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Vol 7,  No 19   February 28, 1999
Preparing you to change the future every fortnight



When villages work with each other to regenerate the environment, there are unexpected blessings. Sometimes, they are as big as a river
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And now they need to build a bridge: the Arvari blesses all at the entrance of Hamirpura village

THE story of Arvari's revival is the story of the 70 villages in its 503-sq km watershed. Trailing the 45-km river is a journey back in time. As the river slices through lush green fields, the villagers constantly recall its past: "It was dead, like the skeleton of a 100-year-old person. The fields on its banks were barren."

In the 18th century, according to the Alwar State gazetteer, Arvari was known as the Pratapgarh Nala and was considered the main groundwater recharge stream for the villages on its banks. Today, nobody can remember seeing it flow except during the monsoon. But the dead river's course was intact underground, the result of seasonal run-off.

Of the two main sources of the river, one stream originates near Bhaonta-Koylala and the other near village Agar. The two streams meet near the Ajabgarh-Pratapgarh road at Palsana-ka-pahad. From here to its confluence in the reservoir of a dam on the river Sainthal, the river is known as Arvari.

In 1986, when the villagers of Bhaonta-Koylala built a huge johad to catch the gush of water from the surrounding hill-slopes, hardly anybody knew that it was the origin of the river and by conserving rainwater, they were injecting life into the river. Since 1986, 238 water harvesting structures have come up in 70 villages in Arvari's watershed (see map on p38: Water: a lesson in magic).

Water: a lesson in magic
By March 1997, more than 200 water harvesting structures dotted the watershed of Arvari
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"After seeing the benefits of the dam in Bhaonta, we contributed 50 per cent to build a johad at the source of the river, which in 1987 itself got filled up with water," says Manwa of village Kaled, downstream of Bhaonta-Koylala. This johad, like the one in Bhaonta-Koylala, recharged the natural drainage of the river at source. "We never realised that we were recharging a river. Our effort was just to catch and allow water to percolate underground," says Rajendra Singh.

Beginning with the Jogiwala johad on a monsoon stream flowing into Arvari in the valley, many smaller johads were constructed by villagers. These structures were collectively recharging groundwater, as was noticeable in the water table of wells. Some 70 villages were harvesting water and checking run-off in the catchment area along the river's course. "Each and every monsoon stream was dammed and virtually all hills slopes were treated to stop run-off and soil erosion," says Arjun Patel of Bhaonta.

Villagers talk about Arvari's rebirth as if it was the birth of a child. "Like a child, it, too, remained in the womb as we started recharging the earth with water," explains Dhanua. Indeed, Arvari's gradual way to a perennial life is similar to that of a child learning to walk. In 1990, it flowed till October. In 1991 till January next year. In 1992 till February next year. In 1993 till March next year. In 1994 it flowed till April next year. But in 1995 the flow did not cease. It has been perennial since.

Says R N Athavale, emeritus scientist with the National Geophysical Research Institute at Hyderabad, "It should be noted that the run-off has not been substantially reduced. It is just that the run-off is spread out over a period of time. The river has turned perennial mainly because of this regulated distribution of run-off" (see box on p38: Tiny difference that made a miracle).

Tiny difference that made a miracle
The economic and ecological miracle of regeneration in Alwar district is being brought about by using just three per cent of the rainfall. This small percentage is being used for irrigation, and has made a tremendous change. The region is today thriving and prosperous. R N Athavale, emeritus scientist at the National Geophysical Research Institute in Hyderabad, visited some areas in Alwar where the Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS) has worked. His aim was to assess the changes brought about by the water harvesting structures through certain estimates of the water balance of a typical river in the area. Athavale's findings are based on his experience and not on actual experiments or data collection in the area visited. But they provide an interesting insight into the dynamics of the new water management in the area. Here are some of his findings:
  • The annual average rainfall in the region is about 600 millimetre. Most of this rain (about 80 per cent) falls during the monsoon. Before TBS's intervention in encouraging water harvesting structures, 35 per cent of the rainwater was lost immediately as seasonal run-off. Another 50 per cent was lost due to evaporation or transpiration (loss of moisture which evaporates from the surface of plants). Only 15 per cent of the rainfall naturally recharged the groundwater. Of this, 5 per cent became soil moisture, as the soil was too dry. Another 5 per cent constituted the base flow, implying the amount of groundwater returned to the surface stream or river. Of the remaining 5 per cent, some parts were tapped by wells and used, but the rest percolated to depths below the wells and stream beds.
  • After water harvesting structures were built, there was an additional recharge of groundwater to the tune of 20 per cent.
  • Though the base flow to the stream or river remained the same, there was an additional seepage (effluent seepage) of 17 per cent of rainfall to the river in non-monsoon months. This phenomenon contributed to the revival of the river and made it perennial.
  • Seasonal run-off has come down from 35 per cent of the rainwater to only 10 per cent.
  • There has been an increase in soil moisture: an additional 5 per cent of the rainwater is retained in the soil.
  • Groundwater table has risen. In all 5 per cent of the total rainwater is being used for irrigation, one-third of which is returned to the ground. It should be noted that the villagers have not been unscrupulous in drawing out groundwater, which is quite common in areas where the government takes a flat rate for use of groundwater. A flat rate does not give any incentive to regulate the withdrawal of groundwater.
  • It is not just that there is more water available for agriculture. Quite crucially, it is now available at critical stages of plant growth, which contributes to better yields. Before water harvesting structures were revived, water was not available at these critical stages, resulting in poor yields or crop failure.
  • About 22 per cent of the run-off (excluding the 10 per cent seasonal run-off during the monsoon) is better regulated and spread out over the year. This has been crucial in reviving the Arvari. If this run-off had not been regulated, the river would not flow throughout the year. Which goes to show how fragile the ecosystem is.

Bhaonta-Koylala: the first village upstream
Bhaonta-Koylala lost its heartbeat in the 1980s, say the villagers. Four consecutive years of drought had ravaged these twin villages, located on the periphery of the Sariska Tiger Reserve and sandwiched between two mountain chains. The Aravalli was prominent and grotesque without the green. There were vast expanses of barren lands, filled with pebbles swept down by gushing water. Moreover, the officials of the tiger reserve were harassing the villagers in the name of wildlife protection. They had served the villagers a notice of eviction (see box on p39: People's Sanctuary).

People's sanctuary
People's interest in water leads to greater interest in the forest and its wildlife
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The dam at Bhaonta looks over the 'protected' forest

What should be the perfect reply to the forest department's eviction of people from a tiger reserve? Go for a people's wildlife sanctuary, managed and protected by the people. After all, forest dwellers also conserve wildlife.

That is exactly what the Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS), which fought against the Sariska Tiger Reserve (STR) officials' eviction drive against the villages inside the reserve, did on January 14, 1995, with the help of villagers. The people of Bhaonta-Koylala have been protecting the neighbouring forests. In 1995 they declared it a 'people's wildlife sanctuary'. It is claimed to be the first of its kind in the country. Symbolically, the sanctuary area starts from a dam built by the villagers.

"Bhairodev People's Wildlife Sanctuary" is painted on the wall of the dam. "It is the expression of our love for wildlife," says Nanak Ram, who was hounded by the forest department for inciting villagers against the forest officials.

The people's sanctuary is the final expression of the anguish of the people living inside the reserve. Since it was declared a tiger reserve, villagers have been living at the mercy of forest officials. In 1985, TBS discovered that villagers were paying hefty bribes to forest officials as 'forest tax'. "Conservation was just a guise for the officials to exploit the villagers. When the villagers stopped giving bribes, the eviction threat was intensified," remembers Rajendra Singh, secretary of TBS.

As the villagers started protecting forests with TBS's support, the ecology started recovering. Wild animals started migrating from the Sariska forests to the regenerated forests. According to the villagers, there are three tigers and many Neelgai and deer in the sanctuary. The pugmarks vouch for it. "Our forests are totally protected, nobody disturbs the wildlife," says Dhanua Baba, the gram sabha head of Koylala village.

The sanctuary is totally under control of the two villages. A strict code of conduct has been imposed - felling trees is banned, though villagers are allowed to lop branches for use. Grazing is restricted to a specified patch of the forest. Recently, the villagers dug a pond for the wild animals on the periphery of the sanctuary.

The wells, 30 of them, were empty. There was no source of water. "Even the machines (diesel water pumps) failed to bring up water from the wells. There was just a trace of water at 200 hath (the length of the forearm)," says Rupa, who came as a bride to Bhaonta 35 years ago. An old johad lay buried in silt.

Only about 30 per cent of the 221 hectares of land was cultivable; only seven per cent of agricultural fields were irrigated. The villages used to take only one crop; which, too, was rain-fed. Crop failure was a regular feature. In 1986, the parched villages heard the story of Gopalpura, which is 20 km away. In 1986, the annual Pani Yatra of TBS passed through these villages, spreading the wisdom of building johads.

"The village, already pushed to the wall, decided to replicate the Gopalpura experiment," says Kanheyalal, whose father convinced the villagers of Bhaonta-Koylala to form a gram sabha. On March 6, 1987, the village formed its gram sabha. Its first task was to convince the surrounding villages to protect forests and to repair old johads through voluntary labour. TBS was just contributing 25 per cent of the costs of these projects. Then came the aam sabha (general assembly) of eight villages, which decided to take control of their own development and not to depend on the government any more. "As such, the government did not exist here. So we unanimously decided to work for ourselves," remembers Sunder Lal, chief of the gram sabha.

The villagers and some TBS workers searched for the natural drainage of the village to arrest run-off. An old johad was found, buried under silt, on the slope of the surrounding hills. In 1988 the johad's repair was started. By the time monsoon arrived, the johad was filled with water. But soil erosion threatened its survival. So it was decided to regenerate forest in the catchment area. In the first year, sprouts of different trees appeared around the johad due to the moist soil. The villagers imposed a ban on stray grazing and felling green trees.

The villages decided to build a new johad. Villagers contributed 70 per cent to the cost. "Villagers toiled for days and months, voluntarily, while the TBS workers also showed the same zeal," says Sunder Baba. The water level in the wells downstream rose by about one metre the following year.

In 1990 the villages started work on their most ambitious water harvesting structure: a 244-metre-long concrete dam in the upper catchment of the Aravalli to stop water right there before it moves downwards. It was completed in three years. The villagers contributed 70 per cent of the cost. Even before construction was completed by 1994, its impact was already visible. What they had given to the river, the river was returning.

"We had realised that if we captured water there, it would percolate faster as we are at a higher level, benefiting the villages downstream," says Sunder Lal. The poor villagers with little water had the heart to think about the water needs of villages downstream. This understanding of the needs of others went a long way in nourishing the watershed of Arvari.


For the rest of the article "Water of Life",  please refer to the printed copy of Down To Earth March 15th, 1999 or SUBSCRIBE HERE.



Copyright CSE  Centre for Science and Environment