Rajasthan communities flourish with education, revival of traditional water management tactics
Rajasthan, the largest state in India, is home to 69 million people.
It also overlaps with 77,000 square miles of the Thar Desert, which means it is hot, semi-arid, and very prone to drought.
Water scarcity can have a devastating effect on people’s lives, but thanks to the long-standing work of Dr. Rajendra Singh—through Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS), the NGO he helped create—communities are learning to cope.
From Humble Beginnings to “Waterman of India”
Singh was born a farmer’s son in Daula, a village in Uttar Pradesh. A trained doctor in Ayurvedic medicine, he worked in government in the 1980s, overseeing adult education. However, Singh longed to offer his knowledge further afield.
“In 1984, I decided to follow my hunches and quit my job. I then boarded a bus in Jaipur and traveled to Kishori, a small village in the Alwar District of Rajasthan. It was there that the true adventure of my life began,” he said in a biographical statement for the People’s World Commission on Drought and Flood, which he heads.
He began to offer Ayurvedic medicine to the local people and to educate their children, but he soon discovered it was water that they needed.
Pooja Bhati, one of Singh’s colleagues at TBS, says: “What is scarcity in itself? It starts with kids not going to school, especially girls because they have to fetch water. If there’s no water, there’s no irrigation. If they don't have water for irrigation and animal grazing, people migrate to cities for jobs. But they don’t have the skills to survive in the cities, so another struggle starts.”
“What is scarcity in itself? It starts with kids not going to school, especially girls because they have to fetch water. If there’s no water, there’s no irrigation.”
Singh and others came together to form TBS to help victims of a campus fire at the University of Jaipur. He became TBS chairman in 1985 and began to expand its mission. Singh would soon become known as the “Waterman of India.”
Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi’s principle of gram swaraj (village self-development), Singh set out to harness the efforts of rural communities to create sustainable sources of water.
He began reintroducing traditional rain-harvesting methods, such as johads (pond-like water structures), which had been abandoned due to a government scheme to introduce taps in every household. (Singh has said it’s not a tap that people need in every house. It's the water in the tap that is required. What if you turn on the tap and there’s no water?)
River rejuvenation has also been a prominent part of TBS’s work.
TBS contributes about 70% toward a project, while the community funds the rest. Locals also volunteer to work on the construction. Volunteering gives villagers a sense of ownership, so they continue to look after the structure.
“Women’s participation in decision-making is also vital,” adds Bhati. “Dr. Singh always asks women what they want. As a result, there are a lot of changes in their lives—the biggest one was the removal of parda pratha [a custom in which women must segregate and cover themselves in a veil].” [Watch the video Neer Nari Nadi (Water, Women, River)]
Impact and Accolades
Since its founding, TBS has helped about one million people, including 400,000 women, mainly across Rajasthan, but also in Maharashtra and Karnataka states. It has assisted communities in building 13,800 johads, which has meant 25 billion liters (5.4 billion gallons) of water have been conserved every year, benefiting 1,500 villages.
The work has also transformed the local ecology—thirteen rivers have been rejuvenated, forestation has increased by 30%, and 70% of previously barren land can now be cultivated. Water security has also been established for one million families and agricultural productivity has increased by 100%, with income levels doubled. And 75% of girls now attend primary school, compared with 5% previously.
Water security has been established for one million families and agricultural productivity has increased by 100%, with income levels doubled. And 75% of girls now attend primary school, compared with 5% previously.
Singh has received numerous accolades for his work, including being on The Guardian’s list of “50 people who could save the planet,” being awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award for community leadership in 2001, and winning the Stockholm Water Prize in 2015. He also received a lifetime achievement award in 2022 from the Central University of Rajasthan.
But how does TBS go about setting up a project? Puneet Bhalla, another TBS representative, explains: “We do a needs assessment of the rural villages where there is water scarcity. Then our field workers start communicating with the gram panchayat (village council) and with local communities. After getting permission from the gram panchayat and the community, we start construction.”
“We also have to find out which area is most affected by floods when there is rainfall,” Bhalla adds. “So we construct the rainwater structure in the form of a johad in that area.” Two areas in eastern Rajasthan have benefited.
In Karauli, 393 johads have been constructed (watch a video of TBS’s work in Karauli). Water is scarce because of the rocky terrain, high levels of deforestation, low levels of groundwater, and porous soil that lacks the capacity to retain water.
Unpredictable monsoon rains also lead to frequent droughts. Traditional water management practices are no longer being used, and modern water-management systems have proven inadequate, making irrigation difficult. These have impacted agricultural productivity and livestock rearing, but with TBS’s help, it is expected that the local rural communities’ fortunes will turn around, resulting in better access to water. They will also obtain the know-how to conserve and manage water.
In the thirty villages in Alwar, not only have 1,607 johads been built, benefiting 200,000 people and conserving 8 billion liters (1.75 billion gallons) of water, but irrigation systems have also been improved, further strengthening farmers' resilience to climate change. Anticipated outcomes include a 30% reduction in the loss of water and a 20% increase in income from agricultural produce per acre.
TBS has also helped local people rejuvenate Rajasthan’s Sairni River. It now meets the community’s needs and enables wildlife to thrive.
Singh’s vision includes encouraging local communities to build their knowledge of water management—some 100,000 people have become “water literate” since TBS began its work. Meanwhile, the Waterman Academy raises water conservation awareness among the next generation through online courses.
Harnessing Local Knowledge
Three ways of making sure any water conservation project is a success are: 1) get the community involved, 2) make sure women participate, and 3) help initiate a change in people’s behavior.
In the words of the Waterman of India: “Let us use the wisdom of local communities and global indigenous knowledge systems to fight the modern global problems of climate change.”
He declared: “The environment has been exploited by humans by taking excessive amounts of resources from it. […] I have devoted my entire life to bridging the gap between people’s hearts and minds and the rivers and environment in which they live.”
*Yasmin Prabhudas is a freelance journalist working mainly for nonprofit organizations, labor unions, the education sector, and government agencies.