Popularly known as the ‘Waterman of India’, RAJENDRA SINGH has unique but simple techniques of water conservation and reviving dead rivers in India, particularly in Rajasthan.
He has spent several decades in water harvesting and conservation in arid Alwar and its surrounding districts in order to conserve rain water and make judicious use of underground water.
Singh and his organisation, Tarun Bharat Sangh, caught global attention in the late 1990s after they revived seven rivers in the desert state of Rajasthan where rainfall is scanty or deficient.
They used universally acclaimed, age-old traditional water conservation methods with community support.
Together, they were able to construct over 5,000 ‘johads’ or check dams to revive seven rivers, a task that had helped in employment generation in over 1,200 villages.
These steps had reversed migration in many villages in the arid belt of Rajasthan where agriculture is critically dependent on rains. Singh was conferred with the Ramon Magsaysay award in 2001 and the Stockholm Water Prize, dubbed as the ‘Nobel Prize for Water’, in 2015 for his decentralised, community-oriented model of water conservation, recharging underground water bodies and reviving dead rivers. He spoke to SANJEEV KUMAR on a range of waterrelated issues.
Q. Could you outline your current work? What is your organisation focusing on now?
A. I am associated with Tarun Bharat Sangh which was founded in 1975 with focus on water conservation, climate change and global warming. Coronavirus is the result of climate change and global warming and now we are focusing on providing Covid kits and rations to around 10,000 families in Rajasthan.
Q. What is your take on the Union government’s proposed project for linking of rivers, which many activists and environmentalists believe will be disastrous for local communities as well as the ecology of those belts?
A. The step will lead to division in the country. Our Constitution has given three rights — the river flow comes under the Centre’s purview, rainwater flow and underground under states’ ambit and water bodies’ rights have been granted to gram panchayats and communities. The decision will end community water rights as interlinking of rivers will lead to privatisation and trade of water, which will be in the hands of a few businessmen. It will not only be an ecological disaster but also a judicial disaster. Various river disputes between states, such as Kaveri river and Yamuna river disputes, have been pending in courts for a long time and the judiciary has not been able to resolve them till date. The government should instead focus on linking rivers with local communities and adopt a decentralised water management model as the country has adequate resources to meet its demand. The step will also lead to reducing floods and drought situations as the model will result in slowing the flow of river water and recharging underground water bodies in the country.
Q. You are also associated with the Ganga rejuvenation movement.What is your take on the government’s present campaign?
A. The Union government had announced that Ganga river is our ‘mother’ and it is their motto to make it clean and ensure its continuous flow. But the government was creating new ‘ghats’ and in fact had changed the course of the river in Banaras where, among other places, concrete structures were being created. The government should ensure that sewer or contaminated water doesn’t flow into the river and give preference to solar and wind power. We need energy but not at the cost of destruction of our rivers.
Q. The Covid pandemic has wrought havoc on the lives of millions of people — especially the poor and marginalised, daily-wage labourers and migrant workers, many of whom have lost their livelihoods. What measures must be taken urgently to address their grim situation?
A. Covid-19 is a big threat to our industries and communities. The government spent huge sums for creating health infrastructure and claimed to have won over the pandemic but all the efforts were lost in the second wave. In Indian wisdom, there was a system of treatment for such diseases and the government didn’t give preference to it and fell for pharma companies’ loot by spending crores of rupees in the name of medical equipment and medicines. In six districts of Rajasthan, we gave migrant labourers, many of whom were Covid positive, Covid kits and ayurvedic ‘kadha’ and they were cured of the disease. The governments at the Centre and state levels failed in their duty of protecting and providing best healthcare services to people, resulting in deaths of lakhs of people. The ventilators and oxygen are quite necessary for patients but the necessary and preventive steps were not taken to reduce the number of deaths.
Q. Do you support Baba Ramdev’s stand against pharma companies?
A. Ramdev is not a ‘Baba’ as saints are not like him nor behave like him. He is a pure businessman who is out to sell his products and make huge profits.
Q. Thousands of farmers have been protesting on Delhi’s borders against the Centre’s three farm laws for over 7 months. What do you make of the Centre-farmer stand-off and its implications?
A. It is a government that is working for corporates as the Supreme Court’s decision on big business houses is implemented instantly while other decisions aren’t. The government only focuses on protecting its votes by using all means including religious division. I first heard of the emergency when I was in 12th class but there seems to be an undeclared emergency in the country now. The farmers’ protest is a peaceful positive movement and the biggest movement wherein farmers have been sitting on Delhi’s borders for the last seven months. Such crowds weren’t even seen in the Independence struggle or during emergency for such a long duration. The movement is for protecting the country from ‘East India Company’ type corporate rule but our government instead of resolving farmers’ issues has tried to tarnish and defame the entire movement.
Q. What are the challenges that voluntary and people organisations are facing in the country now?
A. The Union government has finished voluntarism in the country and many challenges are plaguing these organisations in the country. Many organisations were focusing on the mantra of ‘Satyamev jayate’ but the government tried to pressurise them and imposed many restrictions. But India is a great country where we believe in rejuvenation, and we will overcome these challenges too.