In the summer of 1973, Lapodiya village near Jaipur was facing famine and acute water shortage. The village pond had fallen into disrepair and neither the locals nor the government took any interest in reviving it.
“In the village, I saw men getting down 70-80 feet into wells to draw water. People would crowd around and there were arguments and fights. Farmers could not do farming. There was no grass for cattle. The government provided some wheat which was all the people had to eat. This situation vexed me,” says Laxman Singh.
Singh, who was 16 years then, took up the initiative to revive the pond.
Singh’s pioneering contribution has been the creation of the Chauka system of water harvesting that helped Lapodiya resurrect itself from a water-scarce, poverty-ridden village to a model of water conservation and ecosystem restoration.
The Chauka system was then adopted by 58 villages around Lapodiya and helped conserve water on a large scale. The water table in the region has risen and nurtured lush greenery and flora and fauna.
Lapodiya has emerged as a model village where people from Gujarat, Maharashtra and Karnataka have visited and replicated the Chauka system in their villages. The system has also been implemented in Israel and Afghanistan.
Singh was awarded the Padma Shri by the President of India in March of this year for his extensive work.
Today, water in Lapodiya is available at 3 feet even in summer while in most Rajasthan villages the water table has consistently fallen over the years. According to government figures, of the 302 blocks in Rajasthan, 219 are over-exploited, 22 are critical, 20 are semi-critical and 38 are in the safe category.
Bonding with nature
Looking half a century back, Singh says when he returned home during the summer vacations, he found the situation in the village tense. “There was no water. There were fights over water and skirmishes between different communities over grazing animals. "The one pond we had in the village where water was stored was broken for 20 years, and the mood in the village was one of despondency," he recollects.
“Elders said the pond was broken and there was no structure to store water in. So there was no water in the village. I asked why the pond could not be repaired. They all asked who will do it, where is the money?” recalls Singh, now 66.
That got the teenager thinking. He held meetings with small groups of villagers and tried to convince them to take the initiative to repair the pond but no one showed any interest.
"I left my studies and decided to work in the village to improve the water situation and promote camaraderie between the communities," he says.
Even after four years of trying to coax the villagers to take up repair work, there was no result.
“Around that time, my friend visited me. I told him the entire story. He picked up a shovel and tasla and started walking towards the pond. He said we should start the work ourselves, and then people will join us,” narrates Singh.
On the way, they met villagers who asked where they were going. When Singh and his friend replied they were going to repair the pond, the villagers asked how the two of them would do it. Then they responded that “You are also with us, we will do it together.”
In this way, they managed to get six people with them to start work on the pond. In 10 days, 20 people began working with Singh to repair the pond.
In 1986, Singh formed the Gram Vikas Navyuvak Mandal Lapodiya (GVNML) to rope in villagers to work for the development of the village. Small teams went from house to house and spoke to the residents about the need for water conservation, and how it would help them do agriculture and earn a stable income. The team members told the residents that if the village had no water, no parents would give their daughters in marriage to boys from Lapodiya.
Slowly, the locals were persuaded. There were 300 houses and it was decided that 100 houses would do shramdan (voluntary physical labour) every day to repair the pond.
Singh says the work started in May 1977 and by July the pond was ready so when the monsoon came, water could be stored in it after two decades. Slowly water filled in the wells and villagers could start farming. This created bonhomie among villagers and ended the social tensions, says Singh.
The pond eventually helped irrigate 1800 acres of land as villagers took to farming and started earning some income.
Singh says the villagers are also encouraged to give names to the ponds based on their use. Singh says the first pond which the villagers repaired was named Annsagar because it was used for irrigation of fields to grow food. The other ponds were named as per their use. For instance, one is called ‘Dev Sagar’ and another is called ‘Phool Sagar’ as the water is used by people for their animals and other use.
The villagers created several other ponds for water storage and channels for water to flow. Many small ponds were created that were used by 5-10 farmers for their farmland.
What is Chauka System?
Singh, who has no formal training in environment or engineering, says he has learnt on the job. He travelled across the country, from Gujarat to Assam Meghalaya and Kerala and observed techniques used by people there to store water, create storage structures, plant trees and grow forests.
“I once visited the agriculture university in Udaipur in the early 1980s to learn about water storage structures. They were doing some work in Ajmer creating contour bunds. However, the structures they created would break in the monsoon. I told them it was faulty. They took offence and mocked me.”
The Chauka system was developed after many attempts as many considerations had to be kept in mind.
A Chauka has four sides as the name suggests and has ridges of mud. One side is open. The Chauka slows the flow of rainwater so it percolates into the ground instead of flowing off.
Interestingly, the Chaukas in all 58 villages are interconnected and part of a larger design. So, in case there is heavy rainfall, the villages don’t flood since the water keeps moving.
Singh said he then turned to nature for inspiration. “We needed a technique that would recharge groundwater and provide grass and fodder for the animals. We could not keep building tanks to store water because that would use up all the land and the rains were not heavy to fill the tanks,” he says.
“We wanted to create a system that would not just store water but also support the ecosystem. It should promote microorganisms in the topsoil, fresh grass should grow every year for our animals, there should be an ecosystem that would support a varied flora and fauna,” he says.
Singh says after the rains, he observed that natural hollows that were nine inches deep had grass growing in them. If the water is deeper, grass will not grow.
“The amount of water you collect will determine what grows there. Through trial and error, and studying nature, we arrived at the measurement of nine inches of water,” says Singh.
The Chauka does not hold more than nine inches of water. This does not interfere with the growth of grass in the pastureland.
To cater to the need of the animals, different varieties of grass grow at different heights of the Chauka. For instance, goats prefer thorny grass while cattle like soft, leafy grass.
Singh observed that after the rains, water would follow the natural slope of the land to flow into streams and rivers or seep into underground aquifers. So, the Chauka system was designed according to the slope of the land.
Along with water conservation, Singh motivated the villagers to start other development activities. The members of the GVNML started schools for the children so they could get a good education.
Singh and his team opened schools in 50 villages where free education was provided.
He says the schools had a board outside stating that this is neither a government school nor a private school but the village’s school. The schools ran from 1980 to 2006 when the state government opened schools in villages.
Singh also motivated villagers to plant trees, develop pastureland and has worked to improve the breed of cows and grow jungles which are called ‘dev van’ meaning God’s forest.
The villages form Gram Vikas Committees that discuss development works to be undertaken. Villagers undertake work to plant trees, create ponds and develop pasturelands. The villagers also pledge not to cut trees or hunt animals and birds and to conserve the environment.
Singh says he involved everyone in the development of the village. “I had to create a sense of belonging, people had to see themselves as stakeholders so they would sustain the work,” he says.
Slowly Singh’s work got recognition and students, researchers, and professors started visiting Lapodiya. The professors from state universities visited Lapodiya and were impressed with the work done there. Singh has won several awards.
In the 1990s, the Catholic Relief Society made a documentary on Lapodiya village and Singh’s work which was shown abroad. After that, Lapodiya got visitors from abroad too who came to study the Chauka system.
In 1992, Singh received the National Youth Award and in 2007 he won the President’s Award.
(Urvashi Dev Rawal is a Jaipur-based journalist specialising in development, gender, and political reporting)