Anupam Mishra’s conference
16 march 2009

Anupam Mishra’s conference

Millions of raindrops:
water conservation in Rajasthan



Gandhi Peace Foundation, New Delhi (India)

Tuesday, March 31st - 6 pm

Amphitheatre IEA/MSH

5 allée Jacques Berque, Nantes

“No society can exist on its own without regard for the environment. It has to create systems that help in adapting to the availability of resources, such as water, forest and land. In doing this, a society has to rise above technological systems and mould socio-cultural mechanism that also find a place in its religion. Only after this can the system become strong enough to sustain the innumerable members of the society, thousands of villages and townships. Only then the society can tackle the problems of conservation of its land, water and forests. The
society cannot restrict these life-supporting systems and techniques in the hands of “technicians” and “foresters”. These techniques-so essential for the prosperity of the society– were handed over the common people. The society incorporated these techniques into the cultural lives of the people characterised by the joys and the rhythms of the everyday life –where technique becomes culture.


And when this is done, the systems become edifices that go beyond space and time selfsustaining and the lifeblood of social institutions. These dynamic institutions do not have-and do not need-any headquarters, annual budgets or projects. They are absorbed in the collective memory of the society. When a society organises itself for work of such magnitude, its planning is not restricted like that of a five-year plan or a decade-long programme that most of our governments and NGOs follow. Over such long periods of time, the technologies are not bound by textbooks. They assimilate in the lives of each and every member of the society, cutting through the barriers of caste, class and gender. Every member contributes to these sociocultural mechanisms according to his/her capacity.


There is a lot of difference between culture and technology. All government organisations and NGOs in every one of their projects involving watershed development rely on elaborate surveys, A-frames, dumpy levels and other techniques with names that are difficult to remember. I believe that such “green” technological development projects, even when carried out with the best intentions and honesty, leave a barren gap between the agencies and the beneficiaries. Even if the project is successful, it breaks the society’s spirit of independence and self confidence.


All governments, institutions and agencies are facing budget cutbacks these days. The subsidies on which such projects depend are too much, even for large organisations like the World Bank. Then where will the initiative to undertake work for such importance come from? It will only come about by restoring the confidence in our own social institutions; by recognising their strengths and the depth of their rich experience. Instead of looking down upon large sections of the society as illiterate, poor and weak, we need to reinstate their self-respect and
their sense of identity that they have lost. These submissions can be made clearer through the example of Arif and semi-arid regions of Rajasthan in India’s Thar Desert. The geography of Rajasthan is challenging, to put it lightly. Firstly, it has been understood as the land where the sun hardly ever seems to go down. Geography books describe the region as hot and arid. Temperatures touch 50°C in summers; water appears to be a rare commodity. Adding to this gloomy picture in the general remark that groundwater is also scarce, being usually available at depths of more than 300-400 ft. That too is largely saline.


Rajasthan is indeed a blessed land, for its people have nurtured and sustained rich and varied institutions and traditions of rain-water harvesting and water management to meet all their needs. So much so that the divine boon became synonymous with the resourcefulness, ability and skill of the people which did not allow even a drop of water to go waste!


Today there are 515 villages in the Jaisalmer district, out of which 462 are populated and 53 are deserted. Except for one, all the other 514 villages have evidences of water availability. According to a State report, 99.78% of Jaisalmer’s villages had their own water resources like wells, baories, tankas, kundas, talabs, and kuiyas. In contrast to this basic requirement and its fulfilment are other contemporary indicators of social and economic growth whose figures are fare from satisfactory. The same government report says that out of 515 villages, only 19% are connected by modern roads; post and telegraph services cover just 30% while medical services run low at only 9% and electricity even lower at 4.5%.


Yet 99.78% of the villages had adequate water resources, all of which had been designed, financed, and maintained by the society-neither by the government nor by NGO’s. The society in this arid zone also designed very comprehensive forest conservation institutions. These are called orans. This name is derived from the Sanskrit word aranya, which means a forest. It is interesting to note that the oran institution was the strongest in areas where it was needed the most-in the arid zone. The sacred forest is attached to the village temple and is managed by the priests, not the foresters. Barbed wire fencing, walls and ditches do not protect them. Sometimes spread over hundreds of hectares, these forests are protected by social fencing-by the villagers, devotees of the temple who follow strict rules of conservation. These were treated as reserve forests, no one was allowed to take out even twigs and leaves during the normal period. Only at the time of severe drought, the priest would perform a special pooja (prayer and worship) and would declare the forest open for the people who would take shelter with their cattle. It is interesting to note that even today we find that good track of oran where the state forest cannot show a single blade of grass.


All these institutions have been the lifeline and prosperity of the desert. They have withstood the test of time and change to become symbolic of the philosophy that not only links the past to the present but also harbours the potential to make the future like the past.”