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 village 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". Bhaonta-Kolyala triumphed for its work in rainwater harvesting, rural engineering and revival of 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 Gehlot and a host of dignitaries, too. In an overview, Anil Agarwal, talks about the presidential visit, Bhaonta-Kolyala and the importance of rainwater harvesting
A belief in tradition
Awarded : Bhaonta-Kolyala
it was an event the villagers of Alwar district will not forget in a hurry. Four helicopters, numerous vehicles, a posse of policemen and 30,000-odd villagers had gathered in Hamirpura village in Thanagazi block of Alwar to welcome India's first citizen. And savour the fruits of their hard labour. The first citizen, on his part, was to felicitate the villagers for their work in the field of environment.
Befitting the Rajasthani tradition, Hamirpura, the venue for the function, was decked in colourful shamianas , spilling with people. Some 10,000 of them were in the helipad alone. Huge makeshift gates welcomed the guests to the venue. And notwithstanding the policemen, the villagers started trickling in from early morning resplendent in their colourful clothes and traditional jewellery. After all, it was a special day. The President himself was present to put the stamp of personal and governmental approval on their remarkable feat.
In fact, even before the President's visit, the Arvari Parliament had distributed leaflets saying, "The President also supports our struggle for rights on water". And finally on March 28, 2000, all their efforts were given official recognition. Amid a loud applause, the President presented the first Down To Earth-Joseph C John Award for the most outstanding environmental community to Bhaonta-Kolyala. The award - which carries a citation and a cash award of Rs 1,00,000 - was received by seven villagers, including two women, on behalf of the Bhaonta-Kolyala community. Bhaonta-Kolyala, along with the 70-odd villages in the Thanagazi block, were facing chronic drought, distress migration and poverty in the mid-1980s. But after a chance meeting with members of the Tarun Bharat Sangh, a voluntary organisation, they took upon themselves the task of restoring their traditional water harvesting structures called johad s. After decades of sand, heat and infertility, the area has discovered perennial water, prosperity and abundance.
"While it is the responsibility of the government to create a situation where people can develop, it is up to the people themselves to work for the development of true gram swaraj (village republic). Bhaonta-Kolyala and its surrounding villages have shown how people can do this on their own," said President Narayanan, after presenting the award.
Pointing out that as much as 75 per cent of the cost of building johad s was borne by the villagers, the President said the initiative and self-reliance of the people of Bhaonta-Kolyala is an inspiration and has established an example for the rest of rural India (see box: Presidentspeak ).
Also present at the function were Rajasthan governor Justice Anshuman Singh and chief minister Ashok Gehlot. Speaking on the occasion, the governor lauded the efforts of the villagers and Tarun Bharat Sangh. He said that their effort in reviving the traditional water harvesting system is especially noteworthy given the fact that in Rajasthan there are still 26,000 gram sabha s facing drought.
"The President's visit will provide great encouragement to environmentalists in the state," said Gehlot. He also stressed the need for utilising modern scientific and technological inputs like data from the Remote Sensing Centre, which had come out with a Watershed Development Atlas, to find out where to build water harvesting structures. "If all the villages in the country worked on rainwater harvesting, the state of the entire country can be changed. With the help of institutions like the Centre for Science and Environment (cse), villagers should be made all the more aware of such benefits," he added.
Expressing gratitude towards the President for accepting the invitation to come to Hamirpura, cse director Anil Agarwal said that if rainwater harvesting is undertaken all across Rajasthan like it had been done here, a lot of poverty in the state can be eradicated in the coming 10 years.
For this day no sacrifice seemed big enough - not even walking miles without food. Govardhan Sharma, a resident of Jhiri village, skipped his lunch. "The President is coming," he reasoned. He walked a distance of seven kilometres with his seven-year-old grandson to reach Hamirpura. "Now even the Rashtrapatiji supports our struggle to get rights over the water we conserved," he says. Recalling a dialogue with state irrigation officials over the construction of a johad in his village, he says, "The official threatened that I would be killed if I don't listen to government orders." However, now that the President himself had come to acknowledge their effort, he has put off the incident as a bad dream.
"There was a time when officials refused to listen to us when we wanted financial help for building johad s and check-dams. Today, we are very happy that the President has come here personally to give us the award. It will give us the inspiration to carry the work forward. More than the money, it is the inspiration which is important," said an effusive 75-year-old Mangu Ram of Hamirpura.
Moments before the President arrived, the villagers of Bhaonta-Kolyala entered Hamirpura in a procession. Men, women and children arrived for the jamboree of sorts. Despite the scorching heat, they were savouring every moment.
Inside the shamianas , excitement ran high. As the representatives went up to the dais to take the citation and the cheque, others clapped merrily. Women, though veiled, talked enthusiastically about their role and their future in the harnessing water. Proud they were and eager to talk to the press. And they were doing so with ease and confidence. After all victory was theirs and they were savouring every moment.
"When I came here as a bride, I had to walk for three to four miles almost thrice daily for water. Now, things are different. We have built johad s and check-dams. Now life is not so difficult. Along with water there has been change in the economy too," said 40-year-old Gulabi of Kishori village. She is also a member of the mahila mandal (women's organisation) and is full of stories on how their informal banking system works. "When we started our work 15 years ago, we never thought we would see this day. The prize means that our aim has been fulfilled and the whole country would be learning from us," she said confidently. "In our village, we have been able to plant crops like wheat again. Though it hasn't rained for two years now, we still have water stored for drinking and domestic use," says Harbai from Bhaonta-Kolyala.
For Dhauna and Manbhari, it was a day they would cherish forever. They were the ones who accepted the citation and the cheque along with five men. Both women said the money would be used for building more anicuts and johad s in villages. Kanheya Lal, member of the Arvari Parliament and one of the five men who received the award, also reiterated the same.
For Roora Mal, whose land was submerged after the construction of a check-dam in Hamirpura, the visit was a 'real compensation'. "Villagers here have never been visited by any leaders except the village panchayat president. The visit by the President has broken all the isolation and provided us a place in the map of India," he says.
"Till the President's visit was confirmed, the state government ignored the good work and never paid attention to the problems. But once the presidential visit was confirmed, officers came to us seeking information about our activities," says Shravan Sharma, who has been associated with water harvesting activities in Alwar district since a decade. He terms the visit as 'the ultimate recognition' of the village's 15 years of effort that gave life to the Arvari river. "The President's visit will definitely put pressure on the state government to help in our works," says Veera Lal, a resident of Hamirpur. Adds Kanheya Lal, "Henceforth, Arvari will be regarded as a national monument."
Amid the crowd, in a corner sat a 94-year-old Gandhian. For Siddharaja Daddha, who has seen the struggle closely, it was a victory of sorts - that of gram swaraj . "The concept of gram swaraj is very effective and these people have proved that. It is good that the government has acknowledged the people's effort," he said, adding: "Since the President represents the people of this country, it is a big honour for these hard working people," he says.
A tale of two villages
There are about 600,000 villages in India. And perhaps as many kinds of environmental problems they face. It is easy to accept defeat. But Bhaonta-Kolyala did not
it's an unusual ritual the villages of Bhaonta-Kolyala follow. Every year, they pour water into a johad - a crescent-shaped earthen check-dam - on Deepawali. But history has it that some 1,000 years ago, they were killed en masse by neighbouring villagers while observing the ritual. That was when the twin villages got together and came to be known as one. And ever since, they don't celebrate Deepawali. But they continue filling johad s with water.
Their visit to a johad s is not limited to one day in a year. Every new-born is taken to a johad "to be blessed by the deity residing in the johad ". A newly-wed couple does the same. And on a no-moon day, villagers engage themselves in community work like building a temple or starting work on a new johad.
Despite such a strong tradition of water harvesting, in the years that followed the villagers started neglecting johad s, which were buried with pebbles. Besides, during the late 1970s and early 1980s, the villagers suffered four spells of drought. The 25 wells in the village had no trace of water for most of the year.
"There was nothing to sustain ourselves," recalls villager Arjan Gujjar, who was to actively participate in water harvesting later. Most of the men migrated to cities, while the rest accepted their lives as "ill-fate", says Kanheya Lal, an active village leader. "Two or three decades ago, the hills were covered with dense forests. It helped in protecting the soil and water aquifers and provided favourable conditions for the regeneration of trees and pasture. The hills were also home to a number of wild animals," points out S S Dhabariya, former head of the remote sensing division of the Birla Science and Technology Centre in Jaipur. "But, over a period of six decades, all that vanished," he adds. Worse, rainfall here is quite low (600 mm, of which 500 mm falls during the monsoon). With the forests gone, the sloping landscape of the hills failed to retain any water during the monsoon.
The same year, tbs ' annual pani yatra (march for water) from Gopalpura passed through Bhaonta-Kolyala. Led by farmers Sundra Baba and Dhannua Baba, the beleaguered villagers finally approached Rajendra Singh, secretary general of tbs . He offered help but on one condition - that the villagers should be ready to take upon themselves the task of regeneration.
After organising themselves and the neighbouring villages, on March 6, 1987, the villagers started protecting forests and repairing old johad s. They mapped the natural drainage system and choose tentative sites to construct new johad s. "Our aim was to catch each and every drop of rain water that fell on the village," says Mangal Ram, a villager.
During the course of their search, they discovered an old johad , buried in silt, on the slope of the barren hills. In 1988, repair work on the johad started. When the monsoons arrived, the johad was filled with water. Overwhelmed by the results from a single johad , the villagers started building more such structures. Today, the village has a total of 15 water harvesting structures, including a 244 metres long, 7 metres tall concrete dam in the upper catchment of the Aravalli to stop water before it flows downstream, the construction for which was started in 1990.
The dam was a turning point. Even those who had migrated were called back to, as Dhannua says, 'heal the wounds of Mother Earth'. By 1995, a year after the completion of the dam, water level in the wells downstream rose by two to three feet. "The percolation of water from this dam is three feet an hour. Its impact is felt in villages 20 km downstream. All the wells are now filled with water," says Govind Ram, a villager. Today, all the agricultural land is under cultivation. Milk production has risen up to 10 times. Every rupee invested in a johad has increased the village's annual income by 2.5-3 times.
Reviving the Arvari
The most important lesson from Bhaonta-Kolyala is that when villages work with each other to regenerate the environment, there are unexpected blessings. Sometimes, they are as big as a river. In the case of Bhaonta-Kolyala, it was Arvari river. In 1990, when the villagers started constructing the big dam, no one knew that the site was the origin of the river. And by catching and percolating water, they were injecting life into the river (see map: Water of life).
The river's course was intact due to the monsoonal water run-off. In 1990, a small stream came out to vanish within weeks. That was part of the natural course of the Arvari. "It was then that the new generation of the village believed that there was indeed a river originating from the village. Till then, it was passed off as fiction," says Dhannua Baba.
A seasonal drain, Arvari grew like a child and started flowing for one extra month each progressive year. It became a perennial river in 1995.
Since 1986, 238 water harvesting structures have come up in the catchment areas of the river, including another huge dam in the second source of the river in Agar village. "Each and every monsoon stream has been dammed and virtually all the hills slopes have been afforested to stop run off and soil erosion," says Arjun Patel, a villager.
To ensure that the Arvari remains clean and healthy and also to solve internal disputes, the 70-odd villages in the Arvari basin have also formed the Arvari River Parliament.
Building water harvesting structures was not enough for the villagers. To control soil erosion, they demarcated 12 square kilometre of the adjoining forest area for regeneration. And in 1995 they declared it as a public wildlife sanctuary, claimed to be the first of its kind in the country.
Symbolically, the sanctuary area starts from the dam built by the villagers. 'Bhaironath Public Wildlife Sanctuary', written on the dam, welcomes you to the sanctuary. With the regeneration of forests, wildlife has started migrating from the nearby Sariska Tiger Reserve forests. "Our forests are totally protected, nobody disturbs the wildlife. So the wildlife from the other forests are finding it safer here," says Dhannua Baba.
According to the local people, the sanctuary is at present home to three tigers, many bluebulls and deer. The tiger pug marks are proof of their presence in the sanctuary.
The gram sabha has also imposed a strict code of conduct - tree felling is not allowed though villagers are allowed to take branches for domestic purposes. Grazing is restricted to a specific patch of the forest. Recently, the villagers dug a pond on the periphery of the sanctuary for the benefit of the wild animals. Says Arjun Patel, "The village is getting back its beauty after generations. Now there are forests, water and wildlife." And for Dhannua Baba, the smell of tiger is good for crops. "It will ensure a good yield of crops," he says.
For the last three years, it has rained poorly in the region. But for the villagers involved in water management, there is enough water for drinking and irrigation. They have proved that the answers to seemingly unsurpassable environmental problems lie in social mobilisation and traditional wisdom. That economic well-being is a byproduct of ecological regeneration. And for a well-organised society, drought is a myth.
Above All Differences
"The forest was dense till the 1960s," recalls Suryabhan Khorbade of Sayagata village in Maharashtra's Chandrapur district. During the British rule, people were allowed to enter the forests at their own will. But after Independence, when the forest department stepped in, there was a ban on access to the forests. "Soon, illegal logging reduced the once-lush forests to a lone banyan tree near the village temple," says Lala Ram, a 60-year-old farmer.
Villagers lost their source of livelihood. There were no tendu leaves, gum and mohua to sell in the market. Most of them were forced to cultivate their lands or work as bonded labourers elsewhere. But agriculture did not reap any benefits as the land was unproductive.
The problems were plenty but solutions only one - to work together in regenerating the land. This was not very easy. The village population comprised eight castes and nobody was ready to sit together and chalk out an action plan. To end the stalemate, in 1966, Khorbade along with his friends staged a drama. "The important aspect of the drama was that all of them came together to watch it," he says. He continued staging plays to develop cordial relations.
Finally, in 1973, the villagers formed an organisation called Krushak Charcha Mandal under the leadership of Khorbade. At that time, a government official gifted them a one-band radio. The Nagpur station, which the radio was able to receive, used to broadcast a programme on agriculture twice a week, which the farmers used to religiously follow. After the programme, they discussed various issues that the particular episode highlighted. When in doubt, they would write letters to the radio station. "The whole process helped in bringing the people together," says Lala Ram.
Soon, they realised that the root of their problem was degradation of the forests. The village Gram Sabha election was held in 1979 and it was decided that an attempt to regenerate the forests had to be made. But there was one hitch - who's forests was it, the government's or the people? Despite the dilemma, the villagers formed a committee headed by Khorbade.
They fenced the forests. But did not plant any new trees. The stress was on regenerating natural root-stock. Groups of 10 people guarded the degraded forests day and night, says Khorbade. By 1982, the forest started showing signs of recovery. However, the jubilant villagers were in for a surprise. The forest department was back and officials even prevented them from collecting fodder. "The people put aside their personal egos and protested against the officials," says Vital Rao, a forest guard.
The battle between the forest department and the people is far from over. But the people decidedly surpassed them and launched a joint forest management (jfm) programme in 1993 and charted rules for protection of the forests. Villagers in need of wood have to apply to the village forest committee. If anyone is caught felling without prior permission, he/she is asked to pay a fine of Rs 1,000 or is punished suitably.
The result of the villagers' efforts is showing. The green cover is back. The groundwater table has also risen. "Now water is available throughout the year," says Kusum, a resident of the village. Also, the agricultural yield has almost doubled, says Lala Ram. Says Khorbade, "We have realised our power. And there is a feeling of kinship among us. This is our greatest achievement."
Obensao Kikon (63) belongs to Wokha district in Nagaland. An 'ardent jungle burner' at one time, his stint as the chairperson of the Market Federation of Nagaland changed his outlook. Thereafter, there has been no looking back. His 615-ha land in Wokha is full of teak and bamboo trees. He encourages plantation of short-rotation species to help the local people meet their fuelwood demands. Besides, he also heads the Kimpvur Valley Multipurpose Cooperative Project Society comprising three villages. His aim: to enhance the living standards of poor people.
Ranjit Kumar Pattnaik (38) is a household name in Angul district of Orissa. In 1988, he went on a padyatra across 600 villages in Angul to raise awareness about the importance of natural resources. Pattnaik established the Youth Association for Rural Reconstruction, initially aimed at fighting against pollution of the Brahmani river by industries. Pattnaik has also been instrumental in forming village organisations to save forests and sanctuaries in the state.
E R R Sadasivam is the owner of a 'tree museum' in Elur village in Coimbatore district of Tamil Nadu. Spread over 30 ha, the museum houses 100 tree species whose inhabitants include hyena, wildcat, jackals and peacocks. But when he inherited this property in 1950, it wasn't all that green. He started work in his land and forced villagers to do the same. Now 112 villages are his beneficiaries. And all their barren land has been converted to woodlands. All this, without any financial help. Profit is not his motive. Happiness lies in making people understand the value of trees, he says. A 'national asset' is what his peers have to say about him.
Moulana Iftikhar Hussain Ansari,a politician, a businessman and now the 'Green Maulvi' of Jammu and Kashmir. As minister for housing and urban development, he has been credited with establishing the J&K Lakes and Waterways Development Authority in 1997 to preserve the Dal lake. Hampered by a massive fund crunch, there has only been a marginal change in state of the lake. But de-weeding process has been started with some success. Cleaning the Dal is a dream but Moulana firmly believes he can tide over the current problem soon. And once, the glory of the Dal is restored, he plans to start cleaning the Jhelum river.
Rakesh Trivedi (50) is a multi-faceted personality. A professor of zoology, director of the eco-estate faculty of the Centre for Environmental Protection, Research and Development in Indore, Madhya Pradesh, and a contributor for Nai Duniya, a Hindi daily. His obsession with trees has also earned him the title 'Tree Man of Indore'. So far, he has planted 6,000 trees in the city alone. But that's not enough. He believes he has to plant many more trees, God and 'people willing'.
C R Shanmugam is a civil engineer by profession. He works as a project consultant for Dhan Foundation, a Madurai-based ngo. He has revived 20,000 300-1,000-year-old water tanks. They are now managed by people in villages across Tamil Nadu. The tanks recharge groundwater besides ensuring water for irrigation. "A man with a vision and wisdom" is what people say about him. But, in all humility, Shanmugam believes he is "only a cog in the wheel".
Narayan Hazary (63) is an ardent believer of the Panchayati Raj system. He is involved in advocating the concept of 'village democracy' in Kesharpur village in Nayagarh district of Orissa. The list of his achievements is endless: started a village-level school in 1954; set up the Despran Madhusadan Library in 1957; established Pragati Shishu Sangh, a children's organisation; and from 1972 he spearheaded the Buddhagram Environmental Movement (bem) to regenerate the forests. bem was aimed at regenerating the green cover of the barren Binjagiri forest and Malati hills. The forest and the hill are finally regaining their cover. Meanwhile, Hazary teaches political science in Nagaland but remains the guiding force behind all activities in Kesharpur village.
Roland Martins (37) is the driving force behind Jagrut Goenkaranchi Fauz, perhaps Goa's most effective grassroots organisation. He has led many protests against unsustainable tourism projects. One of his notable campaigns has been against the government's plan to freeze a 75-80-km stretch of coastal Goa for 19 luxury hotels. The plan was eventually scrapped. Then there was Operation Cold Turkey against drug traffickers and Operation Blockaids to spread awareness about aids. Despite many successes, Martins remains a foot soldier, literally for he uses public transport and figuratively for his perusal of the mission.
Premjibhai Patel (67) had to go to Mumbai for work in 1975 but the fast-paced lifestyle and a desire to do something meaningful perturbed him endlessly. Finally, he returned to his village Bhayavadar in Upleta block of Gujarat. There he brought about a revolution of sorts. One that showed people that the answer to the fuelwood problem in the arid region was growing more trees. This also solved the problems of erosion and water shortage. Now, he is concentrating on the construction of traditional check-dams in Upleta.
Tiameren Aier is a former state minister for industries and also owner of teak and rubber plantations in Mokukchung district of Nagaland. He is involved in educating people about the adverse effects of jhum (shifting) cultivation. He has also started a college, where he plans to introduce environmental awareness training. He wants farmers and drop-outs to enrol into the college to avail of the basic environmental education. Unfortunately, not many in his hometown are aware of the 'green face' of the former politician.
Shamjibhai Jadavbhai Antala (62) has many names - Pied Piper of Saurashtra, rainmaker, one-man army and messiah. He has accomplished the impossible in a land with a history of severe water scarcity, hostile climate and rocky topography. He has ensured that the fields remain green by teaching people the importance of rainwater harvesting. "The success rate," says Antala, "is counted by the awareness level and here it is 100 per cent."
Pandit Punyadhar Jha alias Bol bam (81). A resident of Andhra Tharhi village of Madhubani district in Bihar, the octogenarian has spent a good part of his life planting trees. Jha has planted a record 10,000 trees in various districts of Bihar till now. And plans to continuing doing so in the future. His knowledge bank: the Agni Puranas, which detail traditional plantation methods. His motto: one tree is equal to 10 sons.
R S Jamir (67) is the first Indian Police Service officer from Nagaland. More importantly, he is the co-founder of the Luzheto Welfare Society, a social forestry organisation. After the demise of the other founder, Hekiye Sema, in 1998 he has been carrying forward the work single-handedly. Though restricted to Luzheto village, his work in regenerating the barren lands has helped people live off the forests once again. As a sign of gratitude, villagers have named a hill after him. "He was at the right place at the right time. We can never thank him enough," says a villager of Jamir.
It is an oft-repeated story of dense forests being reduced to shrubs and coppice. In the case of Melaghar village in Sonmara subdivision, the 1971 Bangladesh war responsible for the wanton felling of the then abundant sal, teak and bamboo forests.
A large number of refugees from across the border took shelter in the forests. Population pressure on land increased. There were more agricultural labourers than needed. And within a decade there was not a tree in sight. "The forest guards tried to chase us, but we didn't care even if they had guns. Timber was sold to the contractors, livestock was taken to the forest for grazing and everything, including birds and fowls, were killed for food," recalls Malati Bala, a refugee who fled Bangladesh after her husband was killed in the war. After years of poverty and despair, Subodh Sur, then a young graduate, formed a group of 15 youths in his home village Rudijala in Melaghar block and started spreading environmental awareness among the people. Informal meetings and discussions were held from 1984 onwards. Finally, in 1987, the Acharya Jagdish Chandra Bose Briksha Mitra Sangha (BBMS) was formed and a formal inauguration was held on the Acharya's birth anniversary on November 30.
Prior to the formal establishment, BBMS had already started plantation activities. Plantation of trees in private lands was encouraged, while BBMS on its part planted bamboo saplings in a makeshift nursery. "After some years, the results started showing. Residents who were earlier hesitant also started growing bamboo trees," says Sur.
The people, under BBMS' guidance, continued the work till the early 1990s, by which time the Tripura government decided to adopt joint forest management (JFM) programme in the state. In association with BBMS, the forest department launched the pilot JFM project in 1991-92. "We had a particularly enthusiastic and young team of forest officers," says Dipak Datta, chief conservator of forests. BBMS volunteers also comprised of a group of bright and energetic youths. "They were residents of local villages and had the dedication to carry forward the project in the future," says Rameshwar Das, divisional forest officer.
The project in "Jeevan Deep", as the Melaghar JFM area is known as, started with 135 families. "Today, we have some 340 families involved in the project," says Sur. He was helped in his endeavour by Achunta Sinha, an Indian Forest Service officer, who was the Melaghar range officer at that time. He was also assisted by Nehru Yuva Kendra, an autonomous organisation of the government of India. In fact, says Das, "The success of the project goes to Sur and Sinha."
A total of 13,000 ha of land has been afforested so far. The groundwater level has also risen. BBMS has also established a school in Melaghar, where youths from all over Tripura are taught the basics of JFM and how it can be replicated elsewhere. "We have a network of friendly organisations and people all over the state interested in JFM after Melaghar's success," says Rekha Mukherjee of BBMS.
Besides, BBMS has also helped women start a small-scale industry. Lakshmi, a housewife, for instance, makes at least Rs 500-700 per month from selling sticks for incense and ice-cream from bamboo strips.
BBMS has been successful in not only weaning away youths from illegal felling but, most importantly, they have now made the people self-sufficient in their needs.
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