Amarpal Singh Verma | Dec 10, 2022 | 7 min read
The traditional watermills of Himachal Pradesh have the ability to power remote villages, but they need official interventions and funds to bring about that change
Shimla, Himachal Pradesh: Progress powered by tradition captivates villages the most. Himachal Pradesh too has one such model, but it needs an urgent upgrade to cater to today’s needs.
Welcome to the world of gharats, the centuries-old flour mills where wheat, maize, rice and other grains can be ground by converting the kinetic energy of running water into mechanical energy. Usually a stone or mud structure, gharat is built downstream of a water body.
To begin with, water is diverted into a locally designed wooden chute to increase its momentum, which rotates the blades of a turbine placed underneath the gharat. This, in turn, moves an adjoined metal shaft linked to the two grinding stones inside the mill. While one of the stones rotates, the other remains static.
The onslaught of modernisation has not spared this desi ingenuity, despite its environment-friendly and low capital features. Today, gharats are gradually shutting shop due to the introduction of mills run by electricity and diesel, and the climate change-induced depletion of water sources. However, if tapped efficiently, they have the potential to power homes in far-flung villages of the hilly State.
Lekhraj stands outside his gharat in Virangal village in Himachal Pradesh's Una district (Photo - Amarpal Singh Verma)
The Uttarakhand project
Taking a cue from the work done in about four decades ago, the Uttarakhand Renewable Energy Development Agency (UREDA) and the Himalayan Environmental Studies and Conservation Organisation (), an NGO, have worked separately to from gharats in the State until 2016.
An upgraded watermill could produce up to 5 kW, which could electrify 15 to 20 households within a diameter of 500 m. Though the UREDA survey found 15,449 gharats in Uttarakhand, only 10% of them were upgraded by the agency until 2016.
The Uttarakhand government had provided a subsidy of Rs 6,000 per house for the upgrade. This was in addition to the assistance from the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) of Rs 1.10 lakh for electrical/electromechanical output upgradation and Rs 35,000 for mechanical output.
“Until 2016, we modernised 1,431 gharats with the help of Central funds. Of them, 444 received mechanical upgrades, which helped grind more grains in less time,” UREDA Chief Project Officer Neeraj Kumar Garg tells 101Reporters.
He further states that the Ministry of Micro, Small & Medium Enterprises recognised watermills as a small-scale industry in April 2021, and the Uttarakhand government exempted the watermill spares and power output from Value-Added Tax.
HESCO programme coordinator and senior scientist Vinod Singh Khati cites the case of Dhokwala village near Dehradun to show how gharats can engineer progress in villages. “Two decades ago, Dhokwala had no school, hospital, roads or electricity. All the three gharatis (millers) in the village found their livelihood by grinding grains.”
However, things changed when HESCO contacted them in 2002 to launch its electrification project. They jointly produced 3 kW of power, which lit up the entire village. Dhokwala still successfully powers its houses by combining traditional knowledge and local resources with modern technology.
Citing another example, Khati says Sahajpur-based Pradeepkumar earns Rs 25,000 per month from his upgraded gharat, which he uses for grinding work as well.
Though the NGO had launched its watermill project as early as in 1990, it gathered momentum only when the Centre turned its focus on the revival of gharats. Till date, HESCO has upgraded 4,000 watermills, mostly in Jammu and Kashmir, northeastern states and Uttarakhand.
A gharat in action in Virangal village in Himachal Pradesh's Una district (Photo - Amarpal Singh Verma)
“We did both mechanical and electrical upgrades. If a gharati was grinding 5 kg of wheat an hour earlier, he could easily ready 30 to 35 kg within that time after the upgrade. Besides wheat and corn, they also started grinding spices, thus earning around Rs 20,000 to 25,000 per month. Many of them generated electricity to light up their houses and watermills, too," says Khati.
However, the good work did not last long enough to initiate major changes. According to Garg, the MNRE stopped giving grants for upgrading gharats in 2017. The changes in Central government policies and its increased focus on solar energy are said to be the reasons for stopping grants.
Himachal lags behind
Though the Uttarakhand project failed to make a deep impact, such efforts themselves were far and few in neighbouring Himachal Pradesh. No grid connectivity has happened in the State so far.
The officials at Himurja, a State government agency promoting renewable energy programmes, acknowledge that the upgraded hydropower mechanism for gharats can be easily installed across small streams where water discharge is between 100 and 120 litre per second and the waterfall’s height is from eight to 10 m.
However, Himurja has done minimal work on this front. “We upgraded 41 gharats in the State from 2009 to 2017, which increased their efficiency by 40%. Apart from faster grinding, the plan was to produce up to 5 kW electricity. Unfortunately, some issues that cropped up at the ground level and the withdrawal of the Central grant prevented us from doing a better job,” Himurja Project Officer Ramesh Ratan tells 101Reporters.
He adds that the possibility of linking gharat electricity with the local grid was anyways bleak, considering the topographical conditions and the distance from houses to the grid.
Asked why HESCO had limited operations in Himachal Pradesh, Khati says, “We work as and when we get funds from either the government or any private agency. The attention of the governments is more on solar now.”
(Above) Water flowing towards a gharat in Virangal; (Below) Chowdhary points at River Manuni in Natehr, which used to feed about two dozen gharats at one point. Now only Chowdhary's gharat functions here. (Photos - Amarpal Singh Verma)
There are 20,753 villages in 12 districts of Himachal Pradesh, and more than one gharat is present in any given village. “There is no village in the hills without a gharat. This cottage industry has served as a source of employment for centuries,” says Dr Prem Sagar, a Dharamshala-based social activist and anthropologist.
“Our gharat is more than a century old. My forefathers started it, and I run it now. Even people from eight to nine neighbouring villages depend on this mill to grind their wheat and corn,” says Lekhraj (75) of Virangal village in Una district. In olden days, gharatis got cereals in return for their service.
Though electric and diesel run mills are popular in many places, Kangra, Una, Lahaul Spiti, Kullu, Bilaspur, Shimla, Sirmaur, Hamirpur, Solan, Mandi, Kinnaur and Chamba districts still have a sizeable number of watermills.
“My grandfather and father have run this gharat. I started visiting here when I was barely 10 or 12. Slowly, I also learned to operate it. Now, for the last 50-55 years, I am running it. My children have told me to stop working for the last many years, but I cannot do that,” says miller Mahendra Singh Chowdhary (73) of Natehr village in Kangra district.
Dr Sagar thinks the government should introduce new schemes to promote watermills, such as those linking them to village tourism. “The State should provide low-interest loans to start power production. Also, if the government purchases wheat flour and sells it through an agency, the millers will benefit immensely.”
Villagers are all praise for the gharat flour. “Nothing can beat this one. Both taste and nutrition suffer when grinding happens at electric mills at high speed,” they claim.
Nitin Sharma, a co-founder of ‘Ghrat Fresh’ startup, tells 101Reporters that a laboratory check showed gharat flour had six times the amount of protein than the flour ground in an electric mill. “It also had high iron content, which is why the dough gets a red tint when kneading.”
Probably the first water-based rural entrepreneurship in the Himalayan region, gharats can generate employment and stem migration, besides providing clean energy to villages. All they need to survive is a little help from the authorities.
Cover image: Mahendra Singh Chowdhary, an elderly Gharati, standing outside his home at Natehr village in Kangra district, Himachal Pradesh (Photo - Amarpal Singh Verma)
Edited by Rekha Pulinnoli
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