The Waterman down the ages

The large eyes in a bearded face, topped with a mass of salt-and-pepper hair, fix you with their gaze. The voice comes out with polite Hindustani and slowly grows in volume as Rajendra Singh warms to his work. Dressed in a khadi kurta-pyjama with a blanket thrown over a shoulder, feet in sandals planted firmly on the ground, Rajendra bhai, as he known to his friends and colleagues, launches forth on his mission.

For a whole generation, Rajendra has lived and worked in the villages around Thanagazi, about 60 km from Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, a desert state in western India. He was born a few hundred kilometres away in another small town of northern India, Meerut, but followed his calling when he was in his early twenties.

Rajendra is known as the Waterman, a name he attributes to the reporter of a small English paper who interviewed him in the mid-90s. It’s an apt description as water has formed the sum and substance of his work over the past two decades. In this part of the world, water is scarce and the local people had not learnt how to live within their means. Enter Rajendra the catalyst.

His greatest strength is the ability to translate traditional knowledge into action. “It’s not my work, it’s the work of the village people. Do not attribute all this you see to me,” he says, waving at the forest behind his ashram, “but to the people here. They have worked the soil, the water and the forests to get back from the brink of drought. Women who are the worst effected by drought have been instrumental in changing attitudes.”

The village people of the region have built anicuts, check dams, ponds and other water catchment structures themselves. No engineers with degrees have been involved in the work that has transformed this water-poor region into a water-rich one, a region that successfully weathered four drought years.

In 1982, Rajendra and a group of friends joined Tarun Bharat Sangh, a non-profit organization based in Jaipur, and two years later he became its general secretary. He worked with the nomadic tribes and village people in the region. In 1985, he set up a school in a village near where his ashram is located, in Gopalpura, to teach children. Children came, learnt and went away and life in the village continued unchanged, for many months. Then a village elder came to him and asked, “Rajendra, you have taught our kids for many months. Don’t you notice that despite this, the social fabric of the village is coming apart? Think of why this is happening.”

Rajendra didn’t have an answer, try as he may. The elder educated him one day not too long after. “We don’t have water, no crops. What will keep our youth here if there is nothing for them to do? Who will marry into our village? If you want to make a difference to our lives, give us water.”

That simple request flummoxed Rajendra, but didn’t defeat him. So he decided to continue his work of teaching and also put his ideas into practice. By then, TBS had its own building and behind it was a large patch of wasteland, stretching about a kilometer to the hill behind.

This is where he spent the next three years wielding a spade, sometimes assisted by believers but mostly alone, experimenting with the best way to stop water from running off and instead persuading it to trickle into the ground and recharge the groundwater. He hit upon a simple way of building little ridges, or check dams, of stones and mud, against which the water would stop and slowly sink into the ground.

Jagdish, who heads one of TBS’ programmes, says, “When Rajendra came here, he knew nothing of water harvesting. We taught him everything.”

In 1990, the check dams were in place. Then Rajendra would look towards the hill and say that it would be invisible in a few years. Invisible behind a thick forest of trees.

“I will not plant any trees here. There is enough root stock to care of seedlings. I will just ensure that water stays here long enough to trickle into the ground, recharge the water table, and also protect the saplings from cattle and villagers wanting firewood,” he told me in 1993.

Sure enough, in 2003 there is a thick forest around his ashram. The water table is up as evidenced by the water in an excavated pond just outside the ashram. “Wild animals from Sariska come and drink here, specially leopards.”

In just half a generation, Rajendra has managed to repair the ecology of the Sariska agro-eco-climatic zone. This protected forest about 840 square kilometers in area is some 200 km south west of Delhi. It used to be covered with dense forests about a century ago but the policies of the British and later, the Indian government, ensured their complete destruction.

“Ties between people, forests and water broke down as a result of these policies. Village people had a culture of protecting and sustainably using forests. When the government started giving contracts for cutting trees disregarding these sensitivities, and the contractors stopped villagers from using forest produce, these links snapped,” he explains. “I have worked to restore them and thereby the forests and water resources of the region and eventually the entire country.”

Rajendra isn’t satisfied with just rebuilding the ties that bind man and nature. There is a greater purpose to this work, to develop a “formula that will beat back the challenges facing river systems worldwide”.

One of the rivers near the TBS head office is the Aravari. This once was a perennial river but slowly turned into a seasonal river as is the case with many other rivers in the region. This is Rajendra Singh’s laboratory.

The Aravari river basin can be divided into the upper, middle and lower catchment areas. Villages in all three areas have participated in the revival of the river by building three kinds of structures – johads (excavated ponds), anicuts and check dams. Johads capture water running down from hills and store them, providing water for animals to drink and recharging the ground water. Check dams and anicuts do the same to water running down the river and the gullies that feed it. Forests and green areas have regenerated themselves, with help and protection from local villagers.

“From a vicious cycle of destruction of natural resources, people have switched to a virtuous cycle of regenerating them and using them,” says Rajendra.

The process has faced stiff resistance from several quarters, not the least from neighbouring larger villages where a small percentage of people are directly connected to the land. For example, people from Bhaonta village have taken the lead to create a sanctuary from the forests in the hills above their lands. People from neighbouring villages leave their animals to graze in the forest, cut down trees for firewood and fodder and overdraw the water in the ponds in the forest. There have been several fights over this.

Rajendra admits this is a problem with his ‘Aravari formula’ for reviving this eco-agro-climatic zone. The formula works best with small villages where most people are closely linked to the land but not with larger ones where fewer people are. However, he is confident that it is a matter of time before larger villagers also adopt the formula. “After all, we are trying to revive a cultural thing that has been destroyed over several decades and it will take many years to do so.”

This never say die attitude has seen him through many tough times. A couple of years ago while giving a speech he blamed politicians for the sorry state of the environment. A local goon knocked him down and he was badly hurt. It put him out of action for nearly 6 months but now he has bounced back, a little older and much the wiser for having flirted with politicians.

Further back, in the early 1990s, he had taken on the mining mafia around the Sariska wildlife sanctuary that was illegally running marble mines. The Supreme Court eventually ordered their closure but in the ensuing battle, Rajendra faced threats to his life, was accused of rape and embezzlement of funds. “At one time I had 12 cases of rape and murder against me. They have all been withdrawn.”

Another adversary is the government. His work in the Aravari basin and elsewhere has often run into opposition from the local authorities. They have opposed the construction of check dams on the river and other places. “When the administration has tried to demolish these, the villagers have used non-violent means to frustrate their designs,” says Rajendra.

Challenges from the government meant scaling up the Aravari experiment from the village to river basin level. The villages decided some years ago to build an institution that would be greater than the sum of its parts, the Aravari Parliament. This is the highest representative body of 72 villlages in the river basin that meets twice a year. It lays down the law for protecting forests and water, the penalties for violators and policies to deal with the government.

“I realized that people from individual villages were having a hard time defending what they had achieved from the depredations of others. In order to bolster their confidence, I encouraged them to set up this Parliament. It gives them strength and a bargaining chip vis a vis the state government. This is a policy making body and also deals with the government,” Rajendra says. “People’s participation needs to be at all levels, from digging wells and check dams to laying down the policy on managing water and forest resources. That is true democracy. It’s the only way that this work will be sustainable.”

Rajendra has not targeted women as a group but they figure equally with men in TBS’ work. The area he works in is feudal and women are very much second class citizens. They are also the worst-effected in a drought – the men go away to cities to find work and women have to walk long distances for fodder and water. They are exploited by government contractors offering employment. In their own way, though, they have contributed to rebuilding human-forest-water linkages.

“Society isn’t changed by a bullheaded feminist approach. Trying to be pro-women openly is a sure shot recipe for disaster in this society. I have involved women covertly in the work by asking the men to seek their opinion before deciding on any project. The men consult their women folk and then decide on where to build a johad or an anicut as the women have to use the water also. I believe if their life condition is improved, they will become more assertive in other spheres as well,” says Rajendra.

For example, villagers dug a well near a johad far away from the village to provide drinking water. The women of the village realized the well could have been closer and instead of using it, continued using the government-provided handpump that more conveniently located. Eventually another well was dug near the handpump.

Despite the Aravari Parliament, the process has not been smooth. A few kilometers away are the remnants of what is possible TBS’s most ambitious project in recent years, the Lava Ka Bas check dam near Sariska. The size of the project invited criticism and opposition from the state irrigation minister who did her utmost to ensure it flopped. She succeeded; in this year’s monsoon rains, the dam collapsed.

There are many sides to the LKB story. A panel of independent experts comprising people like M S Swaminathan, the father of India’s green revolution, examined the dam and said it was safe 2 years ago. They suggested some modifications to reinforce the structure. The people of 12 villages who wanted the dam built were working on the modifications when the government forced them to stop; the structure was incomplete.

It rained heavily for a few days this year and nearly 10 other check dams and anicuts constructed by the government as part of its drought relief measures upstream of LKB collapsed. “The flow of water from these partly washed away LKB,” says Jagdish.

The check dam was built two years ahead of schedule and had helped many villages get their agriculture back on track because of its large storage capacity. “Now they want the dam rebuilt and are willing to work towards it,” says Rajendra Singh.

While there is defeat in the collapse of the dam, there is victory in the people’s determination to see it built again.

In spite of tremendous success in mobilizing people and putting the control of water and forests in their hands, Rajendra Singh’s efforts received a jolt at the  macro level when in 2002 the Government of India formulated a national water policy which makes water a private resource, not a community resource. “This means that the government can effectively sell of water resources generated by the community to a private company.”

The people will oppose any moves by the administration to do this but it will have a long term impact on TBS’s work. “This is one of the greatest failures so far. I had recommended that water be made a community resource. My solution is that people oppose any decision by the government to sell community water resources to private companies.”

The Aravari formula is the solution, Rajendra says, to this policy and indeed the for problems facing all the river systems of the world. This small river has lessons for much bigger rivers. This tiny insignificant distributary of the Yamuna has thrived thanks to the labour of people who live beside it and depend on it for their livelihoods. Nearly all the river systems of the world face similar challenges – reduced water flow due to deforestation in their catchments, population pressures, pollution, siltation and a decline in riverine wildlife.

To spread his Aravari formula, this Magsayasay awardee has embarked on an ambitious Jal Yatra. Over the past 3 years, he has traveled the length and breadth of India addressing public meetings talking about how he has “beaten back the odds facing the Aravari river” and the lessons it holds for others. This is a lethal mix of grassroots activism and popular appeal.

The Waterman walks out of his jeep to examine one of the oldest johads TBS built about 14 years ago. The headman of Gopalpura village and a couple of others walk with him to the edge of the water. One of them cups a bit of water in his hand as one would hold a priceless gem. Another place and time: the Waterman is speaking to an elite audience about the Aravari formula. He speaks in Hindi and the translator is hard pressed to keep pace. He gets more animated as he speaks; the audience is spellbound. Rajendra has evolved the knack of distilling his Aravari formula and presenting it at international fora. Like everything else he has accomplished in his life, this carries the stamp of simplicity.

(I wrote this a decade ago for The Ecologist – it was not published)

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