At a distance of around 50 km from Shillong, with gorges, waterfalls, fog, mist and the inevitable clouds kissing its narrow, winding roads, Cherrapunjee surely blows your mind away. But hold, there's more to this place than its scenic beauty. A travel writer describes it thus: "Every time I return to Cherrapunjee in non-monsoon days, I am struck by the disparity between the image that the place has in most people's mind and the reality that is before my eyes."
It's called the rain capital of the world with an annual rainfall of up to 2,000 cm. But what I see before me is the ultimate irony: women and children trekking long distances to fetch drinking water, bone-dry barren hillsides and huge gorges.
Come September and Khasi tribesmen here have only one worry: the impending drought. Till recently, the Khasis, who inhabit Cherrapunjee in Meghalaya,knew about only one kind of rains: slaup, the heaven-bursting, apocalyptic ones. There are other expressions too—hynniew-miat, for instance, for the rain lasting nine soliddays and nights without let up, or the really fierce, 14-day khadsaw-miat.
But these days, especially between January and May, they have added a new word to their dictionary: drought. For the residents of Cherrapunjee, this is the time when most of their time and energy is spent in collecting and storing water for daily use. Says Alfride Shabong, a schoolteacher: "Every morning there is a mad scramble for collecting whatever little water comes through the pipeline in community taps." For, these taps, installed by the Public Health Engineering (phe) department at street corners in different localities, is the only source of drinking water for this town of nearly 40,000 people. And those who cannot make it in time during the 90 minutes when water is 'available' have to walk down miles to the many natural springs surrounding the town, the only other alternative source of drinking water. The Shabong family, for instance, has been doing it for the last so many years. Says Carlos, the youngest in this family of 14: "Pipe water is barely enough to drink. For bathing and washing clothes, we have to go down to the rivulet or the spring behind our house." What's more, a jerrycan of water can cost as much as Rs 20 during winters and spring.
But Mary Pariat has adopted an ingenious method to ensure that she has a steady source of drinking water. She, and some other women in her neighbourhood, simply keep their containers under a leak in the pipeline near their house. "For nearly eight months in a year, we have to resort to this method," says one of Pariat's companions matter-of-factly.
But it was different earlier. Only a few years ago, everyone in Cherrapunjee scurried in the rain like beetles, hunched under body-length carapaces of woven bamboo. "Nowadays," says William Shabong, a village elder, his voice full of lament, "it rains so little that people are even using those folding umbrellas." For the old man, Cherrapunjee is no longer the place it used to be till even a few years ago. The rains, he says, are disappearing. But ironically, the Met department continues to record a healthy 450 inches of rainfall annually. Says S.P. Swer, 70, a former minister in the Meghalaya government: "The rains are lessening for various reasons. But that is the price of progress, isn't it?"
Agrees local chieftain Freeman Singh Syiem:"Although we still hold the record for highest rainfall, its quantity is certainly less than earlier years. "Cherrapunjee today is a far cry from when it was discovered by the British in the late 19th century. The town was one of the first to witness the advent of western civilisation when David Scott, an East India Company agent, chose it to set up the headquarters of the British administration in the northeast. But they had not anticipated the oppressive effect rain and isolation would have on the psyche of the young men sent out to administer the British empire in this part of the country. Life was indeed not congenial. Many tombstones in Cherrapunjee's British graveyard still bear the faint, weathered legend: "Died by His Own Hand". Rains were also responsible for a popular saying in the area in those days: that the average age of the Britisher in Cherrapunjee was two monsoons!
In 1850, Joseph Dalton Hooker, a naturalist, found monsoons in Cherrapunjee "as bleak and inhospitable as can be imagined". One-and-a-half centuries later, the situation is much the same. It occupies a spur of flat tableland five km long and three km wide. During the monsoons, waterfalls line the wooded limestone cliffs that forms its backdrop, foaming out of the trees into cloud-filled ravines. The southern limits of the spur drops steeply away to the flooded plains of Bangladesh. Its lofty elevation gives the visitor a grandstand view of the country below. But with nowhere else to go, the overflow from these hills goes surging across the undefended flatlands and eventually contributes to the annual flooding that Bangladesh experiences.
The naked, barren hills in the area, except for some isolated patches of oak forests, are grim reminders of the price of deforestation. Even the oak trees have been spared not because of any environmental awareness, but because they are the sacred groves where the villagers worship U ryngkew U basa, their tutelary deity. And since it's an offence to cut trees for any purpose other than funeral rites, the forests here have been preserved, testimonies to the ecological wisdom of the Khasi elders. They still keep these groves intact. But they have been indiscriminately felling trees everywhere else to make way for jhum (shifting) cultivation. Mining for lime and coal, found in abundance in these hills, has also contributed to deforestation.
The precipice where Cherrapunjee sits was once covered with oak forests, home to about 250 varieties of orchids, 500 species of butterfly and a tenacious species of leech known as 'the buffalo'. Today, it boasts of some exotic tropical fruits—oranges, grapefruit, magnificent bananas, which cost Rs 5 a piece in Shillong. It has an "extraordinary exuberance of species" probably the richest in Asia. For instance, Taxus bacado, a medicinal plant with anti-cancer properties, is found here. But all this may soon be a thing of the past. Says a Shillong-based environmentalist: "Over the last 30 years, the forests are being chopped down indiscriminately and the town has swelled from a village of 5,000 to nearly 40,000 people today." A cement factory nearby spews out grey filth, although, admittedly, it has provided jobs to several thousand residents. A market, held every eighth day, where all local produce like fruits, cane and vegetables is available, is the main attraction. But Freeman Syiem has one complaint. He laments: "There is hardly any scheme to attract tourists to this area. There are no good hotels here." In fact, a private entrepreneur built a resort here only recently.
But the residents here have no time to woo tourists. Thanks to deforestation, they are only obsessed with collecting rainwater. Says a district official: "There are no trees here to hold water. Except for a few springs protected by the residents themselves, you will not find any river in this area." There is not a single blade of grass on the several hillocks dotting Cherrapunjee because every year the topsoil is washed away. Several others, like I.V. Ingti, an extra assistant commissioner in the civil sub-divisional officer's office, have a different theory. Cherrapunjee, he says, sits atop huge deposit of limestone which soaks in all the water that comes pouring down. Agrees Swami Suprabhananda, head of the Ramakrishna Mission in the town. "Go out and stand in the sun just now," he challenges, "and you will see what I mean." The sun is indeed shining brightly but the heat wafting up from the soil is scorching, giving credence to the theory that the limestone deposits may really be partly responsible for the quick absorption of the tonnes of water that rains down on Cherrapunjee.
"Between June and September," says Suprabhananda, "the rains are heaviest, making it difficult to even venture out. But the really difficult months are between October and March when we have to save every drop of water as if we are living in the Sahara." He should know. The mission, established here way back in 1931, runs a hostel for 300 students. "Fortunately, the students are away for two months for their winter vacation, which spares us lot of headaches," says he.
Scientifically, several studies have been done to study the paradox of Cherrapunjee. P.K. Guha Roy, a former director general of the Geological Survey of India, wrote in one of his reports: "The weathered mantle which generally holds rain water is very thin in Cherrapunjee, in some areas less than one metre. Because of horizontal beds and poor fracturing, most of the rainfall is discharged as sheet run-off, removing the topsoil completely. Because of an absence of the topsoil, no vegetation can strike root and grow here. This explains the paradoxically barren look of Cherrapunjee." Roy had suggested several methods for rainwater harvesting: "Every house should be provided with roofwash collector and storage facility. Moreover, a series of weirs and bunds with moderate storage capacity may be constructed at suitable places to intercept the surface run-off." Unfortunately, none of these recommendations has been implemented so far.
In spite of the water shortage, none of the residents would settle for any place other than Cherrapunjee. Says Freeman Syiem: "We do not care how many times we get wet. The rain is like medicine for us." Indeed, there are very few cases of sniffling men or women in the town. The natural effects of rain are beneficial but until artificial efforts to conserve and store water for the winter months are speeded up, there would be no respite for the residents of this quaint township.
For an average tourist, however, Cherrapunjee still remains the rain capital of the world. The residents, in the meantime, have learnt to live with the water scarcity. "We cannot afford to waste even a drop of water," says a local woman, busy washing her clothes with the water trickling from the tap. This realisation has fortunately sunk into community
practices. Their slogan is: "Catch the rainwater where it falls"...