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Monday, 13 August, 2001, 18:52 GMT 19:52 UK
Bringing water to the desert
Villagers in Bisuni
Water is once again flowing through Bisuni
By Vir Singh in Rajasthan

When years of drought forced farmers in Bisuni, a tiny hamlet in India's northern state of Rajasthan, to leave their land in search of work the village elders felt helpless.

Small dams and ponds built by their ancestors for storing rainwater had been allowed to die.


These people who once had little more than the clothes on their back, now have productive farmlands of their own

Environmentalist Rajendra Singh
While they had some knowledge of how to build these structures, the villagers lacked the motivation and, crucially, the money to do it.

Then they saw men and women in nearby villages digging ponds with the help of the Tarun Bharat Sangh, a group of college activists committed to reviving this arid region.

"The people in this village got together and said, 'We should do this too,'" says local farmer Rameshwar Dayal.

Transformation

The village undertook one-quarter of the total cost by contributing cash as well as labour. The young activists got everyone involved in making decisions about water, forests and other local resources.

The efforts eventually bore fruit, here and in hundreds more villages in northern Rajasthan.

The government had written off these areas as "black zones" because of the severe water shortage. But they are alive again, thanks to the efforts of local communities with support from the Tarun Bharat Sangh.

Rajendra Singh
Magsaysay winner Rajendra Singh has led the way
Rajendra Singh, the group's charismatic leader, has been named this year's winner of the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Prize for Community Leadership.

Mr Singh, however, says the award belongs to ordinary villagers who have had to work against impossible odds.

"These people who once had little more than the clothes on their back, now have productive farmlands of their own.

"This has happened because they came together as a community. Not only did they build ponds, they also planted trees and learned how to manage other local resources. And they eventually prospered."

Government interference

But this prosperity has on some occasions brought a new problem. The Rajasthan state government has frequently asserted its control over newly created water resources.


Earlier there was not enough to eat. Now we actually have food left over which we can sell

Local farmer Rameshwar Dayal
This has created resentment among villagers whose hard work brought the water back in the first place.

Mr Singh says the surge of publicity that has accompanied the Magsaysay Prize announcement may put pressure on government officials to adopt a more positive attitude toward community based efforts.

"The chief minister of Rajasthan has said that harnessing water resources is necessary and only society can do this. The water resources minister telephoned me to say, 'Let's put the past behind us. Now, wherever you want to build a pond, we will support you.'"

Pioneering organisation

Starting with just one village in 1986, the Tarun Bharat Sangh has spread its success to more than 700 villages in Rajasthan.

This widespread appeal is what sets it apart from other Indian organisations working with local communities, says Anil Agarwal, director of the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi.

Cattle bathing in Bisuni
Cattle-rearing has been made possible again
"When people start taking care of the water, they become very concerned about their environment automatically," he says.

"And they start taking care of the environment, they start managing their resources better.

The residents of Bisuni know this well. The groundwater in their village has risen several feet over the past six years.

Farming and cattle-rearing have been made possible again. There are even a few patches of sugar cane - a very thirsty crop - in this once barren land.

"Water has allowed us to grow fodder and to keep animals," says Mr Dayal, proudly gesturing across the vast village pond.

"Earlier there was not enough to eat. Now we actually have food left over which we can sell. In the past, people would go to cities for work. Now there is a lot of work right here in the village."

See also:

13 Aug 01 | Sci/Tech
Warning over world's water supplies
03 Oct 98 | South Asia
India on brink of water crisis
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