It was a real pleasure to go with President K R Narayanan to Hamirpura
village. People always come to the Rashtrapati Bhawan estate 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.
The readiness with which he had accepted my offer to come to the village to present the
award is clearly indicative of his graciousness and sensitivity to the problems of the
poor. Poverty and the importance of rainwater harvesting are two issues that he had
already emphasised in his Republic Day address this year.
President Narayanan, himself born to a poor family in Kerala, understands and
appreciates the agony and the problems of poor people. But he is also a man who broke the
bonds of poverty and through sheer grit worked his way up to the position of President of
India. This is why he also knows that the poor may be strapped in economic terms but they
are not poor in terms of knowledge, wisdom and hard work. More than economic help, the
poor seek dignity and encouragement to achieve what they desire. This is why the work of
Bhaonta-Kolyala and other villages had resonated so much with him.
Today, 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 in
rainwater harvesting, that it is possible to revive water. This message is of no mean
importance and is a source of tremendous hope (see box: A
|A pilgrims progress
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.
I also showed him 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
Presidents 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
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.
To take a step
forward, it is important to keep the other foot on the ground The award and the process
Now, following two years of continuous drought,
the river is drying up again. This explains the importance of what is called the
hydrological cycle. 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.
Resplendent in clothes and traditional
jewellery, women throng the venue at Hamirpura despite the scorching heat
I want to narrate my first meeting
with the 80-year-old Dhanua Baba of Bhaonta-Kolyala. He had briefly recounted his life to
me. He had said, "My family had land, but after the forests were cut down, we could
not grow crops. From the age of 13, I started wandering in search of employment. When
Mahatma Gandhi was shot dead, I was carting sacks in Lahori Gate of Delhi. When Indira
Gandhi got married, I was still there. But in the last three years, I have cultivated my
land for the first time. Nobody in my family needs to migrate in search of a livelihood
now." The transformation that water harvesting can create is clearly evident in Dhanua Babas story.
Mahadevi Verma, the celebrated poetess of India,
had once remarked that to take a step forward, it is important that the other foot is
firmly planted on the ground. Similarly, if a society strives to develop, it has to ensure
that the other foot is firmly planted in its traditions. A society can progress with
strength only when it can come up with a harmonious and beautiful blend of the old and the
new. Mahatma Gandhi had also once remarked that doors of all the windows of his house
should be open but the wind should not sweep him away.
I understood this in 1987 when the then prime
minister, the late Rajiv Gandhi, entrusted me with a task. India was plagued by drought
and floods in 1985, 1986 and 1987. Several crore rupees had to be distributed as relief.
Rajiv Gandhi told me that the way relief expenditure was escalating, there were clear
signals that flood and drought were becoming more frequent. The speed at which the number
of tubewells was rising would ensure that the groundwater table would fall. This relief
money should be invested in conserving the environment so that our future is a little more
He asked me to address members of Parliament
(MPS) on this issue. To say something concrete, we required data. So, my colleague Sunita
Narain and I travelled through the country for two months, but obtained little. I was not
satisfied with my address to the MPS. The question of finding a long-term relief against
drought kept haunting me. We found the answer in the drought of 1987, when we got an
opportunity to visit several villages and cities in the heart of the Thar desert of
Rajasthan. We witnessed something unusual.
The drought notwithstanding, several families
which had taken good care of their traditional water storage systems, such as kundis,
had enough water to survive and see themselves through the tough times. But families which
depended on tankers and pipelines were in a desperate condition. The reason for this
became evident in Jodhpur, where the situation was such that water was being supplied for
one hour in three days. In some cases, water was being supplied through the railways.
Fortunately, when we were in Jodhpur, it rained
heavily for one hour. Jodhpur city has taken root on the edge of a rocky plateau. In
earlier times, canals that stretched for several kilometres would capture the rain falling
on the plateau and channelise it through to several talabs (human-made ponds) from
where water would seep into the ground and fill the wells and step-wells of the city.
During that brief rainfall, I witnessed hundreds of water channels and waterfalls. But
very few drops of this rain managed to reach Jodhpur city because all channels and canals
were either broken or filled with garbage. I realised how the people living here made a
glorious city in a place where it rains a mere 200-300 mm in a year.
Some days later, I had the opportunity to visit
Cherrapunji in Meghalaya, where it rains about an average of 11,000 mm per year. My eyes
popped out on seeing a notice in a government rest house. It said, "Water is limited,
please use it judiciously." Following the cutting down of forests, all the seasonal
drains and channels dry up soon after the rains and the people face water scarcity for the
remaining eight months.
The culture of
valuing every raindrop has been revived by villages in Alwar
It became clear to me that regardless of the amount of rain, if water is not captured
and stored properly, water scarcity will loom large in front of us. In the ensuing decade,
my colleagues at the Centre for Science and Environment travelled throughout the country
and compiled the traditional knowledge of water harvesting. This has been published in our
book Dying Wisdom. The same culture of capturing every drop of rain has been
revived by the villages of Alwar.
In an earlier conversation with Ashok Gehlot, chief minister of Rajasthan, I mentioned
to him that from the Thar desert to the Aravalli range of mountains, as well as in the
plateau of southern Rajasthan, if we can replenish the hydrological cycle, we can
eliminate poverty for a substantial portion of the states population within a
A proud Kanheya Lal
displays the citation presented by the President
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 if Down To Earth would institutionalise the award. As you
may be aware, Down To Earth, 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
To ensure that the process of selecting a winner
of the award is thorough and transparent, an exhaustive process was formulated (see box: The award and the process). The reports on
the award ceremony and the recipients follow.