In 2019 after being monsoon deficient for two consecutive years, the city officials of the Chennai Municipal Corporation declared “Day Zero,” or the day that there is no water left in the city’s reservoirs for its consumption. However, in the Alwar district of Rajasthan, which is considered the driest part of the country, Day Zero was once an everyday reality. With water being the most vital resource for human existence, this piece talks about how people who live in this region of India manage to have access to water.
It is well known that Rajasthan is the driest state in India, and in most parts of this water-scarce state, annual rainfall is the only source of water. Located in Northwest India, about 150 km south of Delhi, Alwar also depends on yearly rainfall as the primary water source. As the five rivers flowing through this region do not start from snow peaks, they are left out and dry if the southwest monsoon fails to provide enough water. Therefore, the five rivers flowing in this region are often dry. Though there has been no significant change in the rainfall in the last few decades, rainfall in the area is mostly less. However, according to the Pre-Monsoon water level data for the district, records claim that there is a 25cm decline rate in groundwater level annually across various blocks. Hence, the usage of groundwater and its gradual decline posed a massive concern to the villagers of the area.
Generationally, agriculture is the local livelihood of the villagers of Alwar. In such a water-scanty area, extracting groundwater via borewells is the primary water source for irrigation. Regardless, the agricultural practices at Alwar showed a growing dependence on groundwater, which resulted in unsustainable over-extraction of the resource. The water crisis has persuaded the agriculturalists in the area to cultivate only a certain kind of crop owing to the lack of water. This has resulted in villagers comprising a diverse nutritional basket. Consequently, in the last few decades, the youth from these villages have been moving to explore other livelihood opportunities. The reason behind this shift is the lack of water for irrigation purposes, pushing people away from pursuing agriculture in the region. Therefore, this leaves the villagers with the urgent necessity to devise workable water harvesting techniques to save the day. Alwar is an ancient Indian city with a great history of water conservation through traditional water harvesting processes. For example, Kui, to minimize water runoff; Tanki and Bawari (step wells) for rainwater storage; and so on. Of these, Johads are pond-like structures prominently found in water-stressed districts like Alwar and are dug-out pits primarily used to collect rainwater and recharge groundwater. Johads are useful in replenishing groundwater by allowing rainwater to percolate directly into the soil.
As mentioned earlier, the region of Alwar is known for its rich water conservation systems. Along with it, the neighbouring forest lands of the Aravalli range have helped replenish the underground aquifers. In ancient times, the rulers of the region funded the building of johads while holding a portion of the harvest as tax. Local kings slowly gambled away the forest lands to British invaders leading to deforestation and soil erosion. Thus, rainfall runs off through the area along with the eroded topsoil, which is observed to be washed down into these old johads. Post-independence, the government of India ventured into technologically advancing agriculture and irrigation techniques. Modern technologies were used to fetch groundwater via bore wells and tube wells for agricultural activities and other essential needs in such arid parts of the country. These modern initiatives seemed to ease the water-stressed situation of villages like Alwar. However, a repeated cycle of this resulted in groundwater depletion in the district. The condition worsened further in 1985-86 when Alwar faced a severe drought. The period was arid, and water levels dropped drastically, so the villagers could not dig deeper.
This was when Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS), a not-for-profit organization that seeks to restore socio-ecological welfare via community governance and community-driven sustainable management of natural resources, came into play. TBS is headquartered in the Bheekampura block of the Alwar district and has been working in the region since the late 1980s. The founder of TBS, Rajendra Singh, popularly referred to as the Waterman of India, started rejuvenating the johads across the villages of Alwar. Soon after, in 1986, their efforts began paying off when the region’s wells started filling with water. TBS also facilitated in creation of the Arawari River Parliament in 1999, a non-legal governing body for community water management. The function of this parliament is to regulate water across the villages and conserve the resource. In addition, the body has regular meetings to resolve issues of conflict between villages or people regarding the resource.
One such area of Alwar that has flourished due to this successful johad management is — Gopalpura. In 1986, the village, with the help of villagers, renovated the damaged silted johads. Ten years later, more earthen dams or johads were constructed, and the water level had risen to 162 million gallons. The agricultural capacity of the region also increased manifold from 33 hectares to 108 hectares, leading to double cropping. Moreover, as part of the social forestry initiative, the villagers revived forest resources around Gopalpura, and compensation was also enforced as a penalty for anyone found cutting trees. Currently, johad-based conservation has spread across Rajasthan and has been proven effective in groundwater management. Construction of numerous johads by the community all over the state has been contributing to providing groundwater to the people in the area during the dry seasons and improving water quality. Today, there are 8,600 johads across 1086 villages in the Alwar district. In addition, the community has also tasked social forestry to increase the area’s green cover.
The impact of this success is felt across such arid regions in the country. In 2014, Kohar village in Alwar, too, faced the wrath of water. A check dam was built to reduce water flow velocity by engaging the community in dam construction. Hence, the renovation of johads through rural communities was successful, and additionally, it also left a positive impact on the community and ecology. Now that agriculture seems possible, migration has reduced, and the villagers’ socio-economical status has also improved drastically. This piece illustrates the success of community practices in conserving the precious resource, which is the elixir of human life.
 Based on Ground water information report of Alwar district, Rajasthan http://cgwb.gov.in/District_Profile/Rajasthan/Alwar.pdf