When Guddu, a water chestnut farmer, taught lessons on urban wastewater and agricultural livelihoods

Not many are aware of the urban ‘river’, mistaken for a nallah, flowing through the Dhanbad city in Jharkhand. A walk along the river led to the discovery of farming of paani phal singhada in Jodia talab. A photo essay.

Eklavya Prasad
| Updated: August 14th, 2021

The farming of the paani phal singhada. All photos: Eklavya Prasad

Dhanbad, Jharkhand

Five months back in the month of March, an exploratory walk was undertaken along a nallah (drain)/stream/river, often addressed as one of the main tributaries of River Damodar. This nallah-stream-river drains a substantial part of the Dhanbad Municipal Corporation (DMC) area in Dhanbad district of Jharkhand.

During its initial flow, this tributary, which is an urban river, is more like a stream. As the river flows downstream, the character and the identity of the flow changes from stream to a nallah (drain), and finally transforms into a river after coming out of the city limits but within the municipal corporation limit.

This stream has multiple names, interactions, and uses. The overflow from the first water body into the tributary, Paumpu talab (pond), also known as Rajendra Sarovar or West Loco Tank, is called Pampu nallah. Within a few kilometres, the stream is referred to as Wasseypur nallah. After flowing for some more kilometres downstream, the stream gets a new name  — Matkuria nallah.

Also Read: Imagining a clean, urban river and lush-green riverbanks where people come together

Finally, from Kusunda onwards the stream gets a name and an identity of a river called Kari jore which flows into River Damodar.

The intent behind the March walk was to comprehend the existing sanitation scenario within the municipal area, which was part of an ongoing study on sustainable sanitation in the Dhanbad Municipal Corporation area. The walk helped in getting a coarse perspective about the existing status of water, wastewater, sewage and septage and in providing exposure to the essentials of the municipal corporation, which have remained hidden or ignored for a very long time.

During the exploratory walk, repeated mention about the farming of water chestnut, also known as paani phal singhada, in Jodia talab west of Pampu talab, paved the way to unearth the farming of an ecologically receptive and friendly plant.

Two days back, on August 12, the much awaited visit to the Jodia talab materialised and the farming of paani phal singhada within the municipal corporation limits of Dhanbad was discovered. The aim of this visit was primarily to understand and document the farming of the paani phal singhada, because of the productive use of wastewater in the pond for a livelihood endeavour.

Interestingly, the farming of paani phal singhada is unknown to many in the Dhanbad Municipal Corporation area, including me. The paani phal singhada is being farmed in Jodia talab by Mohammad Azad popularly known as Guddu along with his team of skilled manual labourers for the past 10-15 years.

A photo essay.

The Entrepreneur – This is Mohammad Azad, fondly referred as Guddu, locally. He is the force behind the present paani phal singhaada – water chest-nut farming in Jodia talab (pond). He is also the owner of the talab. Being from a farmer family, he was keen to sustain his involvement with agriculture. Because of challenges, he transited from farm-based to pond-based agriculture. He began his journey by first learning the art of growing paani phal singhaada from the local Kathik community (known to be the traders of vegetables and fruits), the actual cultivators of water chest-nuts in Guddu’s talab.
The Plant – Come October, there are hundreds and thousands of us who set out looking for paani phal singhaada, we relish it for a month or so, and thereafter, the wait for the next season begins. Somehow, the quest to know more about the fruit in totality is missing. And possibly a contributing factor for limiting the potential of this livelihood option in urban space, which interestingly has other supplementary unexplored benefits. Seeing and thereafter knowing are also steps towards sustenance.
The Floating Plant – The joy of seeing the floating paani phal singhaada plant is insurmountable, because it not only about the fruit, instead, getting to know about the entire process of its cultivation. Who had imagined that farming of paani phal singhaada will have two strong components, financial stability and ecological sustenace. At least I did not, till I met Guddu and he believes that unless a sustained communication is established with the plants for the entire crop cycle, accomplishing dividends is next to impossible.
The Fruit – One of the team members, while inside the pond was eager to show this small paani phal singhaada. The interest expressed to know more was reciprocated by equal if not more interest to share further details. Therefore, the enthusiastic team member threw this small fruit to prove that what exactly were they farming. Initially, queries about the cultivation stunned few team members, because they were never quizzed on this issue. Later the realisation of being a resource dawned upon them, and then there was a total metamorphosis in the content and pattern of the conversation. Surfacing of this fruit triggered a detailed sharing about the journey of paani phal singhaada in Jodia talab.
The Main Equipment – The ‘green’ vehicle which makes movement within the pond extremely easy at different phases of paani phal singhaada cultivation. This vehicle is a result of the convergence between three different professions – kumhaar (potter), badhee (carpenter) and local skilled wage labourer. The different components of this green vehicle is made locally.
The Arduous Work – Keeping the pond clean is the most critical, frequent, time consuming and repetitive of all the works in the cultivation of paani phal singhaada. The entire team work together to ensure that not a single duck weed remains in the pond, otherwise the entire paani phal singhaada plants will get the destroyed.
 The Process – Strategic positioning of team members in the pond is a critical step towards ensuring a duck weed free cultivation. One of the team members is at the eastern bank of the pond ensuring that all the duck weeds are removed. With the help of a single paani phal singhaada plant, the team member is seen pushing the water towards the exit, which further propels the weeds to flow out of the pond.
The Collective Work – The interaction on paani phal singhaada farming did cover the unexplored possibilities of a pond-based livelihood in an urban centre/municipal corporation like Dhanbad. Pond seemed to be a perfect platform for a convergence in an urban space between livelihoods and conservation and continuity of water bodies through local group action. There are many groups across DMC area practicing this form of livelihood, but somehow the initiative in totality and the related unsaid benefits have actually remained ‘unsaid’ in all senses.
 The Pond – Unknowingly, Guddu and his support team have developed a pond-based micro-model for sustaining livelihood and conserving the water body in an urban space like Dhanbad. Such an initiative with dual benefits is definitely a rare sighting in urban spaces specially in a city like Dhanbad. And this has been made possible by pursuing and promoting two separate pond-based livelihood options, first, water chest-nut farming and second, fisheries. Therefore, the need of the ‘house’ is for the municipal corporations to bolster initiatives like Guddu’s through state and centrally sponsored schemes, and self designed programs. There are other such initiatives within DMC area, but all remain ‘undiscovered’ and thus ‘disregarded’. Wake up call DMC?

Also Read: Photo feature: The worm collectors of Pune’s Mutha river