An old-school approach to the new-school problem of water shortage: The story of Rajendra Singh

Rajendra Singh

Google sustainability and the first few pages that pop up are all talking about cutting-edge technology in renewable energy, waste management, resource utilization and the likes. But what if sustainability did not always require that?

The same question was asked by Rajendra Singh and a handful of villagers in Rajasthan in 1985. The result? 7 rivers which had been dry for over 80 years were repulsed with water flowing through them,and the lives of the communities around those rivers changed forever.


In 1985, as modern methods of extraction came up, groundwater levels in parts of Alwar, Rajasthan had fallen considerably. This made both farming and domestic life very difficult. Rajendra Singh, a former National Education Service Volunteer, visited the village along with his companions from the social organization he was leading, the Tarun Bharat Sangh. On his arrival,  he realized the gravitas fo the water crisis and decided to team up with some of the villagers to come up with a plan to solve it.

They were going to repair and rebuild johads, earthen dams which were traditionally being used to check water flow during the rains and help maintain groundwater levels. This was an age-old tradition which ensured the water needs of the people were met. However, with modern technology such as borewells, these were ignored and had become dysfunctional.

Singh and his comrades started with the Gopal Purajohad,and soon they realized this was a herculean effort. However, as they moved ahead, more and more villagers joined them,and in just 3 years, the johad was built 15 feet deep. The area which had been declared as a “dark zone” due to lack of access to water, had been re-declared as a “white zone”. This was a major victory.

This was just the start. As the organization grew, the targets became more ambitious. They took on bigger entities like miners and shut down as many as 470 mines. Through this and a lot more,Tarun Bharat Sangh managed to build over 5,000 structures for rainwater harvesting and managed to replenish 7 earlier dried up rivers thereby impacting thousands of people for years to come.


Rajendra Singh’s endeavours have put him on the map globally on the cause of water conservation with awards such as the Magsaysay Award and the Stockholm Water Prize (Noble for Water). However, more important than the accolades, which makes him an important figure in the Indian context is the successful experience of the Tarun Bharat Sangh in this space.


There is one clear recommendation that comes out from this exercise,and Rajendra Singh has spoken about it in a recent interview where he said, “The problem is, all such programmes (water conservation-oriented programs) launched by governments irrespective of the party in power are designed for a contractor-driven economy. I am stressing on the community-driven decentralised water projects. A contractor-driven system only looks into profit and loss,whereas the community-driven projects are operated and managed by the community, which is sustainable, economical and more beneficial.”

  • The important thing to understand is that community-driven projects leverage the traditional expertise of the communities who have known the areas and its geography for years. Case in point – While building the johads, the team often faced different topographies (Ex- some were sloping while others were plain). The local communities with their experience suggested the most basic civil engineering solution to the problem – Changing the curvature of the johad in order to suit the topography. The solution was simple yet impactful and helped them scale up to regions which were difficult to access earlier. They did not require any sophisticated technical help, no fancy engineering involved. Basic common sense, coupled with the local knowledge and they solved a major problem.

Before going for a community-based approach, the government has to reconcile that this is the knowledge they might have to often rely upon.

  • The other important caveat here is that the ownership of the project should remain with the communities. While employing the community-based approach, Tarun Bharat Sangh applied Gandhi’s principle of talisman wherein the opinions of the last-affected person in the value chain (for instance, the farmer using the groundwater for cultivation) are taken in consideration. Tarun Bharat Sangh was able to implement this through the establishment of a River Parliament wherein representatives from all villages affected by the rivers voice their opinions and engage in collective decision-making.

This is an important lesson here for the government if it chooses to go ahead with the community-based approach. In fact, it would be a good way to both gain knowledge as well as earn the confidence of the locals regardless of whether the approach is contractual or community-based.

  • For any organization which has achieved such tremendous success in a field, there should be a mechanism for them to transfer their best practices in a manner which can help such initiatives to be scaled up. To this extent, Tarun Bharat Sangh has taken a major leap by opening a water conservation school, Tarun Bharat Vidyapeeth which provides a technical base for people working in the field of water conservation. The curriculum is the perfect blend of tradition and science. Singh believes that such education is necessary for NGOs, government agencies and even corporates working towards water sustainability.

Given the pressing need for a solution to the water crisis, the case for the government to step up efforts to create specialists in the field of water conservation is very strong.

  • Finally, Rajendra Singh understands that the problem lies as much on the demand side as it does on the supply side. Therefore, he has been propagating the cause of water literacy, which will essentially ensure better awareness about water conservation to the final users.

And this is where, we, the conscious citizens of the country, need to do our bit. For instance, there is an entire movement calling for using buckets instead of showers. In general, as well, curbing water wastage is the need of the hour and is something we need to address as a community at war footing.

The story of Rajendra Singh and his organization, Tarun Bharat Sangh represents everything that the Indian water crisis needs today – a scientific but not necessarily technological approach, hardly any investment from either the corporates or form the government and most importantly a strong will to bring about change.

For all his efforts, Rajendra Singh is fondly referred to as the “WATERMAN OF INDIA”. Given the circumstances that exist in the country today, he might just be the only superhero we need.

Aman Killa is a student of IIM, Ahmedabad


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