August 15, 2001


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The Rediff Interview/Magsaysay Award winner Rajendra Singh

In the early eighties, Rajendra Singh was an unknown government officer in Jaipur. Today, he is internationally recognised for making dry rivers and ponds run with water in the Alwar district of Rajasthan. His pioneering work of building small water harvesting structures to trap rain water and recharge ground water earned him the Magsaysay Award, which will be presented later this month.

But recognition was not easy to come by. There were attempts on his life, rape charges were slapped against him, he was threatened with arrest and even the government wanted to break his harvesting structures. But Singh remains unfazed and spoke to Ramesh Menon about his endeavour.

How did it all begin?

I was in my late twenties when I started work. Maybe, it was some social chromosomes that probably fired my imagination to do something useful. I was just a government servant in Jaipur -- fed up with just sending statistics to officials. In 1984, I decided to quit and do something in rural India. After all, all the ills we see in urban India is because the rural scenario is collapsing. I gathered four others who had a similar mindset and said let us do something useful and interesting.

My wife Meena was away when I sold all the household goods for Rs 23,000. My wife had accumulated a lot of stuff. We were ready to leave Jaipur.

We took a private bus from Jaipur and asked the conductor for five tickets to the last stop. He wondered why. Even we did not know. All we knew was that the bus went to a backward area. In those days, the bus took about five hours to reach there as there were no roads in most areas it went through. We wanted to get off midway as the area looked so pathetic. But all five of us could not agree where to get off. We got off the bus at the last stop.

Where was that?

It was Kishori village in Thanagazi tehsil in Alwar district. At that time Punjab was caught up in terrorism. So villagers suspected us of being terrorists and surrounded us. An old man said that the village was so backward and poor that no terrorist would ever come there. And there were no youngsters as they had migrated. They asked us why we had come. I said we had come to do some work in the areas of education and health. They were suspicious.

You must have felt bad.

They offered us a room in a Hanuman temple. It could not accommodate all of us. Three of us had to sleep outside the room. But after a week, the pujari drove us out. But, by then, we had established lots of contacts with the villagers. None of them trusted us. They asked scores of questions. Many of them were sarcastic as we had left the city to live in a backward village claiming we wanted to do social work. But their remarks helped us get rid of our ego.

We really did not know what to do. So we started some health work in nearby Gopalpura as I knew about Ayurveda. One day after six months, a 60-year-old man Mamu Patel said since we were educated, we would only talk and not do anything with our hands. He said the villagers did not need a school or medicines. He said I must get an axe and a spade first if I wanted to do anything in the village that would help.

What did you do?

I shared this with my four friends and our association broke. Two of them said they were educated and could take decisions and need not listen to Mamu Patel. I said we must learn from him as he had wisdom on his side. But two of them left for Jaipur the next morning. The other two said they were ready to teach in a school, but not work with axes and spades.

So for the next six months, I just kept digging as Mamu Patel wanted. No one joined me as there were no young men around. The lack of water and opportunities in the villages had made all of them migrate. Mamu Patel was too old to dig.

Why was Mamu Patel making you dig the earth?

He just told me if I did what he told me then there would be water in the village. I just had faith in his wisdom. He could not scientifically convince me. I sometimes wonder how I had such faith then to do that work. I just dug and dug.

I was a zamindar's (landlord's) son. We had about 17 acres of land in Daula village in Baghpat district in Uttar Pradesh. I had seen how water had made our fields so rich and prosperous. But the land in Alwar was rich but useless as there was no water. I remembered that nearly a hundred years ago, there was a grain market in Alwar which means that there must have been lots of water.

How did the water disappear?

There was a lot forest cover here but was cut shortly before Independence. The zamindars and royalty realised that it would get nationalised after Independence and cut the trees. But when the jungles vanished, the water did not get recharged. So the government classified the area as a dark zone. I understood that the tragedy can be converted to an opportunity if there was water.

How did it feel to go on digging alone?

When the monsoons came, a lot of young people came back to work in the fields. Mamu told them to work along with me. They said that they would work only if they were paid. So I got some NGOs to give us some wheat. But they did not join in as they felt that they would not get the wheat. I felt rejected by that society. Only Mamu and some old men trusted me. Finally, he convinced the young men to help me.

In three years, we made a huge pond that was around 15 feet deep.

When the rains came, the pond filled up. Soon, the wells started filling with water. Mamu called all his relatives just to see the visual impact. He asked them to build ponds too. There were relatives from 20 villages. Out of them, nine wanted to do it.

What did you do then?

We started a padayatra (walkathon) telling people to work at building ponds.

Then, there was no looking back. In the first three years, we had made one pond. In the fourth year, we made nine ponds. In the fifth year, it rose to 36, in the sixth, to 90 and in the seventh to 210. Today, we make at least 700 ponds a year.

That is ushering in a water revolution.

In 1995, government records had to be changed as water was in plenty. The dark zone was then changed to a white zone in the records. All this was done by the people. They were supported by the Tarun Bharat Sangh. You have heard of people changing history. We changed geography. Arvari and Ruparel rivers became perennial.

This must have had an overall effect on change and development.

Eighty five per cent of rural migration stopped. Employment regeneration took place in the areas of agricultural produce, vegetable marketing, basket weaving, fruit produce and so on.

As the wells were being recharged, there were new employment opportunities in the construction of new ponds and structures, embankments and even cement construction.

Were women among your active supporters?

Women gained the most. They used to spend five to six hours a day just to get a pot of water. Some had to pull out water from wells that were 200 feet deep. It required two women to pull out a pot of water. Now, their drudgery ended. They saw the logic of the water movement and got involved. They started sending their girls to schools for the first time.

For example, Kraska village, which did not have a single girl in its school, now has ninety. In this village, women used to walk nine kilometers to get water. Today the village has plenty of water.

Attached to this was also an anti-liquor movement.

Liquor was freely made in the villages. It was a source of livelihood. But with water, everything changed. Women organized themselves into mahila mandals and stopped liquor production.

Then, there were 32 families in the Sapotra tehsil of Alwar who were traditionally into dacoity. Today, all of them either are teachers or are involved with us in water conservation.

'Rajasthan can be made drought-proof within five years'

Page design: Lynette Menezes

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