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The battle for water


Rajendra Singh


        Rajendra Singh won the Ramon Magsaysay Award 2001 for Community Leadership for his outstanding work in mobilising villagers to harvest rain water through the construction of several thousand johads (earthern check dams) and anicuts.

          In this first person account, he narrates his various brushes with authority and pleads for working with people for their development needs.

 For the past three months, I have been battling with the Irrigation Department over a check dam that the people had constructed over a nullah of the Ruparel River. I have been running from pillar to post to stop its demolition. Luckily with the announcement of the Ramon Magsaysay Award, the government not only decided to not demolish the dam, but also issued a statement appreciating our efforts.

     It is a strange feeling - to be branded an offender one day and feted the next. In fact, if there is an under-lying story in our success in re-charging the Arvari River, it is the story of our fight against the state for communities to have a say in their development.

     Who owns the rainwater that you collect, the people or the government ? At least the Rajasthan Irrigation Department thinks that it owns every drop of rain water.

     It is the story of the administrative system that tries to foist its own vision of development on communities, without bothering to find out what people need. In fact, it is a myth that development is for people, it is actually anti-people. And it is this story that I shall write about. 

In 1983, I quit my job with the Rajasthan Government to work with Tarun Bharat Sangh, an NGO working for the rehabilitation of tribal people. Schooled in the ideas of Jayaprakash Narain and Acharya Vinoba Bhave, working for social change was an obvious choice.

     Eager to work, we started scouting for areas sufficiently backward where we could start our project. This search led us to villages in Thanagazhi in Alwar District.

     With a few friends, I started interacting with villagers. The only capital we had was Rs. 23,000 that I got from the sale of my household furniture.

     But that did not deter us from dreaming big. We wanted to establish a school and provide basic healthcare. We struggled for a while, but failed to make an impact on the villagers.

     Frustration was setting in till Mangu Kaka, a villager, casually remarked: "If you want to do some-thing for us then help build johads (traditional water harvesting structures). They will revive our wells." And I agreed.

     But my friends were unwilling, we had come here to educate them, not to build johads, they felt. They left soon after. But I decided to stay on and to help build the structures. The rest, as they say, is history. 

Mangu Kaka taught me the first lesson of developmental planning. "Development priorities should be decided by the people." We should not thrust our vision on them. We had gone to the village with the idea of setting up schools and primary health facilities.

     We ended up building a johad. Once water was available and agriculture became possible in the area, life became easier for every-one and people were now more willing to send their wards to schools.

     I had gone to the village to teach, instead they taught me the most important lesson of my life. It is this lesson that our government badly needs to learn.

     Unfortunately, the state in India does not appreciate communities trying to help themselves. If people start participating in development and questioning the money that ostensibly is being spent on them it makes things difficult for those who run the system.

     For a bureaucracy schooled in the colonial tradition of ruling rather than working with people, grass-roots democracy is an alien concept. So, instead of development being a collaborative effort between people and the state, it's actually people versus the state.

     The irrigation department, or for that matter the district administration or the local politician, is really concerned not so much about the needs of people but how much money has to be spent on which project. After all, an official's performance appraisal is based on how many big projects he has run or set up, not on helping people build johads. As long as this continues, the impediments will remain.

     Within two years of our first pond, the irrigation department slapped a case against us alleging attempt to stop the monsoon water under section 55 and section 58 of the 1956 Rajasthan Irrigation and Drainage Act. Our fault: we were trying to stop the monsoon water from flowing in freely.

     In those days, environmental lawyers had not arrived on the scene, only a few Supreme Court lawyers may have taken up the case but we could not afford them. So we prepared our own arguments and fought the case.

     Our arguments were based on the right of the villagers over their natural resources as long as it did not infringe on the rights of others. The case was settled but the same charge has been slapped on us every time we try to build a new johad.

     This when the building of johads has made the river Arvari perennial. Very different from the days when the area was marked as the dark zone in the irrigation department records. A dark zone signifies that the underground water aquifers are severely depleted. 

Not to be left behind, the Forest Department imposed a penalty of Rs. 5,945 on the villagers; you won't believe, for planting trees. In the more than 15 years of working in the area, I have had to face 377 cases from the forest department; many of them because of the archaic anti-people forest laws we have.

     Since the villages were in the Sariska area, the forest department felt that by helping the villagers find water, I was helping them to entrench themselves in the forest area. Many false cases were also registered.

     One, which I remember, was in 1988. I was in a particular village participating in a meeting between the villagers and the district officials. The date was May 13, 1988.

     Imagine the shock when I found a notice from the forest department alleging that I had been found poaching in an area 50 kms off at the time that I was at the meeting. Spreading canard is another favourite weapon - from being branded a terrorist to being a dacoit, to a fraud that filled the ponds with water from tankers - I have heard it all.

     Interestingly, once the pond was built and the river revived, the government surfaced from nowhere to assert its claim over the resources people had generated. The government starting awarding fishing rights to contractors etc.

     The community resisted. Is the state the owner or the custodian of natural resources? What about people's rights over common property resources?

     All this has to change. Our attitude, laws and the development administration systems have to change. The award may have given me a reprieve in my battle against the irrigation department but our greater war against poverty and backwardness can only be won when all those involved in the process try to cooperate.

     Unless the communities are empowered and encouraged to develop stakes in development, winning the war is going to be difficult.


Courtesy : 

The Hindustan Times

(13 August, 2001)

18-20 Kasturba Gandhi Marg,

New Delhi 110 001.



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