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Reviving traditional watermills to generate electricity could be just the solution for Arunachal Pradesh

With increasing tourism, villages in the hilly state of Arunachal Pradesh are faced with an increased demand for seamless power supply which the state is not able to meet. Traditional watermills or chhoskor in the state have the potential to solve some of this energy problem. Reviving defunct watermills could be a sustainable way to meet the energy needs, generate employment and preserve a lost tradition, says Barasha Das, the writer of this article

The Rupa Buddhist monastery is abuzz with activity as the Shertukpen people, a prominent tribe residing in the Rupa Sub-division of the West Kameng District in the northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh eagerly prepare for their most cherished annual festival — Khik-saba. This festival, celebrated towards the end of November each year, holds significant cultural importance for the community. Despite their adherence to Buddhism, the tribe remains steadfast in their commitment to honouring their ancient traditions through Khik-saba, a festival dedicated to the local mountain deities. The weeklong festivities entail elaborate ceremonies that require a substantial amount of ground maize, used in the preparation of traditional wine and other sacred offerings.

With only a few days left before the festival, the Shertukpen Community encountered a daunting obstacle: the electric mill relied upon by the monastery for grinding grains had malfunctioned. Compounding the issue, there were no experts available in the town to repair it and other mills in the village were struggling to operate due to irregular power supply. In a stroke of fortune, the community reached a solution in a traditional watermill located in Dikshipam, 10 km from the monastery. Known locally as chhoskor or chuskor, these watermills have stood the test of time for centuries, serving as indispensable components of the agricultural livelihood and cultural heritage of the indigenous communities in Arunachal Pradesh.

Increased electricity needs linked to tourism growth
The Rupa Sub-division has been facing growing challenges with its unstable power supply. According to resident Kejang Dorjee Thongdok, the demand for electricity has been steadily rising, particularly due to the influx of tourists. “Until a few years ago, we didn’t experience load shedding or voltage fluctuations. The surge in tourism is likely contributing to this,” he observes. Thongdok believes that the burgeoning tourism industry has led to the establishment of more businesses, consequently driving up the demand for power beyond what the state infrastructure can accommodate.

A mill house in Dikshipam. A small channel diverts water from the river to the wooden turbine installed beneath the stone quern of the mill house.

Thongdok highlights that the power transmission lines of the grid, especially the section connecting West Kameng in Arunachal to the neighbouring state of Assam, is susceptible to weather-related disruptions. “During monsoon, continuous rainfall often triggers landslides in the hilly terrain, causing damage to power lines, disrupting the supply for weeks and sometimes even months in certain areas. Additionally, in winter, the increased power demand exacerbates voltage fluctuations,” he explains.

Located approximately 24 km from Rupa Town, the picturesque Shergaon Sub-division garnered acclaim in 2023 as one of India’s best tourism villages. Nestled amidst lush emerald forests and boasting abundant horticulture, Shergaon, situated in the Eastern Himalayas, is home to a population of 3,077. Despite its relatively small population, the area attracts over 8,000 tourists annually. To accommodate the influx, approximately 19 homestays and farm-stays operate in the region. During the peak tourist season, these homestays function around the clock, placing considerable strain on Shergaon’s power supply infrastructure. As a result, the reliability of the power supply in the area often wavers.

According to the Central Electricity Authority (CEA), Arunachal Pradesh experienced a significant surge in its overall electricity consumption, rising from 405 GWh in 2021 to 518 GWh in 2022. Meanwhile, the state’s electricity generation only marginally increased from 2.10 GWh in the previous fiscal year to 2.13 GWh in 2021-22, with the remaining demand being met through the regional grid. The CEA projects a further increase in electricity consumption for the state, with estimates reaching 644 GWh by 2025-26 and 978 GWh by 2031-32. This highlights the escalating energy demands within Arunachal Pradesh, necessitating careful planning and management of its energy resources.

Experts suggest that the overlooked indigenous practice of chhoskor presents a promising solution to alleviate the state’s power crisis. Commonly practised in many high-altitude regions across India, these hydro-powered chhoskor, with slight modifications, have the potential to generate off-grid electricity. While thousands of such neglected watermills have been retrofitted and revived to produce electricity in states like Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, the potential of chhoskor in Arunachal Pradesh remains untapped.

Known locally as chhoskor or chuskor, watermills have served as indispensable components of the agricultural livelihood and cultural heritage of the
indigenous communities in Arunachal Pradesh.

An upgraded chhoskor is capable of generating up to five kWh of electricity. By revitalising hundreds of these dormant structures in the two districts, a significant portion of the state’s power requirements can be met. Operated solely by the power of flowing water, without any additional energy sources and requiring only one person for operation, the indigenous system is not only cost- and labour-efficient but also sustainable in the long term.

A traditional solution to modern power problems
In Arunachal Pradesh, the use of chhoskor is deeply ingrained in the traditional agrarian lifestyle of the Shertukpen and Monpa ethnic groups, who reside in the West Kameng and Tawang Districts, respectively. Historically engaged in agriculture, cultivating resilient crops like millet and maize, both tribes heavily relied on watermills for various purposes. The water-driven system that enabled mills to operate was also used for turning Buddhist prayer wheels. In the past, prayer houses featured such wheels connected to turbines. The region once had numerous chhoskor and hydro-powered prayer-wheel houses but over time their numbers dwindled.

One such chhoskor in Dikshipam, a tranquil hamlet nestled along the Phudung River, serves the entire village consisting of 18 farmer households and four neighbouring villages. A small channel diverts water from the river to the wooden turbine installed beneath the stone quern of the mill house. The flow of water is regulated by a simple wooden plank; removing it allows the rushing water to propel the turbine into motion, subsequently activating the grinding stones positioned above it.

Farmer Tsering Gombu of Dikshipam fondly reminisces, “This watermill was constructed by our grandfathers and has been utilised by generations of villagers. Its primary operation peaked during the winters following the harvest season. People from neighbouring settlements frequented it for free grinding services. However, during the summer months when most of us were occupied in the fields, the chhoskor had minimal use.” Gombu shares that the watermill held great significance in their customs and religious practices. “The stone used is specially chosen and skilfully crafted by a zyopo, a professional watermill maker. Crafting these stones requires months of dedicated labour and expertise,” he says.

The upkeep of the watermill entails regular maintenance, such as sharpening the inner rough surfaces of the grinding stones every five to six years and replacing wooden components approximately every decade. Traditionally, the expertise required for these tasks was preserved by village zyopo. However, with the scarcity of zyopo in the villages, maintaining these structures has become challenging. Gombu reflects, “Nowadays, with the unavailability of zyopo, most maintenance work is undertaken by the villagers themselves. The knowledge is passed down through generations, and we are now imparting this knowledge to our children. However, without the guidance of experts, it is a challenging endeavour.”

One of the century-old watermills in Sangti Valley, belonging to 76-year-old Dawa Norbu Bomyakpa, continues to provide him with a steady income. In the past, patrons compensated for using the watermill with either manual labour or a portion of the ground flour. However, cash transactions have become the norm. Bomyakpa now charges Rs 100 for grinding a sack of grain weighing around 20 kg. “There are always two to three customers, and on a good business day, five or six,” he notes.

Traditionally, the expertise required for maintaining chhoskors was preserved by village zyopo. However, with the scarcity of zyopo in the villages,
maintaining these structures has become challenging.

Researcher Norbu Jamchu Thongdok highlights that every village once boasted at least one chhoskor, but most have fallen into disuse due to changes in lifestyle, climate, agriculture, and various socio-economic factors. However, Thongdok draws parallels with the gharats in North India, which were upgraded to generate power, and asserts that many of these watermills can be revitalised.

Institutional interventions ignore Arunachal’s watermills
In 1990, marginalised water millers in the Himalayan states organised themselves under the Himalayan Environmental Studies and Conservation Organisation (HESCO) to demand a revival of the traditional watermills. Consequently, the Union Ministry of New and Renewable Energy initiated a scheme to support the millers. Over the past three decades, numerous government and non-government organisations, including the Indian Institute of Technology, Roorkee, have actively participated in adapting and advancing watermills into small hydro-power systems for electricity generation.

To generate electricity, the traditional stone and wooden support of the watermills are replaced with metal bearings, and the wooden turbine wheel with mild steel. A pulley is fixed beneath the grinding stone to increase its RPM (revolutions per minute) and connected to a generator. The mechanical energy harnessed from the turbine rotation drives the rotor of the generator, producing electric power. The output is directed to a UPS, which provides stabilised power to a control panel. The wheel and belt arrangements also facilitate the running of different agro-processing machines. A watermill can be upgraded at Rs 1 lakh to Rs. 1.5 lakh, which can generate three to five kilowatt hour (kWh) electricity in addition to increased efficiency in agro-processing.

Environmental activist and founder of HESCO, Anil Prakash Joshi, asserts that a network of watermills has the potential to generate sufficient electricity, which can be seamlessly integrated into the grid system, as a viable alternative to environmentally damaging hydropower projects. Deepak Rawat, commissioner of Kumaon Division, Uttarakhand, who has been involved in the revival of watermills, agrees. “The gharats or watermills are sustainable and eco-friendly indigenous systems that enable villagers to simultaneously generate electricity, grind grains, and engage in fishing within the same water stream. Moreover, grains processed in gharats are cold-pressed, retaining higher nutritional value and have a growing market,” he explains. An upgraded watermill also offers villagers the option to sell excess electricity generated to the grid.

The Ministry of New and Renewable Energy has highlighted that the upgrading of watermills can foster micro-entrepreneurship development and meet energy requirements in remote hilly areas. In 2016, about 2460 upgraded water mills—both mechanical and electrical (with output up to five kWh) — were installed in Kerala, Karnataka, Jammu and Kashmir, Tamil Nadu, Nagaland, and Uttarakhand. However, traditional watermills in Arunachal Pradesh remain excluded, with more focus on setting up small and micro-hydel projects in the state. Joshi recalls that HESCO, in 2000, collaborated with the Indian army to upgrade one watermill in Tawang, but the difficult terrain, limited communication, and lack of government support hindered the project’s potential, limiting it to just one installation.

As village councils in Arunachal Pradesh actively consider reviving a few watermills, experts are of the opinion that such a transition would not only boost rural employment but also raise awareness about conserving water streams and reviving environmentally viable indigenous practices for the long-term sustenance of hill communities and their traditions.

(Courtesy: Mongabay India/ india.mongabay.com)

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