Tall, bespectacled, a scrappy beard, kurta and a sling bag. That’s Rajiv Chandel for you, a picture of a usual activist on the move.
A second look and curiosity sets in. Thirty-two-year old Chandel is barefoot and has been so for over two years now. But he is not on a pilgrimage or a mission against corruption. His pledge is as basic as it gets: to restore water to drought-hit villages in Uttar Pradesh.
Mr. Chandel was born at Sujani village in the water-scarce Meja tehsil of Allahabad into the family of foot soldiers of the royalty of the late former Prime Minister, V.P. Singh. His father was a government schoolteacher and mother is a farmer. After graduating from Allahabad University, Mr. Chandel had a five-year stint as a reporter with top Hindi newspapers but soon became disenchanted with the “corporate-run media.”
He then shifted focus to grass-roots issues in his region, in particular water scarcity and sanitation. In 2011, in an attempt to know the status of the languishing Bansagar Irrigation Scheme, he approached the regional project office. Approved way back in the 1970s as a joint venture between Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, besides Bihar, work on the project in this State began only in 1990 and it is in limbo even today.
“I only wanted to know when the project would start but the officials were rude and asked me who I was to ask about it. I told him I was a farmer. ‘You shall get water when it comes. Now get out,’ a senior official told me lashing out insults and indecent words,” recounts Mr. Chandel.
This incident convinced him that unless he took an active role, the bureaucratic-political nexus would ensure that farmers’ problems remained unattended to.
“I pledged to farmers that only when I get them water from the Bansagar project will I wear footwear,” he says.
Mr. Chandel then started his crusade to unravel the irregularities in the project, while also gathering data on the numerous power plants coming up in Uttar Pradesh. As official versions did not remove his doubts, he took the Right to Information route and has filed over 500 RTI applications on water, power plants, rural sanitation, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and primary education.
“I went from village to village telling farmers about water use and how the power plants would ruin them. How Bansagar fell victim to corruption. I don’t force them. I ask them ‘Will you join me?’ And show them the facts.”
Not relying on paper work, last year he walked from Meja to Sidhi district in Madhya Pradesh, observing irregularities in the construction of an aqua duct, which is part of the Bansagar project. He then sent applications to State Irrigation Minister Shivpal Singh, pointing out the faults and official laxity.
Subsequently, the Minister inspected the project spot and suspended several engineers, including the chief engineer, noting that “not a drop of water” reached farmers in Uttar Pradesh though Rs. 1,200 crore had been spent in the last five years. The matter is under probe by the Economic Offences Wing.
The Bansagar project is meant to bring irrigation to an area of over 1,500 km in Uttar Pradesh, besides providing the facility in Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. This will increase cultivable area in Allahabad and Mirzapur by 75,000 hectares each through a network of canals and feeder channels. Lakhs of farmers in over 500 villages will reap the benefits.
Mr. Chandel is also credited with active participation in last year’s Nirmal Bharat Yatra. He travelled barefoot across five States educating villagers on sanitation, water issues and the need avoid open defecation, besides teaching them techniques of hand washing.
Currently, he is leading a growing movement against extraction of water by power plants in the drought affected Trans-Yamuna region of Allahabad. He is also working on a proposal to construct small checkdams on forest land in the rocky areas of Allahabad. He has written to the Ministry of Environment and Forests for formation of a sanctuary there as blackbuck are dying regularly of thirst in the Meja forest range.
“My dream is water-cultivation in the area,” he says.
For all his determination, keeping footwear out has been tough. “I go to all kinds of places. It’s a big risk. A small nail or glass or metal can cause damage. But my feet remind me of the pledge I have taken. Keep me motivated.”