Kameshwar Upadhyaya


Rajendra Singh: Transformer of Barren Lands

Kameshwar Upadhyaya


According to a recent report by EA Water, a leading consulting firm in the water sector, India is set to become a water scarce country by the year 2025 as the groundwater levels are fast depleting. And the country could definitely use a lot more concern in general public about the issue. The gravity of the situation is inherent in the fact that almost 70% of India’s irrigation water needs and a whopping 80% of its domestic water needs are met by groundwater. In this context, the timing could not have been any better for the Stockholm Water Prize (also known as the Nobel Prize for water) being awarded to Rajendra Singh for his path breaking work in the area of water conservation in one of the most arid states of India, Rajasthan.

In last 31 years, through Tarun Bharat Sangh, he has helped revive seven rivers, constructed more than 11,000 traditional water harvesting structures, and helped over 1200 villages avail water for irrigation. Because of his work many areas have been declared drought-free; and even if the monsoon gets delayed by one or two months, there is enough water for domestic consumption and irrigation. He is fondly called the Waterman of India, and has been awarded Ramon Magsaysay Award for community leadership in 2001. Looking at the success of his community led movements, even the most sceptic of us will concede that his experiences shall yield numerous valuable insights. However, when I asked him how he managed to achieve this, he credited his luck and the communities he worked with; basically everyone else but himself. Upon coaxing and probing, I could unravel a paradoxical mix of humility and iron will in him that Jim Collins describes as the core element of a level five leader.

Reinventing the Tarun Bharat Sangh

In 1959, Rajendra Singh was born in a zameendar (landlord) family that owned over 60 acres of land in Daula village of Baghpat district in Uttar Pradesh.  Eldest amongst seven siblings, Rajendra Singh was a bright student and grew up to become an Ayurvedic (traditional Indian medicine) doctor. During his student days, he was influenced by social activists like Ramesh Sharma and Jaiprakash Narayan, and actively participated in social causes.

3.1In 1980, he joined the government services as a National Service Volunteer and that is how he came to Rajasthan. In Jaipur, he joined Tarun Bharat Sangh, an organisation founded by Rajasthan university students and office bearers to aid victims of a campus fire. In three years, he became the general secretary of the organisation, but fast got disenchanted by what the Tarun Bharat Sangh was doing. He felt that it was dabbling in multiple issues, which was why it had not been able to help resolve any. He wanted it to do something that mattered and helped those who needed it the most. Other office bearers did not see the need for this push to achieve more; the argument possibly was, ‘at least we are doing something’. But Rajendra Singh was not someone who could be satisfied by merely doing something. He was striving for excellence and did not intend to settle for anything less than that. As a result, all other officer bearers of Tarun Bharat Sangh resigned. Not many would have expected this mild-mannered young man to take a tough stand for excellence which cost him his senior-most colleagues. But it was just the beginning, as by then,  he was so driven that he quit his government job, sold all his household items to raise Rs. 23,000, and got on to a bus with four like-minded people to one of the most arid areas in India – Kishori village in  Alwar district.

He, along with his colleagues, opened a dispensary in a nearby village of Gopalpura, and intended to teach in the village school. But Gopalpura was inhabited, in most parts, by women, children and the old – need for healthcare and education was much less pressing than the need for water. Years of unchecked mining and logging had depleted the groundwater level in the region. In such a scenario, almost all of its young men had to migrate to urban areas to earn a pittance that physical labour was worth in the second most populous country in the world. “They said to me, we don’t need your education. We need water. And I thought if that is what they want, we shall help them get it,” Rajendra Singh recalls. However, it was not what his colleagues thought. They left soon after they disagreed to do the physical labour that water conservation activities would demand of them. This was the second exodus from the Tarun Bharat Sangh, and it was a blessing in disguise. If they would have had their say, 1200 villages would still not have enough water and 11 odd rivers would still be dry.

While Rajendra Singh had the humility to listen to the illiterate villagers, he also had the resolve to focus on this one thing that the villagers needed and he delivered.

Setting the Wheel in Motion

When he first went there, the villagers confused him for a terrorist from the neighbouring state of Punjab, which at that time was suffering from insurgency. From there, to creating a strong movement of water conservation, Rajendra Singh has come a long way. “I started to build the first Johad (rainwater storage tank or pond) in Gopalpura on my own. I would work for seven to eight hours building it every day, and the people would gather around out of curiosity. They did not understand the theory of what I was doing, but at least some liked the fact that a city dweller was working in the field trying to help them,” reminisces Rajendra Singh. In the beginning, the young, who would return in the monsoons, were sceptical. But soon they too joined in. In three years, Gopalpura had a large Johad with a depth of 15 feet. The making of this Johad proved to be the first and most important push for the wheel, and soon the momentum began to build.

A water harvesting structure.

The Johad helped bring irrigation to the area, and the villagers reaped the best crop in years. When the first batch of crops was ready to be harvested, the overjoyed residents of Gopalpura decided to throw a feast. People from neighbhouring villages, and some a distance away, were invited for a feast of daliya (an Indian dish similar to porridge). People from nearly 20 villages came to Gopalpura for the feast; villagers from nine of these wanted to build Johads in their villages. This is significant as it was not just people liking what he was trying to do, but also them being keen to understand and adopt his ideas of water conservation.“When the villagers saw the impact of the work we did, they stepped up and helped spread the idea,” he said.

All of a sudden, there was a surge of interest in Rajendra Singh’s work. “People would say, if Gopalpura can do it, we can do it too,” he says. Soon, Rajendra Singh started his first padyatra (walkathon) to educate people about making of the Johads and check dams. For the first Johad to come up in 1988, it took him three long years. In subsequent years the number of Johads constructed increased to nine, 36, 90, and 210 respectively. By 1995, with the rising ground water levels, the ‘dark zones’ had to be changed to ‘white zones’ in government records. Today, over 700 Johads are being constructed every year in the villages of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Andhra Pradesh. All this has become possible because one man decided to start on his own, even though he had no significant help.

Succeeding Despite Heavy Odds

Raising the Funds

Construction of each Johad costs around Rs. 1,50,000, and in the beginning, it was a big challenge for  poor farmers to raise so much money. But Rajendra Singh devised a uniquely Indian solution to this perennial Indian problem of lack of funds. With the villagers, he decided to go to the people of the village who had migrated to cities and had amassed significant amount of riches. In a collectivistic society, where many people still use their village’s name as their surname, a contribution for the development of their ancestral village is virtually impossible for one to deny. The emotional connect worked, and people contributed generously. Needless to say, it was ensured that all the money collected went directly into the projects. “The villagers provide accurate accounts of how and where this money is spent. We have developed a very transparent method of operation,” Rajendra Singh informs.

Working through the Systems

While Rajendra’s indefatigable will has yielded results, his fearless go-getter attitude has also landed him in trouble. Rajendra Singh recalls how he had been slapped with a legal notice by the irrigation department since he failed to notify them about the first Johad he built.  “I had to go through a lot of legal cases and notices to get the work done,” he remembers. But what helped him was the fact that he did not have any selfish motive involved. “When I say I am not the owner of the project, and that it is the people who are undertaking it, the legal cases fall away on their own,” says the quick-witted activist. And once he changed the topography of the region, the then President, KR Narayanan came to see the work, and local administration became more cooperative.

Fighting the Mining Mafia

As the word spread, in the year 1986, villagers in Bhaota village, with Rajendra Singh’s guidance, made a Johad at the source of a dead rivulet Arvari. At the same time, in villages that were located in Arvari’s catchment area, people began to construct rain water harvesting structures. As the number of these structures increased, the ground water level increased as well. This resulted in an increase of the forest cover, which reduced the run-off of monsoon water, and the river started to flow again. While it was an achievement in itself, the results were not as good as they should have been. The water level in ponds and lakes around Sariska National Park did not increase. Tarun Bharat Sangh volunteers soon discovered that water levels in the ponds and lakes were not increasing because water was getting stuck in the pits left unfilled in the limestone mining quarries.


A changed topography.

It was worse than it appeared initially. An ecological imbalance was being caused by mining, and very powerful interests were vested in these operations – many of which were illegal. But resolved to make the region rich in water resources, Rajendra Singh decided to take on the mining mafia. He launched the ‘Save Aravalis Campaign’, led the villagers in to a long protest march, and got 45 other organisations from all over India to support this march. This created awareness among the masses about the situation and reduced the possibility lethal attacks on Tarun Bharat Sangh volunteers from the mining mafia. Once that was achieved, he filed a public interest petition in the Supreme Court of India, and the court issued an order against continuing mining in the region. It eventually led to the closure of 470 mines operating in the area.

Since then, Rajendra Singh has undertaken Rashtriya Jal Chetna Yatra (National Water Awareness Walkathon), has created a community of water activists, Rashtriya Jal Biradari; organised many Pani Panchayats (Water Parliaments); founded Tarun Jal Vidyapeeth (Tarun Water School); led campaigns to save major rivers like Ganga and Godavari; and helped many more villages enjoy easy access to water. Yet he remains rooted in humility and says, “I am the chairman of Tarun Bharat Sangh only on paper. The actual work is done by the communities we worked with”.

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