Single poppy in wheat field

India’s water wizard

In Business and Environment, Environment, Ethical and Eco Agriculture, Places, Travel and Retreats by Martin OliverLeave a Comment

The solution to problems in this Indian village was to repair local water containment structures, known as johads.


Those who have visited the Indian state of Rajasthan know that is an arid and dusty place. The low annual rainfall can only support a fairly sparse population, and until the 1980s, increasingly dry conditions were pointing to a bleak future.

Over the past couple of decades, however, its fortunes have been turned around by a grassroots revolution that has extended from drought-proofing and reforestation to implementing village-level democracy. The story of how life was brought back through simple water harvesting projects is a deeply inspiring one. It is entwined with the efforts of Rajendra Singh, an Indian rural development worker who was recently listed among the UK Guardian newspaper’s ‘Fifty people who could save the planet’.

In his youth, Singh had been deeply influenced BY the teachings of Gandhi, who successfully brought about Indian independence from the British colonial authorities. From Gandhi’s perspective, political autonomy could only be achieved through economic self-reliance. He saw villages as the backbone of the country, and believed that they could minimise their level of dependence on outside forces with self-government, and local manufacture as a substitute for external imports.

One major challenge in modern India is the bureaucratic infrastructure, which is generally regarded as both inefficient and corrupt. As government money trickles its way down, pockets are lined along the way, and little is left for village-level projects. This undesirable state of affairs has at least one positive spin-off, as it steers communities away from government reliance towards a greater level of Gandhian self-sufficiency.

Water is the key

In 1985 Singh travelled with four companions from the disaster relief NGO Tarun Bharat Sang (TBS) to Bhikampura, a remote desolate village in a province known as Alwar. Having previously passed through this area as a civil servant, he already knew that it was suffering under a severe drought that had been gripping Western India for years.

As a result of the drought, the Arvari River and its tributaries had dried up. With little water available, most farming activities had been suspended, and young people had left to find work. Women and children spent up to ten hours a day fetching firewood and water. Compounding these difficulties, the province had been overrun with miners and loggers, perpetuating a decades-long process of deforestation. Control of nearby forests belonged to the Forestry Department, alienating people from this local resource and from actively engaging in the process of conservation.

Arriving with virtually nothing, this small group of newcomers was initially viewed with suspicion by the wary villagers. Living under the same conditions and experiencing the same hardships, Singh and his comrades wondered where to begin making a difference. After a while, they were informed by a wise old man named Mangu Patel that all of the village’s problems came down to the lack of water, and that the solution was to repair local water containment structures, known as johads.

These ancient tanks are unique to Rajasthan, and after decades of neglect under colonial rule they had become silted up and overgrown. In addition to preventing erosion, they harvest stormwater, replenishing groundwater during the dry summers. Working as a team, the TBS crew started work on their first johad, and after his companions left, Singh carried on alone. Seven months later, the job was finished.

Run-ins with bureaucracies form the backdrop to many of Singh’s early endeavours. Irrigation rules at the time were a colonial hangover, and like the forestry rules, they denied villagers any rights over their common lands and resources. When it was informed about this unauthorised initiative, the Rajasthan Irrigation Department served a notice against the first johad, declaring it illegal. Hearing that an arrest warrant had been issued against Singh, the villagers responded by requesting to be arrested with him. The government backed off.

Within five weeks the Bhikampura aquifer began to fill, a long-dry spring nearby began to flow again, and land further down the slope could be successfully cultivated. The sceptical villagers finally put their weight behind the water project and started to repair more of these structures. A kind of tipping point had been reached.

As the news spread to nearby villages, they joined in the effort. Waterholes that had required water tanker replenishments in summer became full all year round. As more johads were completed, agriculture flourished, resulting in a five-fold increase in grain production and a three-fold boost in milk output. Some of the increased income that this provided was tithed back into overhauling further johads.

Singh was not prepared to come in as an outsider and tell the villagers what to do. As they lacked confidence, he saw his role as one of motivating and inspiring them to secure their own water resources. He was interested in tapping into traditional wisdom, and working with local knowledge, respecting a community’s unique relationship to its land and water.

The rebirth of a river

After 375 johads had been overhauled in the Arvari catchment, the once-dry river began to flow again. This consequence of the water harvesting program was totally unexpected. Starting off as a stream, with each successive year the Arvari flowed for longer until it become a perennial river in 1995.

Owing to the combined efforts of villagers and TBS volunteers, a total of 8,600 johads have now been repaired or constructed in more than a thousand Rajasthani villages with a combined population of more than a million people. Several regions, including Alwar, Jaipur, Savai, Madhopur and Karoli, are now drought-free. Five rivers that had been either dry or seasonal now run all year round.

 In a Gandhian spirit, Singh has facilitated the setting up of community institutions in each village where he has stayed. These include Gram Sabha (village committees to deal with issues such as johads), Mahila Banks (women-run credit cooperatives), and on a larger scale Arvari Sansad (the Arvari River Parliament.) With representatives from each of the 70 or so villages strung along the river, the parliament treats the river as a common resource, overseeing sustainable water extraction and irrigation allocations.

Forest protection

As time went on, Singh directed his attention to the nearby Sariska National Park, a tiger reserve that was under threat from hundreds of illegal marble mines and quarries. He went to India’s Supreme Court to have these closed down, and after this bid was successful, he was targeted by thugs hired by the mining lobby.

Undaunted, Singh helped to set up Forest Creation Committees in villages. The results have perhaps been most dramatic in the vicinity of two Alwar villages called Bhaonta and Kolyala, where India’s first community-administered wildlife sanctuary has been created above the source of the Arvari. This transformed 12 square kilometres of barren waste into an area of thick forest cover. Wildlife has returned, including tigers, which are believed by villagers to be a sign of good luck.

In order to protect the new forest, the Bhaonta village council agreed on a rule that nothing made of metal could be carried into the reserve. Villagers are permitted to collect fallen branches and leaves, but are obliged to leave metal axes behind. This policy worked remarkably well, and later spread to all the other thousand or so villages covered by the reach of TBS programs.

Previously, tigers had been entering villages, looking for water. In addition to the danger this presented, it also encouraged the view that competition between humans and wildlife over resources was inevitable. Fortunately, this has all changed in favour of a happy coexistence. The creation of water sources in nearby forest keeps tigers away from populated areas, and as the biodiversity increases, they have plenty of prey animals to hunt.

With bans on tree felling and grazing in forested areas, there has been a great improvement in forest regeneration, with forest cover increasing from 5% to 50%. In addition to tigers, other animals returning include leopards, hyenas, jackals and numerous bird species. Erosion is minimised, as forest cover protects against runoff from dry soil during the monsoon season.

No room for complacency

In India, nothing can be taken for granted. After the river returned, outsiders later came to the Arvari after the government granted them fishing rights without first consulting the locals. As a group, Arvari Sansad rejected this high-handed behaviour by distant decision-makers, and successfully asserted its control over river resources. In another incident at a village called Debri, forestry officials tried to get villagers to pay for grazing rights on land that they had themselves regenerated.

Fortunately, over the years the attitude of the state government has shifted from one of outright disapproval to a growing acknowledgement of how much has been achieved. The relationship of TBS and program leaders with both the forestry and irrigation departments has improved markedly.

Singh has wisely decided to concentrate his efforts within Rajasthan in order to demonstrate what can be done within a limited geographical area. However, he would like to see similar solutions applied across other arid parts of Asia and, encouragingly, other Indian states have been showing an interest.

Trained as an Ayurvedic doctor, Singh could have dedicated himself to treating people individually, but instead decided to devote his life to bring about healing on a far larger scale.


Sariska National Park

About the author
Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver

Martin Oliver is based in Lismore, and writes on a range of environmental, health and social issues. He takes the view that sustainability is about personal involvement, whether this involves making our lives greener, lobbying for change at a political level, or setting up local eco-initiatives.

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