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‘Water is my life, my happiness, my teacher’

Water conservationist Rajendra Singh   | Photo Credit: R. Ravindran

Sprawled on his narrow bed, at the Indian Institute of Technology (Madras) guesthouse, water activist Rajendra Singh is remarkably cheerful for a man who has barely slept a wink. His flight landed in Chennai at 3 a.m. and he has been in interviews since 7 a.m., he says, rolling up the sleeves of his rumpled red-striped kurta.

His laughter is effervescent despite the fatigue, the oppressive heat, the constant buzzing of his mobile phone, and the various people who flit in and out of his room, including a loquacious, elderly gentleman with strident left-wing political views.

The fire still burns brightly for Singh, popularly known as the ‘Waterman of India’. “Water is my life, my happiness, my teacher,” says Singh, who was in Chennai to share his vision for a drought-free India. The winner of two prestigious awards, the Ramon Magsaysay and the Stockholm Water Prize, Singh has never held back from championing the cause of water and the communities that need this ‘elixir of life’—as Sir C.V. Raman once called it—to survive.

One of the biggest battles he wages right now is against the silting up of the Ganges and its tributaries due to the large dams on it. And he is wont to agree with Bihar’s Chief Minister Nitish Kumar who recently demanded the decommissioning of the Farakka barrage. Kumar has claimed— and his claim has been hotly contested by Union Water Resources Minister Uma Bharti—that the dam is largely responsible for Bihar’s recurring floods.

Damned dams

“Look, I am not against development but I think that every project needs a review after 20 years. The Farakka dam has completed 43 years and we have still not understood the benefit of it, the loss it has created, the ecological and environmental impact of it,” he says.

Big dams have been a cause of contention and debate in this country for decades. India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru referred to them as‘the temples of modern India’, while writer Arundhati Roy has compared them to nuclear bombs, “weapons of mass destruction... They represent the severing of the link, not just the link—the understanding—between human beings and the planet they live on.”

For Singh, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. “In the 70 years since independence, more than 10 times more land is under drought and eight times more land is under flood. I have seen people in some of these villages being displaced three, four, eight times. This is not really development,” declares Singh, who has always propounded the use of traditional, old-school water management practices that enable development without leaving trails of destruction. “These dams are damned,” he quips.

Water in his blood

Singh has come a long way from being the idealistic young man he used to be.

Born in 1959 in Daula village to a family of zamindars, Singh grew up in a world where water was plentiful and life was good. “We had access to the highest quality of water in my childhood—the water of the Ganges,” he laughs. He was still studying when the Emergency gripped the country, suspending the very notions of democracy. “I knew this was not right.” Singh, enthused by Jayprakash Narayan’s call for ‘total revolution’, formed the Chhatra Yuva Sangharsh Vahini (Student Youth Struggle Battalion). “During this period of my life, I learnt how to respect communities, democratic values, the poorest of the poor.”

Having acquired a degree in Ayurvedic medicine, Singh went on to join government service in 1980, where he was appointed as a National Service Volunteer for education in Jaipur. With a plum government job and his fairly privileged upbringing, he was a good catch in the marriage market back then, he laughs. “So my father found a beautiful girl for me, Meena, and married me off.”

He had already joined the Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS) by then, an NGO founded in 1975 by a group of students and professors from the University of Rajasthan. But he was growing increasingly tired of his job and the growing apathy of government officials. When his wife became pregnant and went to stay with her parents, he resigned the job. “I was alone and could do what I liked.” Lapsing into Hindi, he adds, “You have only one heart and one mind. When you are in government service, you use neither.”

Leaving behind his rather furious family (“they forgave me in a year,” he grins), Singh, then 28, sold his house and, along with four other idealistic young men, boarded a bus to Gopalpura, the village that he now calls home. Located in one of the ‘dark zones’ of the Alwar district, the village had little ground water and no employment opportunities. “There were only children and old people in the village back then,” recalls Singh.

He may have had good intentions—he wanted to offer medical support and education to the village—but he was greeted with hostility when he arrived. “It was really hard at first. They didn’t trust me.”

River Parliament

There is no sugarcane grown along the banks of Rajasthan’s Arvari River. Nor is there cotton or paddy. Instead, you will find jowar, til, bajra and tur—hardy crops that require very little water and are highly nutritious.

“The River Parliament decides what crops we can and cannot grow there,” he smiles, pointing out that community management systems are the best way to handle the country’s natural resources. In modern politics and history, a parliament is essentially a legislative, representative body, which is precisely what the Arvari River Parliament is. . Arvari Sansad is represented by one member from each of the 70-odd villages that speckle the banks of the Arvari River.

When Singh arrived there in 1985, there was no river. “It was a path, a rock-strewn path when I first saw it.” What is today a perennial river had been dry for almost 60 years.

He began a small Ayurvedic practice in Gopalapura. Night blindness, a condition that often arises due to malnutrition and old-age, was rampant at the time, andMangu Meena, the man who opened his eyes to the scarcity of water in this area,, suffered from the condition. “I was treating him when he told me that instead of practising medicine, I could help the village better by bringing water to it.”

It was Mangu who introduced him to the ancient tradition of johads—earthen check dams that catch and conserve rainwater, leading to better percolation and groundwater recharge. So he began creating them himself, starting first at the river’s source and continuing all along it. The village communities soon joined in. “It was hard work. We laboured for 10-14 hours a day.” But their efforts paid off. “When the rains came, our water bodies filled up,” says Singh, adding that by the time they had dug the 375th dam, the river had begun to flow again. By 1995, it had become a perennial river.

This model was expanded to other water bodies and today reaches almost 1,200 villages. “This has happened only because we managed to involve the community. Alone, we can do nothing,” says Singh.

Several States, including Telangana, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar, are trying to rejuvenate traditional water-management practices too.

He talks of how Maharashtra’s Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyaan and Madhya Pradesh’s Water Sector Restructuring Project are trying to rejuvenate waterbodies. “We can easily become a global leader in water management. We have time-tested experience; we are just not following it,” he says.

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Printable version | Nov 26, 2021 7:43:18 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/water-is-my-life-my-happiness-my-teacher/article18921839.ece

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