Amar Singh, a farmer in Rajasthan’s remote Karauli district, was a daily wager in a stone quarry despite owning 19 hectares of land. Water scarcity in his Jhajharpura village had ruled out farming, the land was lying barren, and Singh was forced to work as a labour. He wasn’t alone in suffering from lack of water and irrigation facilities.
“Other villagers and I had to go to neighbouring states to look for jobs or work in stone quarries here,” says the 60-year-old.
In a country where annual water availability per person has decreased from 3,500 cubic metre in 1950 to 1544 in 2011, the plight of farmers like Singh is not surprising. A cubic m is 1,000 litre.
The fortunes of villagers in the desert state, however, changed when Alwar-based environmental non-profit Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS) began building water storage structures in Jhajharpura and other villages. Water is now freely available and has proved a boon for farmers like Singh, whose income has shot up four times.
COVID-19 and community work
TBS, founded by Magsaysay Award winner environmentalist Rajendra Singh, also known as India’s waterman, has been mobilising villagers to build anicuts (masonry check dams across a stream to impound water for irrigation), ponds and de-silt water bodies to improve groundwater absorption, recharge and retention for irrigation and fishing.
“After building anicuts and ponds to store water, farmers are cultivating three crops in a year," Singh says.
Apart from farming, Singh has 200 buffaloes and earns Rs 4 lakh by selling milk. “Earlier, we could also not provide adequate water and fodder to our animals, but now I am cultivating wheat and mustard. There is enough water as well as fodder for my cattle and their milk production has increased,” he says.
Ranveer Gurjar, Karauli District Coordinator from TBS, says the area was struggling with water scarcity for decades and farming was possible only in the monsoon. “For eight months, people would migrate to Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh or other parts of Rajasthan or work in stone quarries to earn money,” he says.
But once TBS started building water harvesting structures, there was adequate water for farming and the cattle.
The NGO is working in Karauli and Dholpur districts crisscrossed by hills and ravines. They are not only remote but also among the most backward districts of India with poor social and economic indicators. TBS also works in some parts of Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra and has a team of 10,000 volunteers.
Rajendra Singh says the Covid-19 pandemic exposed the vulnerability of labourers who lost jobs.
So in the immediate aftermath of the lockdown, TBS stepped in to provide dry ration to 10,000 families in Alwar, Bharatpur, Dholpur, Karauli, Dausa and Jaipur districts.
“Our volunteers who are based in villages identified families that were very poor and migrants who had returned home and didn’t have any provisions with them. We provided them with dry ration comprising 15 items such as wheat flour, rice, pulses, oil, salt and spices.”
For pregnant and lactating women, TBS made special Shakti kits comprising ghee (clarified butter), almonds, roasted chana (gram) and jaggery. “We aimed to help the extremely marginalised sections of society such as nomadic tribes, the sapera, nai and bali communities.”
Sowing the seeds for sustainable livelihood
Executive Director of TBS, Maulik Sisodia, says in the short-term, the aim was to provide immediate relief to families who were badly hit by the lockdown. “So we focused on providing them ration,” he says.
However, the long-term objective was to provide a sustainable livelihood to these communities and also strengthen the rural economy. TBS volunteers identified 3,000 families in six districts, including Jaipur. “The process of identifying the families was democratic. TBS volunteers sat in meetings with villagers where the poorest families were identified and selected,” says Maulik.
Rajendra Singh says the aim was to make small landholdings viable for agriculture. “Their landholdings are two-three bighas. In 80 percent of the cases, the problem was lack of water for irrigation. So we built water conservation structures while some old ones were repaired and rejuvenated to save water. They also made fences around the fields.”
The families were then given seeds free of cost to grow their own crops.
“We also train them about preparing the land, sowing, use of organic manure and how to save seeds,” says Rajendra Singh.
Chhote Lal Meena from Jaitpur village of Alwar district says he received seeds from TBS volunteers. “If they had not given me seeds, I would have had to spend Rs4,000-5,000 to purchase them or use old ones which would have given less yield. But these seeds have helped me,” says the farmer who owns three hectares of land.
To provide employment opportunities, TBS is also skilling the youth. Sisodia says they are training youth in creating water bodies, efficient use of water, in building and construction of anicuts, organic farming and climate change mitigation. They are also being taught fish farming, and 500 ponds have been created in villages for pisciculture.
Developing a self-sufficient rural economy
Rajendra Singh feels that the rural economy can be self-sufficient and provide livelihoods. “But this economy has been disrupted due to politics and villagers have been migrating to cities in large numbers. Unfortunately, there too, their standard of living has not improved. There is no security; they live in miserable conditions, earn a meagre income and contract diseases and become ill,” he says.
In one blow, COVID-19 has exposed these villagers who are coming back and are willing to stay in villages if they have a means of livelihood. “This is what we are trying to ensure – sustainable livelihood,” he adds.
TBS is also providing a goat and two kid goats to widows and single women so they can become financially independent. “We are teaching them how to take care of the goats, the diseases they get afflicted with, immunisation and diet. They can earn Rs1 lakh per year by selling goat calves and milk,” says Sisodia.
The NGO funds its campaigns through crowd-funding, receiving CSR amounts besides funding from donor agencies.
This will provide employment and income for villagers and create resources not only for the present but also for future generations.
“We have chosen such villages where migrants have returned in large numbers with higher pressure on resources. We expect between 2,000 and 5,000 hectares of additional land to be prepared for agriculture,” he says.
Suresh Singh, a farmer from Jhajharpura village in Karauli district, vouches for the work done by TBS. He says his production has gone up four to five times and the annual income has risen from Rs25,000-30,000 to Rs3-4 lakh.
“Earlier I lived hand-to-mouth -- farming in the rainy season and migrating to cities for the rest of the year. I did not earn much. But since the water harvesting structures have been built, there is water for agriculture and animals. I don’t have to buy wheat or vegetables from the market, and I can stay home,” says 44-year-old Singh.
“Earlier boys would be sent to graze cattle while girls would work at home. But now children are going to school and getting educated.” Water conservation has not only improved incomes but also given wings to dreams of a better future for children in Rajasthan’s deserts.
(Urvashi Dev Rawal is a Jaipur-based journalist specialising in development, gender, and political reporting)