The Last Persian Wheel

Ancient irrigation system gives way to the electric pump.

The Persian Wheel or Rahat as it’s popularly known, was once a ubiquitous feature of agrarian India. A mechanical water lifting device operated by bullocks, buffaloes, camels or elephants, it was used to lift water from open shallow wells. Through a rack-and-pinion arrangement – a wheel on an horizontal axel, rotated by blind folded livestock (to keep them from getting bored with the monotonous task of moving round and round in endless circles) that in turn gives momentum to a vertical wheel lined with buckets along its diameter that judiciously scoop up water from a water source, and on coming up, regurgitate it into a channel that irrigates the cropped area.
Ajeet Bahadur, our community correspondent made a trip to the rural areas around Udaipur, in Rajasthan, one of the few states where this system is still in use, and spoke to some farmers who where still using this irrigation system and some who had given it up for the more efficient electric water pump. Rajasthan, the most arid state in India has had a long history of using Rahats. Today, the forts of Udaipur and Jodhpur; citadels perched high above the city, exhibit the remnants of the Persian Wheel which was used to pull water up from wells or lakes below. But the onset of the Green Revolution, boosted with pump subsidies, bore wells and unregulated water use has replaced this gentle but labour intensive system with piped water.

The need to increase yield with modern technology is a valid argument but the results of bore wells in an arid region, plagued by droughts and famines for centuries, has perhaps resulted in the water table falling further. The Rahat’s fault, say farmers, is that it cannot cough up large quantities of water. The water source a Rahat uses to pull up water from, cannot be more than 12 metres deep and therefore only open shallow wells can be used in this system. But open shallow wells are replenished by ground water and when the ground water level falls, which is often the case in Rajasthan, the water level in the well drops and the Rahat cannot be used until the well is recharged.

Farmers have had to look for solutions to this problem, which even though might not be lasting or sustainable, have solved the problem temporarily. But in its fault also lies an advantage. Because the Rahat cannot provide voluminous quantities of water, it does not deplete ground water the way a bore well does. Thus, its role, especially in arid regions, protecting the ground water, and allowing it to recharge, is that of a life saving mechanism.

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