“Without free access to water, life has no dignity.”: Water man of India-Rajendra Singh

Paridhi Sinha
Rajendra Singh is an Indian water conservationist and environmentalist from Alwar district, Rajasthan in India. Also known as “waterman of India”, he won the Magsaysay Award in 2001 and Stockholm Water Prize in 2015. He runs an NGO called ‘Tarun Bharat Sangh’, which was founded in 1975.

You were in your early 20s when you left a stable government job and decided to dedicate your life to social service. Given how coveted and prestigious government jobs are considered in India, how difficult was it for you to give up the prospect of a stable life and plunge into social service?

I faced no such difficulty in my life because this was a decision taken from my soul, heart and brain. Because if you take such a decision and start the work, and you work as per your intention, hobby, interest you never regret the challenges but just enjoy them. It was the same for me. In the early days, when I had just started the work, I constructed a waterbody for water conservation. Soon after, I received a notice from the Irrigation Department that I am stopping the water of the government. The Irrigation Act 1954 does not allow anyone to utilise water from any stream so they were against that. More than 377 cases were filed against me but I continued my work and I am still working for the society for my life is dedicated to a common important cause.

Most of the youngsters today are worried about landing a steady paying job.  Additionally their family’s reaction would probably be one of the most important factors that they would consider before committing their lives to a social cause.  Please tell us about your reaction when faced with these questions.  

When I was young , my contemporaries were worried about package, profit, financial status but I was never really concerned about these things. I felt that I am the son of a landlord and if I cannot earn much, my family and land will support me. This thought gave me the confidence to resign. I have always believed voluntary work, and those who believe in voluntary labour for a cause are never concerned about package or anything.

 You have worked on re-developing the traditional methods of water conservation in Rajasthan and have played an important role in setting up paani panchayats. Please tell us more about your initiatives.

Gram sabha is a community organisation and and this makes it the perfect incubator for any new scheme/programme. So, we created pani panchayat within the gram sabha.  So that anyone who is troubled by distribution of water can access it.  A lot of people possess land rights but do not have the right to access water resources. Water is public property and everyone has an equal right to access it. So, the idea behind pani panchayat is to ensure that every person gets water equally. 

In your opinion, should pani panchayats be set up in all parts of the country?

Yes, because pani panchayat ensures the right of everyone against commercialisation and not just the highest bidder’s. After all, water is not an individual’s property. It is the source of life. My vision for pani panchayat is for it to reach even the upper tiers of governance. Right now it is functioning only at the village level, and after that it a similar model may be adopted at the national level in the form of river panchayat.

The tragedy of the commons is a situation in a shared-resource system where individual users, acting independently according to their own self-interest, behave contrary to the common good of all users by depleting or spoiling the shared resource through their collective action. Do you think that is what is happening with our water resources or rivers?

Utilisation of water resources is not only a right but also a responsibility. Every person should think of this duty towards the water resources that he/she is utilising. Duty towards water resources has two essential components- efficient use and conservation. Water is an essential resource and people’s livelihood and sustenance are dependent on its availability. Without free access to water, life has no dignity. And to ensure availability of water to all, it has to be treated like the asset it is.

Today most of the urban youngsters perceive water as something which is easily available at the turn of a tap. They do not feel a connection with rivers, ponds etc. the way people of the previous generation did. Even today people living in villages who  interact directly with the water resources, have this cultural and emotional connection which instills in them a sense of responsibility towards water resources. How can we reconnect the youth with water and the urgent need to conserve it?

I think education system can play an important role in this. The present education system advocates maximum use of natural resources to maximize profits. Engineering technology enables the extraction of underground water resulting in exploitation and pollution of underground water.  If you are primarily concerned with making profits without any regard for nature, you will definitely cause imbalance, pollution and encroachment on valuable natural resources.

Rich industrialists are exploiting our rivers, our lakes, our seas, our oceans which belong to everyone. Modern education which prioritises material gain over nature preservation has caused disconnect between the youth and nature resulting in the widening of the gap between the youth and nature. Modern education has failed to teach the youth how to exist in harmony with nature.

The modern education system has not integrated the life with nature but the traditional Indian education systems recognize it. Oh yes, we make our god out of the five elements. The five elements are our Bhagvan; from Bh Bhumi that is earth, from g Gagan that is space, v for Vayu (air), a for Agni (fire) and Neel (for the water).The present system does not teach this or the importance of nature. 

What are the major changes that you would suggest to rectify the shortcomings of the present education system? 

There is an urgent need to change our education system because it advocates the exploitation of nature by humans. Maanavta ka role hai prakrati ka poshan karna  aur yadi ve prakrati ka shoshan karega to ye prakrati ek din chii bol jaegi aur iss aadmi ko jeena mushkil ho jaega. (the role of humans is to preserve nature and if he starts exploiting it, the whole system will collapse one day and it will make our survival very difficult). It’s our greed for material gain which makes us the exploiters of nature. For instance, China’s greed to become the economic leader of the world made it the first country to be affected by corona. Your ambition does not have to necessarily ruin your life if it does not become greed.

All I want to say is, the youth needs to respect nature and the five elements that have created human life and realise their responsibility towards it.

Because of the pandemic, everyone is struck in their homes and the world is experiencing an economic slowdown. Given that economic gain is the primary reason behind environmental exploitation, do you think that the situation will change for the better?  Would people finally realise the importance of environment?

The pandemic is teaching us to love and respect nature. If man does not respect nature, he will face nature’s wrath in the form of viral diseases and other different incurable health issues. If humankind works against nature, nature will punish the human. 

Do you think that this pandemic is somehow related to that?

Yes, I am completely sure. When humans get greedy, destroy nature and cause imbalance in nature, such diseases will emerge.  I do not know whether this virus came from a laboratory or the Chinese market because for me both are the same because it is the result of their greed to become the global economic leader though the exploitation of nature. It is the outcome of incessant zeal for development with no consideration for nature. Consumption of animals with no respect for biodiversity is what has caused this pandemic, and it is the proof of exploitation of nature, that the balance has been upset.

But then, activities like mining, though harmful for nature, cannot be completely stopped as it will effect human and economic development. And mining has been done by humans since ages.

Never at this scale and rate. Mining is one of the biggest stimulants of climate change. Severe and frequent cyclones, cloud bursts etc are not normal. These didn’t happen earlier. They are happening because we have disturbed the earth and upset natural balance. These are the reaction to these human activities.

 What about the excuses which are given?

Aadmi jab adalat me khada hota hai to wo excuse deta hai(it’s on trial that man makes excuses)  This is the advocacy of financial gain, of making profits. When greed exceeds a certain threshold, it causes destruction all over. Why has COVID become a pandemic while SARS didn’t? It is because back then it was controlled but not this time. This is because of carelessness and to gain profits from air travel and other economic activities.

Just as you are working for the conservation of nature, several other civilians are also working to preserve nature. The government also has several policies to aid environment conservation (even if most of them have failed to make any real difference). In your opinion, does the bureaucracy aid or hinder these efforts?

Bureaucracy never supports. Bureaucracy always creates hurdles. It only furthers the cause of its own leaders. Those who are clever can get their work done slyly but today’s leaders have different priorities, our future is definitely is not on the list. This is why government has given permission for coal mining in reserved areas where even human entry is not allowed.

It can be said that this government is driven by capitalists and not democracy. Neither the politician nor the bureaucrat is able to grasp the gravity of the situation and take responsible actions. Such crisis happens when man thinks just about himself and not for common future.

What are your views on the EIA Draft?

That is completely anti-nature. It ensures financial gains for corporations. It has opened new doors for the corporates to exploit nature. The bill has removed any obstacle that these corporations could have faced in doing the same before. The government has utilised the pandemic as open public protests will not be feasible right now

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