A belief in tradition


Privatisation of water provokes protests
Gujarat: Enforcing water harvesting


Can micro-level initiatives be an answer
Disseminating novel wisdom
Water workshop in Gujurat


Groundwater dams


The second world water forum: confused event
Water and common sense




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Vol. 2                                    No. 2                         April 2000

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A belief in tradition

It was a unique ceremony for a unique award given to a unique rural community of India. In what is perhaps the first ceremony of its kind, President K R Narayanan flew to Hamirpura, a village in Alwar district, to felicitate the twin villages of Bhaonta-Kolyala with the first Down-To Earth-Joseph C John Award for the most outstanding environmental community. The award, instituted by Down To Earth and funded by the Joseph C John Trust, is aimed at scrutinising community efforts and selecting the "outstanding one". The first one was conferred on Bhaonta-Kolyala for ‘rural engineering, traditional knowledge and reviving the Arvari river’. The ceremony — held on March 28, 2000 — saw villagers coming to Hamirpura in droves from the nooks and corners of the district. It was attend by Rajasthan governor Anshuman Singh, chief minister Ashok Ghelot and a host of dignitaries, too.

What makes Bhaonta Kolyala so special? The fact that the village community has rallied together and with the help of the Alwar-based Tarun Bharat Sangh, revived decrepit traditional water harvesting systems and constructed new ones. The results have been spectacular and the blessings unexpected. A river – the Arvari - has been revived. The villagers now conduct river parliaments to manage the river they have helped revive.

Below are excerpts of an overview by Anil Agarwal, director Centre for Science and Environment, about the presidential visit, Bhaonta-Kolyala and the importance of rainwater harvesting.

President acknowledging the efforts of the villagers

President acknowledging the efforts of the villagers

People always come to Rashtrapati Bhawan to receive awards from the president. The fact that the president went to the village himself to honour it is a remarkable thing in itself. It is doubtful if an Indian president has ever gone to a village to felicitate its people in the past.

There are hundreds of thousands of villages in India which face water scarcity. Bhaonta-Kolyala and other villages in this region have shown, through their work of rainwater harvesting, that it is possible to revive water. This message is of no mean importance and is a source of tremendous hope.

The johads (check-dams) built by the people of Bhaonta-Kolyala and other villages in the watershed of the Arvari river are an effort to capture the meagre 500-600 millimetres (mm) of rain that falls in the region. These structures allow water to slowly seep into the ground, raising the water table steadily and replenishing the wells that have been lying parched for years. Moreover, the same groundwater seeps into the bed of the dry river, making it alive with water again round the year. This is the reason that Arvari, which had been reduced to a seasonal drain, flowed continuously till December 1999.

Now, following two years of continuous drought, the river is drying up again. This explains the importance of what is called the hydrological cycle, the first mention of which is found in the Chandogya Upanishad. Bhaonta-Kolyala has revived and nourished the same hydrological cycle, which we are increasingly forgetting in most other parts of our country by relentlessly exploiting water from our rivers and from the ground.

Let me say a few words about the Down To Earth-Joseph C John Award. John was very fond of trees and in 1957, when we had not even heard of the term environment, he established an organisation called Friends of Trees in Mumbai. Till 1973, when he returned to Kerala, he worked very hard to preserve the greenery in Mumbai. His son and daughter — Madhu John and Mallika Akbar — desired that an environmental award in the father’s name be given every year.

They approached me and asked in Down To Earth would institutionalise the award. Down To Earth is a magazine which is associated with environmental issues in India. It strives to present to its readers not only the environmental problems and challenges facing us today but also tries to bring forth solutions to these problems, to inspire them and enkindle hope of meeting these challenges. To ensure that the process of selecting a winner of the award is thorough and transparent, an exhaustive process was formulated.

A pilgrim’s progress
While travelling from the capital to Hamirpura by helicopter, it was a sight from the air that nobody could miss. The barrenness of the Aravalli hills stretching out from Delhi to Alwar is something President K R Narayanan could not help remark about, as his helicopter made its way to Hamirpura village.

Visible was the dry agricultural fields that lay between the hills, obviously short of water because of the serious drought the state has been suffering for two years in a row. Otherwise, March-end is a time when the rabi (winter) crop should have been swaying in the fields.

Suddenly, after some time, we saw green fields stretching across the landscape. There must be groundwater here, I said to the president. And then I realised we were there, at our destination: we were seeing the lush green and yellow fields of Hamirpura and other villages of the Arvari watershed which had undertaken water harvesting. None of the eight people on the helicopter needed any convincing about the value of rainwater harvesting after that and the remarkable achievement of the villagers. A happy Chitra Narayanan, the president’s daughter, a serving diplomat, said, "It was like seeing an oasis," as soon as she got off the aircraft.

The president, too, was thrilled. "You know," he said to me while returning, "You have convinced me for a long time of the importance of rainwater harvesting. But I must say there is nothing like actually seeing it on the ground. It has been a memorable day for me." He thanked me so many times for inviting him to come to the village that he would not even let me thank him for coming to the village — possibly a presidential first because we are not aware of any president having gone to a village to honour it for its work. Everybody comes to Rashtrapati Bhawan to get awards from the president. Only someone like President Narayanan could have done something like this.

If there were any regrets he had, there were only two. One, he could not go by car, which, in fact, we would have dissuaded him against because of the pressure that a full day journey would have put on him, and two, that the local security did not allow him a chance to sit and spend some time with the villagers. It was as Rajendra Singh of Tarun Bharat Sangh said in his vote of thanks, "It was a tirtha-yatra." And, most of all, the president, too, felt that way.

And what did the villages of Bhaonta-Kolyala and Hamirpura tell all of us? That there is no single village, I repeat, no single village in the country which cannot quench its own thirst and that of its fields through rainwater harvesting. Villagers can do it themselves. They just need some education and catalytic support. Nothing more. It is a very inspiring thought, one which generates enormous hope in what is otherwise becoming a water-starved country.