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The Indian Express : Editorials & Analysis


Thursday, August 2, 2001

Future liquidity

This is really a Magsaysay award for traditional wisdom

ARGUABLY no state in India understands the value of water as much as Rajasthan does, with its sprawling desert sands and kilometre upon kilometre of arid land. It was only with the recent rains that a punishing three-year cycle of drought and near-famine had come to an end in the state. So there is something quite apt about international recognition coming the way of an activist who has been working these last 15 years and more on water conservation in Rajasthan. Indeed, the 2001 Ramon Magsaysay Award for community leadership could not have come at a more opportune moment for Rajendra Singh of the Alwar-based non-governmental organisation, the Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS).

What the TBS did in the villages of Alwar district was simple. It built on the ancient premise that every drop of water that falls is valuable and needs to be conserved in a region that is sorely deficient in this natural resource. Quite literally so. Not only did the organisation work on reviving old johads, or earthern check dams, to capture and store water, it went about building some of its own. In fact, over the years, the TBS is believed to have restored or built 4,500 such structures after mapping the natural drainage system of the area. But the mere building of johads by itself would have been ineffectual were it not also accompanied by concerted efforts to protect watershed regions and re-green deforested tracts. The result of this endeavour was there for all to see. As if by magic, rivers that had died or been reduced to a sluggish trickle during the rains, now became perennial water systems. Village wells that had all but dried up were now full of water as the watertable of the region rose steadily. Basically, it was a matter of understanding the hydrological cycle and respecting it. The TBS, through its pani yatras or water marches, helped popularise this model of water regeneration and conservation to the lasting benefit of the water-starved farming community of Alwar.

But the TBS has often fallen foul with the local administration which has viewed water as a resource that belonged to the state and has tended to look askance at local initiatives of this kind. Recently, the villagers of Lava-ka-Baas in Alwar district, had had to wage a dogged battle to ensure that a johad they had built was not razed by the authorities, who had argued that it contravened an old water sharing agreement between the princely states of Alwar and Bharatpur. Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot had to personally intervene to stop the demolition. Administrators may well argue that water belongs to the state, but the reality is that they have failed miserably to ensure equitable access to this prized resource. Perhaps, instead of erecting bureaucratic hurdles, they would be better employed in studying the efficacy of such community initiatives and replicating them elsewhere for the benefit of vast numbers of people who would otherwise be constantly staving off the wolf at the door.

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© 2001: Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd. All rights reserved throughout the world.