Until three years ago, Prabhat Meena, a farmer in Paidiyala village in Rajasthan's Alwar district, tilled just half an acre of his six-acre holding. It was not out of choice - Meena has a family of nine, including seven children, to support. But it was not feasible for him to farm more land as the region suffered from an acute shortage of water. Today, however, Meena has all his land under cultivation, thanks to the efforts of Alwar-based NGO Tarun Bharat Sangh. In the past three years, the ground water level in Meena's village has steadily increased, thanks to a project by the NGO to rejuvenate the nearby Arvari river. Over the last two decades, Tarun Bharat Sangh has built 402 structures over an area of 500 sq km to rejuvenate the river, increasing water supply to villages in the surrounding region through tube wells and bore wells. After getting access to that water, Paidiyala has been transformed. "Earlier, we used to consume whatever we produced. Today, I am able to sell the excess produce and make some Rs 70,000 annually," says Meena.
Although Tarun Bharat Sangh was begun in 1975, it is only in the last two decades that its activities have really taken off. Realising that livelihoods could be transformed by ensuring that people had access to water, Rajendra Singh, the NGO's chairman, began focusing on water conservation. Over the years, Tarun Bharat Sangh has built rainwater harvesting structures to recharge ground water and restore the ecology of 1,200 semi-arid villages in Rajasthan. Since 2002, it has been doing work similar work in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Uttarakhand and Jharkhand.
80 percentage of land now under cultivation in many areas, up from 20%.
The NGO's efforts have rejuvenated seven rivers, restored the ecology, improved farm yields and raised incomes. Greenery has increased by nearly 30 per cent, and in many areas, the land under cultivation has increased from 20 to 80 per cent. The increase in fodder has also benefited villagers who rear cattle.
"We are playing the role of a facilitator. All our efforts have been made possible by active participation from villages," says Singh. "We employ timetested, traditional methods to manage natural water resources." They involve the construction of storage tanks, anicuts, ponds and check dams. A trained ayurvedic physician, Singh started his career as a healthcare volunteer in a government programme before shifting his focus to water management. In 2001, he won the Ramon Magsaysay award for community leadership.
Much of Tarun Bharat Sangh's work has happened through word-ofmouth. Singh's team gets requests from communities facing a water shortage. They study the topography and soil assess water needs and mobilise people.
A cost-sharing plan is drawn up and construction of water-harvesting structures begins. Villages do not take government help; they pool money to bear the labour and material costs. "The idea is to promote financial independence. Involving the government would result in corruption," says Singh.
His NGO provides 30 to 50 per cent of the funding for a project. Some costs are met with financial assistance from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency. "We have refused financial help from several large organisations. They are only interested in carrying out projects on their own, without involving local communities. That is against our model," says Singh.
Governments, NGOs working in water-starved regions and the corporate sector could learn a lot from Singh's efforts. According to ratings agency CRISIL, the country's per capita availability of water has tapered from 5,177 cubic metres a year in 1951 to 1,544 cubic metres in 2011. This is expected to decline to 1,140 cubic metres by 2050, well below the current global benchmark of 1,700 cubic metres. If they are replicated on a mass scale, Singh's water harvesting initiatives could go some way in addressing that shortage.