Positive change agent Rajendra Singh, the “Water Gandhi”, makes dry wells in Rajasthan run with water.
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When you focus the lens of Google Earth on Jaisalmer in Rajasthan, Northern India,all you see is sand. Small villages cast dark shadows in the harsh sun, and you wonder how they survive. Look closely, and you will see the emerald-coloured jewels of small earthen dams, everywhere. Built by local communities, johads, or earthen dams, hold water and enable life.
Rajasthan has always been arid but had sustainable rainwater management technology in ancient times. In the last century, many of these structures had been lost to neglect. Local forests were logged commercially leaving bare slopes. Despite good amounts of seasonal rain, uncontrolled floods washed silt from these slopes, into the remaining dams, blocking them.
As dams dried up, villagers had drilled deeper into the lowering water table, utilising modern technology and cheap electric pumps. Rivers even stopped flowing, local farmers couldn’t irrigate their land so migrated to towns leaving the women on the land.
Rajendra Singh was trained as an Ayurvedic surgeon, planning to build clinics for all the villages in Jaipur when he first volunteered. However, local people’s real concern was this devastating lack of water. Singh joined “Tarun Bharat Sangh” (TBS) in 1984, an NGO using participative action to collect indigenous knowledge from villagers for sustainable solutions. One of the techniques for water harvesting which they rediscovered was building earth dams or johads. In 1985, under Singh’s compassionate leadership, a silted-up johad was excavated and the stone and mud wall rebuilt. During the monsoon rains, the johad accumulated a large pool of water which slowly seeped into the ground.
A few months later, a dry well nearby became productive again.
Slowly building these well-located johads throughout the region has raised the water table so that wells and boreholes are productive, and some dry rivers started running again. The Arwari river was dry throughout its ancient 503 km2 watershed in the late 1980s. Rajendra Singh helped villagers to repair or build over 230 small to medium johads, in 70 villages along the rivers path. By 1994, the Arwari river, dry for 80 years, was in full flow all along its course.
By 2001 the water table was up across 6500sq kms in Rajasthan, as well as in parts of Madhya Pradesh, Gujurat and Andhra Pradesh. In total, 5 seasonal rivers in the area which had periodically stopped flowing, are again perennial, the Ruparel, Arvari, Sarsa, Bhagani and Jahajwali. Indigenous trees and vegetation are supporting larger herds of cows and goats so locals have returned to farming. There is even water for small scale irrigation.
TBS NGO, run by Singh, helps locals take ownership of their water, building dams and training them in rainwater catchment and sustainability. Singh was influenced in his youth by a member of the Gandhi peace foundation, Ramesh Sharma, so local participation and community involvement is key. The NGO worked with local communities to build 3,500 earthen structures or johads, in 850 villages, and villagers built an additional 5,100 structures themselves.
Known as the “Water Gandhi” because of his use of collective community action, he assists people to take community ownership of their water. When the new Japar Sagar Bhand dam was built along the newly replenished Anwari river, it increased the valuable fish harvest. Singh helped 70 villages set-up the “Arwari River Parliament” to protect villagers’ fishing rights from being sold privately by local government officials.
He campaigned to close 1,000 mines and quarries in the Aravali hills, 470 of which were directly affecting the local Sariska National Park. In the Supreme Court, the people won, but to ensure the closures, Singh then organised the “Aravali Bachao Yatra” pilgrimage. Thousands walked, and forced the Government to take action. With compassionate leadership, he prevented miners from poisoning the water, and prevented government officials knocking down dams when water was taken as a state-owned resource.
Other campaigns include “Vaikalpik Jalniti Abhiyan”, which modifies water policy to be pro-nature and pro-people; and Rashtriya Jal Yatra, or the National Water March, in 2002, where people walked for 22 months across 30 states of India and 144 river basins.
Singh is part of the National River Ganga Basin authority by invitation of the President. He is working on the Ganga Azadi Sankalp Yatra, a mission to clean up the Ganges, the greatest river in India.
The value of Singh’s work is increasingly recognised. The Government of the Philippines awarded him the prestigious Magsaysay Leadership Award for community leadership and Norway gave him the Stockholm Water award for 2015. Singh teaches, holds conferences and arranges yatras around the world, encouraging communities to restore local water management systems, protect local environments and catchment areas, “linking people to rivers, not interlinking rivers”.