Friday, March 24, 2006
BJP shows the way in Rajasthan
Last week I visited a village in Rajasthan that Prince Charles is due to visit next week. I went for the same reason he is going. To witness the operation of a water project that has transformed the lives of the people of Artiya, and many other villages, by providing them with that most basic of human needs: clean water. As someone who spends a considerable amount of time in a village in Maharashtra that does not have water I am passionate about the subject and make it a point to find out as much as I can about alternative means of providing what massive and very expensive government schemes have failed to deliver despite more than fifty years of trying.
Jal Bhagirathi projectThree years ago when I was in Jodhpur to interview the Maharajah for a television programme, I found him in the process of starting a project called Jal Bhagirathi. Gaj Singh of Jodhpur has chosen to stay out of politics but makes it a point to keep close touch with the people of his former kingdom and their most desperate complaint was the need of water. So he sought the help of Rajendra Singh, whose water project in Alwar has won him international recognition, and with his help set up Jal Bhagirathi which essentially helps villagers revive their traditional water conservation systems that were abandoned after Independence because evil politicians told them water would soon be gushing gut of taps. This has not happened even in our towns and cities and is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future which is why projects like Jal Bhagirathi are so important.I went to Artiya with Mahendra Mehta, a former civil servant who is now Project Director of Jal Bhagirathi. He is even more passionate about water than I am and on the hour-long drive from Jodhpur to Artiya gave me a detailed tutorial on why things had gone so wrong on the water front in India. `The situation all over the country, he said is grim because we are seriously depleting our groundwater resources end the biggest reason for this is free power to farmers. Unless this stops, we are in serious trouble’. Another populist idea from our Nehruvian socialist days that has served mainly to make people believe that government is obliged to give them everything without demanding anything in return.Mehta explained that the fundamental principle of Jal Bhagirathi was that nobody would get anything free. Unless the village comes up with thirty per cent of the cost, no project gets started. It is a system that clearly works because 175 projects under Jal Bhagirathi have come up in the past thirty years.The first thing you see when you get to Artiya is a large and impressively full lake. So many months after the last monsoon this is remarkable in itself but a short conversation with the villagers and I discovered the even more remarkable fact that thanks to Jal Bhagirathi this was their only source of clean water. A grizzled old man who described himself as the sarpanch-pati (husband of the sarpanch, she is illiterate) said, ‘We get water from the government but it is brackish and when we drink it we get sick so this water has made all the difference to our lives’.Mr. Mehta explained that although the tank had always been there, it had been shallow and badly lined and so it did not hold rainwater well. Jal Bhagirathi helped the village deepen the tank and line it properly and this had made the difference. Jal Bhagirathi’s basic work is the restoration and revival of old water bodies and creating awareness of the need for this. First, a ‘jal sabha’ (water meeting) is held, than a ‘jal samiti’ (water committee) formed, then the project gets approved a Jal Parishad before anything happens. And, Mr. Mehta emphasised, no money gets paid by Jal Bhagirathi in advance not even for the construction of village tanks.That this is important you realise if you travel in rural India and discover that the biggest damage socialism did was to give the people the idea that they would get everything free. In Artiya and nearby Bhakri my conversations with local people consisted of a litany of complaints of which the biggest one was unemployment. They wanted the famine relief programmes to start again, they said, because it was the only form of employment in the area. But, Jodhpur is just over forty kilometers away and all along the highway I noticed factories coming up where jobs could surely be had. When I asked Mr. Mehta about this he said, ‘government policies have made them dependent on schemes like famine relief which provide jobs in the village itself. So they will not take the trouble to go out and look for work.’
Break the mindsetIt is a mindset that Jal Bhagirathi seeks to break by making villagers pay at least partly for water projects. It is a mindset that needs to be broken all over India if our villagers are to participate more fully in the process of development and economic growth.On the drive back to Jodhpur I noticed a dusty pipeline laid untidily by the side of the road. It carried water and was broken at several points because nobody had even bothered to bury it underground. Over the years thousands of crores have been wasted on unwieldy government schemes of this kind when what we need is for thousands of Jal Bhagirathis to bloom.