakhi have developed alternate approaches to keeping the old ways, such as the irrigation systems, still functioning. The changing rules governing water-distribution, they argue, indicate “a certain open-mindedness and flexibility in Ladakhi society that allows traditional systems to adapt to changing circumstance and situations (p.293).”
Tiwari, Sunandan and Radhika Gupta. 2008. “Changing Currents: An Ethnography of the Traditional Irrigation Practices of Leh Town.” In Modern Ladakh: Anthropological Perspectives on Continuity and Change, edited by Martijn van Beek and Fernanda Pirie, p. 281-300. Leiden and Boston: Brill. This is part three of a three-part series of reviews of important articles in this new book on Ladakh.