Finding Solutions: Tarun Bharat Sangh (Young India Organization) Building From the Grassroots
Because the problems that we face are interrelated, so are the solutions. Affecting change in one problem can trigger a cascade of improvements in all areas of life if done correctly. This is what the villagers in the Rajasthan area of India discovered. Facing overwhelming problems, such as poverty, water scarcity, hunger, forest degradation, pollution from mining, and little education and health care, the villagers of Rajasthan partnered with Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS). Energized and empowered, they overcame the odds. It started with water management but accomplished much more.
Rajasthan is harsh territory in northwest India—arid and semi-arid lands, mountains and desert. Like the rest of India, it is extremely vulnerable to climate change. Its temperatures range from 0°C (32°F) to 49°C (120°F). Nearly all of the water that arrives in the monsoon runs off the land or evaporates. The people are poor. Although Rajasthan is about 10 percent of India’s land area, it has only 1 percent of India’s water. Its forests are dying. As in many water-scarce communities, women and girls sacrifice education and employment opportunities to spend hours every day fetching water.
That was then, about 30 years ago. Today, although the climate is no friendlier, people’s lives are much better. The key to the success in Rajasthan is the local community’s involvement in and control of every phase of development. Spearheading a grassroots effort rather than coming in and taking over, TBS energized the
local communities to restore traditional water and resource management. In 1987, TBS helped villagers to construct a small johad
, a traditional water management technique that directs rainwater underground to prevent evaporation and runoff. Seeing the success of this small demonstration, a johad craze overtook the region. The water table began to rise after decades of depletion. Rivulets ran year-round. Enriched, forests and scrub in the area came alive and prevented even more runoff.
Empowered by the recognition of their traditional knowledge and skills, the villagers have taken charge of water management and much more. The wells and aquifers are replenished. This has revitalized agriculture for both crops and livestock. Agricultural production for subsistence improved, and villages generate income from milk products made possible by the increase in biomass for livestock fodder. One of the major foci of TBS is the empowerment of women and girls. Women and girls no longer spend up to 18 hours a day hauling water, fodder, and fuel wood because of their scarcity. Relieved of much of this hardship, girls are more often in school and women assumed important roles in their communities in resource management, health, and education. They have revived traditional knowledge of herbs and healing and provide health care for the community. Primary schools are established throughout the area. TBS provides extensive training for the community teachers and infrastructure. Alternative educational centers for women provide training and platforms for self-help and discussions on topics such as girl education, child marriage, child labor, and rights and responsibilities.
The keys to success in Rajasthan are community inclusion and building on cultural traditions and values. Rather than taking over and excluding local people from development efforts, TBS worked at the grassroots level, promoting and nurturing village councils. It recognized the dignity of and value in traditional knowledge and practices. TBS supplies some funding and support, but villagers direct all aspects of the processes. They make the decisions through village councils and do all of the labor. At the village level, the council, Gram Sabha, is composed of representatives from all households. The council meets twice monthly, and all households must attend the meetings. There is no formal leader or hierarchy, and decisions are consensual.
At the regional level, The Avari Sansad (River Avari Parliament) meets twice a year, with representatives from 72 of the river basin villages. It is participatory, egalitarian, and decentralized, following Ghandian ethos. Parliament determines the best practices for water management and enforces the rules. Violations are handled in the community where they occurred through dialog and deliberation. Parliament decides which crops are recommended and those that are forbidden, which industries are allowed and where, whether or not boreholes may be drilled in the catchment area, grazing rights and limits, and other considerations that bear on protecting the natural resources and thus the health of the communities. Every decision is made with concern for long-term sustainability.
Empowered, the villagers learned to fight to protect their interests. Recognizing the importance of fish to the ecosystem, the communities fought off the government’s efforts to allow a contractor to exploit the fish that had returned to the river. The people resisted, even though most are vegetarian, and won. They saw that mining was degrading their forests, disturbing the delicate balance in their mountains, threatening the animals therein, and affecting their natural water system. Despite violence against them by pro-mining elements, the people fought the mining operations. They succeeded in having 470 mines closed by an order of the Supreme Court of India.
TBS succeeded over the course of 30 years to restore the Avari River and its tributaries. Little of the monsoon rain is wasted. There are now more than 10,000 rain harvesting structures in the region. The entire region is revitalized, and people have life chances that seemed impossible just a short time ago. TBS has won national and global awards for its work. It is a model non-governmental organization.