BY PAUL FERNANDES
The Khazan system, an engineering marvel crafted by our ancestors in reclaiming vast tracts of land from the river, is facing a threat from neglect, mismanagement and the wrong policies, as extreme weather events driven by climate change are already creating havoc.
Since days of old, Khazans were granaries of rice, fish and vegetables for hundreds of families on their rim.
Comprising a network of bundhs (dykes), sluice gates, poims (water bodies), inlets and cultivable land, the ingress of salinity was controlled ingeniously and the bundhs erected from locally available material prevented the river flow into fields and villages.
But this ancient system of inestimable value, which could have been used to combat climate change impacts in low-lying coastal areas, is slowly collapsing. In a progressive decline, crumbling and broken bundhs, the influx of saline water and permanent water-logging and the loss of fertile agricultural land present a bleak picture of a legacy that deserved a UNESCO heritage tag.
The unique agricultural system was sustained by simple management principles through comunidades or gaonkaris.
“The main feature of the Khazan system is the bundhs which prevent saline water influx into agricultural land. Since time immemorial, comunidades, a robust organisation, leased out its lands for agriculture and maintained the bundhs from the income earned from it,” Savio Correia, President of Margao Comunidade, said.
But the rot set in, as many allege, after the Goa Agricultural Tenancy Act, 1964 paved the way for myriad tenant associations to manage the Khazan system under the taluka mamlatdar. Auctions of sluice gate rights for fishing through this new hierarchy bred a new culture of commercialisation.
“Breaches to bundhs and saline water ingress became a routine affair, badly impacting the Khazan ecosystem.These tenant associations have no inherent ability to organise people like the comunidades but choose the more lucrative option of fishing over agriculture. With the comunidades’ revenue gone, the Khazans suffered from a conservation and management point of view,” Correia said.
Under the erstwhile system, farmers reacted exigently to the formation of a boum – a small pit near the bundh. “It was a sign that the bundh was cracking, and they would move men and material to repair it before it breached,” a Tiswadi farmer said.
The local comunidade was bound by the rules to repair the breach within 48 hours.
In some instances, bundhs have been collapsing due to neglect and the brunt of natural elements. But repairs are being carried out using truckloads of red mud, which is lateritic and is washed off within a short time. The ancient wisdom of bundh repairs is slowly fading.
But allegations that bundhs are being deliberately broken by vested interests seem to be the truth for many villagers. In a petition before the High Court of Bombay at Goa, even the advocate general conceded before the judges that cases of deliberate destruction of bundhs and sluice gates have been reported.
The acts of mischief are aimed at illegal fishing activity without holding auctions, he alleged.
The case pertained to a repair of a bundh and sluice gate in the Corlim Khazan for Rs 4.85 crore. Though huge amounts are spent on repairs, the bundhs and sluice gates collapse again. Overall, the cases of breaches are increasing.
“It is not as if these breaches are caused due to natural disasters or due to wear and tear that was not preventable,” the judges stated in an order, directing the tenants association to keep strict vigil.
Others feel that it is time for a review of the entire system. “The lessons of the last 60 years should be viewed seriously. Authorities have to look at a systemic change through policy and legislative means. The basic idea is to revitalise agriculture to whatever extent possible, if not of the glorious days of yore,” Correia said.
A committee on Khazan land management headed by former NIO scientist Simon D’Souza had recommended a couple of years back that it deserved status as a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its uniqueness as an ecosystem.
The Water Resources Department (WRD) has allocated Rs 100 crores for the repair and maintenance of bundhs, but many say that the more durable methodology of traditional methods should be used.
“Around 60% of the bundhs are in varying stages of breaking or collapse. In the first category, many bundhs have already breached while others are crumbling or in a dilapidated condition. In the third category, some bundhs do not have the requisite height and water flows over them in the fields. They need immediate attention due to climate change considerations,” Elsa Fernandes, an environmental architect and researcher in Khazan systems said.