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
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 fathers 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 pilgrims 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
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
presidents daughter, a serving diplomat, said, "It was like seeing an
oasis," as soon as she got off the aircraft.