Reviving local initiatives for water – which have thrived for ages in the arid northern regions of India – Rajendra Singh and others in the local organization Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS) in the arid province of Rajasthan, have helped to lead by example in implementing local, community-driven and controlled water solutions.
The population growth rate in Rajasthan region is estimated to be the highest in the country, but the region is also suffering from ever-increasing water scarcity and stress. Across India, due to excessive drawing down and “mining” of groundwater, supplies of this resource are severely depleted in Delhi, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Daman, Diu, Andhra and Tamil Nadu. Rajasthan in particular, which has an estimated 5.4 per cent of the national population, 18.7 per cent of all livestock in the country and 13.9 per cent of the total “cultivable area,” hosts only 1.16 per cent of the national share of surface water, and 1.7 per cent of groundwater resources.
With leadership provided by women who customarily take responsibility for providing their families with safe freshwater, Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS), a non government organization that brings people together on the issues of management of forests and water resources, has participated in the construction of johads, earthen small-scale reservoirs that help to harvest rainwater and improve the recharge of groundwater resources. As a result of concerted work, thousands of johads have been built since Ragendra Singh and TBS have become increasingly active, having started the work in Alwar in 1985.
The impact has been tremendous: five rivers that used to run dry after the annual monsoon season are now alive with flows once again, groundwater levels have risen by an estimated six metres, and crucial forest cover, which helps to maintain integrity and water-retaining capacity of the soil, has increased by 33 per cent. In addition, TBS has helped to challenge major efforts to privatize and abuse freshwater resources. For instance, in the Alwar area where Singh began the work that would transform into TBS, non-violent community action has prevented 40 water-intensive industrial companies (including bottled water and soft drink makers) from setting up factories. Elsewhere in India, prominent transnational corporations such as Coca-Cola have been challenged for their extreme degradation of water resources, and environmentally and socially destructive waste practices. One of TBS’s current campaigns focuses on the protection of the Yamuna River through challenging existing development plans and promoting forest conservation and expansion in the river’s floodplain.
Some have criticized the methods and framework of TBS’s work in Rajasthan, citing a lack of attention to existing inequalities, and local elites’ disproportionate impact within the village councils, or “gram sabhas,” which form the basis of local governance under the Panchayat system, introduced forcefully into India in 1993. The gram sabhas’ purpose as a unit of local village governance was to afford more democratic control over decision making, towards fostering greater equity at the local level.
- Given the disproportionate responsibility women face for the home, farming, water and general family care, how should we as water justice movements work towards women’s further empowerment without burdening them further?
- How can water justice movements better share knowledge and experience of viable alternatives and strategies promoting democratic control of water for the common good?
- What kinds of methods/strategies should be used to make sure that local democratic structures are indeed democratic and equitable?
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