This man has revived 5 dead rivers and 8,600 sq km of barren land. Who is he?
A couple of days back, we brought to you excerpts from an interview with Rajendra Singh, also known as the Waterman of India and Jalpurush.
We told you he was the winner of two prestigious awards — the Ramon Magsaysay award and the Stockholm Water Prize — and that he had dedicated his life to saving India’s dying water bodies. The Guardian in 2008 even named him one of the "50 People Who Could Save the Planet".
But what made him choose this life for himself? Who is he, really?
Let’s start at the very beginning.
SON OF THE SOIL
Singh was born in a village called Daula in Uttar Pradesh. From a very young age he was drawn to nature and agriculture. “I used to love farming, as it made me feel one with the soil I was tending,” he says. “Soon, I started taking an interest in social issues as well. So my early life in a village set the foundation for my work later.”
THE TURNING POINT
After getting a degree in Ayurvedic Medicine and Surgery, Singh signed up as a volunteer for a government educational programme in Jaipur, in 1980. However, dissatisfied with the work, he resigned in 1984. “My son had just been born and my wife was back home in UP with my mother. I was alone in Jaipur and clueless about what to do next,” Singh says. “I just decided to board a random bus and go where the road led me. I paid for a ticket for the very last stop, and ended up in Kishorigaon, a village in Alwar, six hours later.” But what shocked and surprised him when he deboarded was the complete lack of youth in the village and the very arid nature of the landscape. “A few elderly village folk approached me with caution and some amount of suspicion when I deboarded,” he continues. “They told me this village had no sustainable water resource and the lack of agriculture had driven almost everyone away. That was when I knew I had to do something. Despite their trepidation, I managed to convince them I was here to help and slept in the village temple for the next few days, spending my days teaching kids and treating the elderly.”
THE JOURNEY BEGINS
“One day an old man came up to me and said these villages could be saved only if we could save its rivers and rejuvenate its core with water. ‘Tu suraj ki chori ko rok, aur dharti ke pet ko pani se bhar de; yeh gaon bach jaenge,’ he told me. Over the next few days, he took me to 25 dried wells in the village and taught me to read the earth’s cracks and establish a relation between its water-retention capacity and the vegetation that could grow on it. I gradually started understanding the relation between various kinds of soil and water. I then started using this local wisdom to study the geology and revive eight dead rivers in the area. We carried out campaigns, created dams and revived johads, which are traditional wells to trap rainwater.”
“In the next three years,” he smiles, “the change was for everyone to see. Today we have 1,200 villages in Rajasthan that are lush and flourishing.”
REVIVING THE YAMUNA
Singh has been relentlessly campaigning to save the Yamuna floodplains. His efforts have led to the government declaring the area a no-construction zone. “Trees such as the Indian fig, or gular; the peepal; the pilkhan; and the banyan should be planted in the Yamuna plains,” he says. “All the 18 nullahs responsible for polluting the Yamuna should be redirected, so their water doesn’t directly flow into the river. Organic farming should be encouraged on the Yamuna plains and treated nullah water should be used to further this agricultural initiative.” Apart from this, he says, about 200 m of both sides of the Yamuna should be marked as forest land. But most importantly, he says, the 1992 Hathni Kund agreement between Haryana and Delhi should be respected, and the Yamuna should get 51 per cent of water that comes from this.
To further his cause, Singh also runs an NGO called Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS), in the Alwar district, near Sariska Tiger Reserve in Rajasthan. TBS has been instrumental in fighting for water management in the semi-arid areas in the region, as it lies close to the Thar desert. The organisation has used traditional resources, local knowledge and community participation to revive the dried-up water system in the area through the construction of johads and check dams. Starting from a single village in 1985, TBS has helped build more than 8,600 johads and water-conservation structures across the region, bringing hundreds of villages back to life.
MILES TO GO...
Singh says community involvement is key to saving the planet. “There are about 70 per cent small rivers in India that have died of neglect and pollution, and many more have been reduced to dirty nullahs. It’s time we gave this serious thought,” Singh says.
Singh is currently working on rivers in Maharashtra, specifically two - Agarni in the Sangli district and Maner in Satara and Solapur. “Revival of water bodies is the only thing we can do to save the Earth,” says Singh, “And I will not stop till I have done everything I possibly can.”