By Shambhavi Saxena:
Growing up in New Delhi has always meant contending with some sort of water shortage. It’s often meant filling up buckets and drums at 4 am, or clicking your tongue at the water sloshing out of tankers at red lights. However, even when the recent Jat protests left the city high and dry, we got our bearings back in a few short days.
All of this, of course, pales in comparison to 320 million Indians who have little or no access to water. Its lack has immediate consequences on health, sanitation, farming and even transport, and the scale of shortage is nothing short of a national tragedy. However, for Rajendra Singh, there’s no mountain high enough, and certainly no river wide enough, to keep him from doing the incredible work he does around a basic human need – water.
It was a visit to Gopalpura village, Rajasthan, three decades ago, that really got the ball rolling. Singh was appalled to see people leaving their homes in droves, not for want of food or medicine, but because all the water was gone. “It moved me so much and I started finding out ways to help,” said Singh. Soon after the incident, his days as “a government servant in Jaipur, fed up with just sending statistics to officials,” came to an end and in 1985 he joined the Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS), an organisation formed in Rajasthan in the 70s with a focus on rural development.
Under Singh’s guidance, the NGO has paved the way for local ecological conservation. But more interestingly, in true Gandhian style, he insisted upon using traditional methods. Among these is the ancient practice of using the johad, a crescent shaped rainwater storage tank, to collect and store water throughout the year. According to the CPR Environmental Education Centre this system fell into disuse in the 80s’ (ironically, the great period of national dam projects) and almost immediately, this led to the drying up of 25 wells in the Bhaonta-Kolyala village in Alwar, Rajasthan. So, Singh and the TBS set about reviving the system, and this effort led to a life-altering impact on the villagers.
By the time the villagers had built 375 johads, the river started flowing after decades of being dry. The restoration of 10,000 rainwater harvesting structures, brought the wells, aquifers and rivulets back to life. The water table, i.e. the level below which the ground is saturated – reduced from 100 meters to 13 meters! “Land under cultivation has grown by five times and farm incomes are rising. For work, men no longer need to leave home. And for water, these days, women need walk no farther than the village well,” notes Singh, who also collaborates with village panchayats to keep a close watch on projects that may threaten an ecological zone, or negatively impact a community’s access to resources.
In fact, so great is his commitment that in 2015 he embarked on a World Water Peace Walk, which began in the UK and was spread over five continents, a tribute to one of Gandhi’s famous political methods. “Walking connects you to the heart of the earth,” he said, “and the heart of the human.” And it’s his sense of ‘the human’ that is responsible for the next big step in his work – the demand for water as a basic human right, thus bringing water into the discourse of world peace, rights, non-discrimination and socio-economic equality.
In 2015, he was awarded the prestigious Stockholm Water Prize (considered the Nobel prize of water) for his innovative approach to water restoration in Rajasthan. However, as the water tables in North West and South India get over-exploited at alarming levels and many nations face a dangerous water crisis, Singh vision is to now evolve an effective solution for water-stressed regions of the world, using these very indigenous sustainable methods. His commitment and courage to being the change has rightfully earned him the epithet ‘Water Man of India’.