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Rural malaise

Disposal of sewage water is the biggest problem in Punjab villages

Rural malaise

I vividly remember this incident that happened about ten years ago or less. The site was the crossing of the mosque in Chak No.170 JB (Jhang Branch), a village located in Tehsil, District Jhang. Right after maghrib prayers, a few respectable men of the village had gathered to discuss a matter of great urgency. The sewage water emanating from the mosque had rendered the nearby street hard to negotiate for passersby. The disposal of stagnant sewage water was a quandary that had drawn their attention.

The gentlemen huddled at the masjid crossing were well-educated and enjoyed positions of authority. A central figure among them was quite concerned about the impact of this constant accumulation of sewage water on the people living nearby. The outbreak of an epidemic was not a remote possibility.

However, a radical solution did not seem likely. It was partly because of the layout of the villages, carved out in the riverine tracts in the newly settled colony districts by the British in the second half of the 19th century between the rivers Ravi and Chenab. When created, these chak (a word probably taken from English meaning ‘slice’) had huge ponds on all sides where sewage water accumulated, which could be used for irrigation purposes too.

Before going any further, it seems appropriate to have a synoptic overview of the creation of these villages.

From the 1860s onwards, the British rulers thought of maximizing their revenue and also of generating an alternative source to produce raw materials for its industry. One stimulus for this, as scholar Hamza Alavi once argued while conversing with some of the young scholars in Lahore, was the suspension of the constant supply of cotton from America. Therefore it had become extremely important for the British to explore new sources of raw material from Indian territories.

Thus, after the annexation of the Punjab in 1849, huge tracts of virgin land presented the British with new possibilities. The land was going to be made arable by establishing a huge network of irrigation canals. Consequently, a large number of people from the districts of central and eastern Punjab were incentivised to come and settle on these lands. This not only eased the population pressure on some of the districts like Sialkot, Ludhiana, Jullunder and Hoshiarpur, but also enabled the British government, in some cases of course, to appease the collaborator class of big land-holders and also to award land grants to army personnel. Some pieces of land were allocated solely for the purpose of horse breeding so that the army had a ready supply in the event of war.

Among these villages, one was Chak No. 170.JB (as mentioned above), where the Dab, a Rajput clan, took habitation. It comprised merely 30 squares (750 acres) of land, and was irrigated by the lower Chenab canal which, as the name suggests, emanates from the river Chenab, and was established in 1904-5. That chak, despite its very small size and scarce number of inhabitants, attained prominence because of its high literacy levels and a history of public employment. For the past many years, it has become a hub of economic activity and also a provider of education for the entire region. Despite these progressive and heartening signs, the village in question has had some acute issues to contend with, disposal of the sewage water being on top of the list.

These villages, called chaks (plural: chakuk) are settlements primarily inhabited by biraderies (kinships, the groups of the same familial stock of mostly peasant proprietors). In these villages, even the lumberdar (the village headman) came from the same biraderi and hence was obligated to look after the interests of the whole village, which was connected to him by a familial bond. It was rather difficult to annoy any relative unless it became absolutely exigent. But the personal strength and the skills of diplomacy of the village headman came in handy to take a decisive action for the greater good of the village.

With the demise of the headman Mehr Ghulam Muhammad in 1985, the village was unlucky not to have any capable replacement; the hereditary structure of that institution was largely responsible for the trouble that such villages were plagued with. The cohesion and harmony, which helped in finding solutions to such problems and issues at the community level, stared the inhabitants in the face.

Reverting to the issue discussed above — the disposal of sewage water that Chak No.170 JB faced. One may venture to postulate that the unbridled increase in the population has led many families to build their houses on sites originally allocated for the ponds which contained sewage water. With no outlet for the sewage water available, people found a bizarre alternative for the disposal of that water. Most of them have dug up very deep into the soil: around 150 feet below hollow space was found into which the sewage was being dumped. That short-term solution had long-term ramifications, to which nobody paid heed. It has become a recipe for contaminating ground water which may be a source of epidemic of the worst possible proportion.

Some resourceful inhabitants offered a piece of land for the disposal of the sewage water coming out of the mosque only. Hitting upon any plan whereby the problem of the whole village would be addressed was deemed superfluous. When an idealist young man among the respectable talking at the mosque crossing insisted on the solution to be found for the whole village, he faced a big snub from the elders. The ritualisation of religion (when religion is reduced only to the pack of rituals instead of providing inspiration for doing anything collective) in fact was acting as a bulwark against any collective social action from the community itself.

Thus the process of social atomisation has completed its cycle among us.

The government of the Punjab and the district administration of Jhang turned a blind eye to these problems. The remedies of such problems in the rural areas have to be the top priority of those ensconced in positions of power.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore


  • A quote Translated ” Cleanliness is half the faith ” Region with which we are obsessed, teaches to be tolerant, disciplined and clean. These are the very things we are lacking in. You have mentioned overflowing sewerage. Wash rooms and kitchens in our homes and public places are just as filthy.

  • One is amazed at the level of ignorance that a historian of Punjab could display in his popular writings.

    With reference to canal colonies villages that British created in Punjab, the author refers to all villages in Punjab as Chaks, and goes on to enlighten us with its etymology: TO quote: ……… “these chak (a word probably taken from English meaning ‘slice’)……” The word Chak is Urdu language word, and refers to a certain type of villages in Punjab and not a English language equivalent for a slice. When British settled villages in the regions opened up through canal irrigation in last decade of 19th c, they created 2 types of villages. One type comprise of the villages as proprietary landed estates, which concentrated land and social power in the hands of a few proprietary (land-owning) families, excluding non-proprietors, and peasant smallholder . The other type were the villages noted as ‘chak’ where all residents had rights to land.

    The learned author goes on to make another wild generalization, which makes no sense at all. To quote: ” These villages, called chaks (plural: chakuk) are settlements primarily inhabited by biraderies (kinships, the groups of the same familial stock of mostly peasant proprietors)”. Nothing can more falicious than this: As stated earlier, the chaks were villages where a variety of landholders, from different castes/zats engaged in interdependent economic activities were essential to the village economy. British could never be so foolish to settle a single baradari in a chak, as the village economy needed cultivators as well as artisans and labourers (not possible from the same baradari/clan).

    Secondly, the author makes another bizarre assertions about the villages officials like lamadars. and mistakes it as a hereditary institution. To quote: .”…the hereditary structure of that institution was largely responsible for the trouble that such villages were plagued with….”Please note that the right to be appointed as lambardar is not vested right with hereditary as the sole basis. There are laws regarding the appointment and is made by the District Collector or Commissioner.

    Finally, all this so called historical part has no logical connection with the poor sewage and water disposal systems in the present day villages. The author reminescence over rural life and randomly throws bits of “facts” without telling anything significant.

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