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Wednesday 29 March 2000

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A manmade oasis in arid country

By Chandrika Mago

The Times of India News Service

HAMIRPUR: He is aged 70 - or maybe 80. There is no unanimity on this. But Dhanua clearly remembers the parched land almost impossible to cultivate which sent him in search of work to Delhi. There, he worked as a loader for years, through the period when Gandhi was shot and Indira Gandhi got married.

The years passed.... till his village Bhaonta-Kolyala in Rajasthan's Alwar district saw the light, elders advising the educated to stop talking about the arid land and start digging, harking back to tradition and creating crescent- shaped earthen dams. This helped harness the rainwater, bringing to life the wells and eventually the Arvari river - their life-giver.

The change inspired others and neighbouring villages took to restoring old dams called `johad' and building news ones. Some have allowed portions of their land to be submerged, believing that being able to till the rest makes for a good bargain. The villagers have now formed a river parliament, meeting regularly to discuss its management.

On Tuesday, in what is possibly a first, President K R Narayanan flew over to Hamirpur, a few kilometres from Bhaonta-Kolyala, to honour the village with the first Down to Earth-Joseph C John award. John founded Friends of The Trees, described as India's first environmental society. The award has been instituted by the Centre for Science and Environment. The attempt: To rigorously scrutinise community efforts and select an ``outstanding'' one.

And, Dhanua was on hand, with others of his village, to receive the citation and Rs 1 lakh given by the trust named after John. What would they do with the money? ``Paani ka kaam,'' responded Arjun Gujar, another elder from the village. They will waste no more time in waiting for the sarkar (government) to do things.

Water remained a constant theme through the function, as hundreds of curious villagers walked or drove kilometres to the gay shamiana which had sprung up overnight amid the heat and dust, on the banks of an Arvari reeling under three years of scarce rainfall. And, as the speeches went on, the gaily-dressed women began suddenly to trail out, ostensibly in search of water to drink. The tankers had been kept away by the administration and security.

It wasn't all sweetness and light. As Rajendra Singh of the Tarun Bharat Sangh, which is helping the villagers with this work, said the President's presence at such a function would give their message speed and direction, the disgruntled elements sniggered at claims of changes, maintaining no real work had been done.

It wasn't something Dhanua, Arjun Gujar and company would accept. The water level has risen and it's just about 15-20 ft from the ground. Foodgrain production has doubled. Milk production is up. Expenses on diesel, to pump out water from wells, have gone down as the watertable has risen.

The final tally: 238 water harvesting structures in the 503-sq km watershed of the 45-km-long river. As CSE chief Anil Agarwal put it, the work here has shown there's no village which cannot harness its water - whatever there is of it.



The Economic Times


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