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The Hindu on : Check-dams perform a miracle

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Thursday, March 30, 2000

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Check-dams perform a miracle

By Soma Basu

ALWAR (RAJASTHAN), MARCH 29. Soon after the Presidential chopper disappeared into the sky, raising a haze of dust over Hamirpura village here, the villagers were back to routine work. They had all come loaded in tractors and buses and some had even spent the previous night under the shamiana at the venue to catch a glimpse of and hear the country's first citizen.

The chatter laced with excitement among them was about how to spend the Rs.100,000 award given to the villagers of Bhaonta- Kolyala by the President for being the ``best environmental community'' of the country.

``We will build more `johads' (earthen check-dams)'' - there was no dispute over the response, as the villagers went their way crossing many a crescent-shaped earthen dam dotting the undulating hilly and rugged terrain along Arvari river here. The water bodies shimmering under the bright sun in the arid region were no mirages but proof of the magic performed entirely by the locals of nearly 700 villages in this district.

The ``nightmare'' of yesteryears is gone. With lack of vegetation and acres of degraded land, four per cent of Aravalli was becoming wasteland every year. The scarce monsoon run-off washed away the top soil and crops failed regularly. There was not a single blade of grass but many caracasses of cattle all around. Drought, poverty and forced migration made the region look like war-ravaged. For the people, it was a struggle for survival.

Then started happening. One October evening in 1985, five young men belonging to Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS), a Jaipur- based voluntary organisation fighting injustice against people, arrived at nearby Kishori village.

``It was like landing in a battlefield here, without knowing who to fight and how,'' Mr.Rajinder Singh, the key man of TBS and popularly known as ``dariwale ajnabi (bearded stranger)'', told The Hindu here. ``The traditional wisdom of the area sought the greenhorns out when an old villager, Mangulal Patel from adjacent Gopalpura, told us: don't simply talk, dig tanks and build johads.''

That marked the beginning of an unprecedented water harvesting campaign. The rich tradition of building johads - which capture and conserve rainwater, improve percolation and recharge groundwater - was alive in the collective subconscious of the people. Just that push was provided by Mr.Singh and his team to alter the rural environment.

However, he recalled, as work through persuasion picked up, bureaucracy came in the way. ``We were denied permission to build dams and fined for planting trees. When fish arrived in the revived Arvari river, the Government gave out contracts to private agencies and banned the villagers from fishing in the river, which they had brought back to life with zero Government help.''

But people resisted all threats, determined to fight ecological destruction which was causing economic and social degradation. Today, 3,500 water harvesting structures in the district stand testimony to the will of the masses, who no longer waste time waiting for Government support.

As men began returning to their villages to join in the water movement and build johads, the TBS slowly withdrew from active participation to give more meaning to Gandhiji's `gram swaraj'. Water easily became the focus of every village and every villager worked to see water oozing out of totally dried up wells. And when villagers work together to regenerate the environment, there are ``unexpected blessings''.

After decades of sand, heat and infertility, the basin of not only Arvari but four other rivers in the region has discovered perennial water, prosperity and abundance. Land under cultivation is five times higher now than in 1995. Milk production is up by 10 times.

Scant rainfall is haunting the region for the past three years but villages in the river catchment areas have enough water for irrigation and other needs. This is proof that just 20 per cent of rainwater trapped by check dams can regenerate environment and resuscitate rivers and wells.

What is further admirable is that the villagers have gone beyond harvesting rainwater. They have formed the ``Arvari River parliament'' to settle any dispute on water sharing and for regulating the use of ground and river water in the area. The villagers have exploded a myth called drought.

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