ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Micro-Level Disputes: Traditional Water Harvesting Structure

The work of Tarun Bharat Sangh in Rajasthan has received much attention. There is an urgent need though to question development challenges that go overboard in extolling the virtues of greenery without tracing the hands that own the land and harvest the fruits of public money.


Traditional Water Harvesting Structure

Community behind ‘Community’

The work of Tarun Bharat Sangh in Rajasthan has received much attention. There is an urgent need though to question development challenges that go overboard in extolling the virtues of greenery without tracing the hands that own the land and harvest the fruits of public money.


his case relates to a traditional water harvesting structure constructed on a drain in Lava Ka Baas (LKB) village in Alwar district of Rajasthan. Ironically, while the battle was apparently fought to protect community right over water resources, this case study highlights the failure to strengthen community institutions, a must for ensuring equitable distribution of benefits.

Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS), a nongovernment organisation (NGO), began work in Thanagazi block in 1985. The government of Rajasthan had declared four blocks in the region as “dark zones”.1 TBS intervened by constructing ‘johads’, which are traditional rainwater harvesting structures. They are semicircular earthen ponds that collect the run-off from tiny streams and rivulets in a micro-catchment. Between 1984 and 2000, some 2,264 johads were constructed [Pangare et al 2003]. TBS and several other national and international NGOs supporting its work reported a significant increase in the groundwater table. The area was subsequently declared a “white zone” by the state government. Five rivers, Bhagani-Teldehe, Arvari, Jahajwali, Sarsa and Ruparel, which had been reduced to seasonal rivers, were reported to have become perennial in 1995 benefiting some 250 villages.

The work on building the 80 m long and 12 m high johad at LKB was completed in less than four months beginning March 2001. Gopal Singh of TBS, a ‘Gajdhar’

– a rural engineer, with many johads to his credit, designed the pond. An industrialist P K Rajgarhia gave Rs 5 lakh for the project and the villagers of LKB and nearby Bhagdoli village pooled the remaining amount of Rs 3 lakh required for constructing the johad.

Government Objection

Thrilled with its big johad, the gram panchayat invited the then Rajasthan chief minister Ashok Gehlot to inaugurate it. During an administrative drill preceding the chief minister’s visit, district magistrate Tanmaya Kumar Sinha declared that the structure violated a 1910 agreement between the erstwhile princely states of Alwar and Bharatpur that entitled Bharatpur to 55 per cent of Ruparel’s water; the pond would jeopardise water sharing between the two districts. On June 20, 2001, the Rajasthan irrigation department notified TBS that the LKB johad was constructed in violation of the Rajasthan Irrigation and Drainage Act of 1954. It asked TBS to stop construction work and demolish the completed portion within seven days or face action under Sections 55 (3) and 58 (2) of the act that permits the accused to be arrested without a warrant.

In reply, Rajendra Singh, secretary, TBS, reminded the irrigation department that the 1998 study by the department had found that the construction of upstream water harvesting structures had not curtailed the downstream flows of nearby Arvari river and that the downstream flows had actually increased. TBS argued that the johad would revive the Ruparel and make it a perennial river. In an interview given to the Newspaper Today, Rajendra Singh declared, “At least 70,000 people would benefit directly while another 2,500 would benefit indirectly from this check dam” [Dasgupta 2001].

Irrigation department officials landed in LKB on July 1, 2001 with earthmovers to demolish the structure. Villagers responded by laying siege to the structure. Sensing conflict, district irrigation officials halted the demolition but Rajasthan irrigation minister, Kamla Beniwal said, “Every drop of water that is received through the rains comes under the irrigation department and any activity related to the storage of water without any prior permission from the irrigation department would not be tolerated” [Hindustan Times 2001].

Highs and Lows

The incident catapulted LKB and TBS into the limelight in an unprecedented way. The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a prominent NGO, launched a concerted media and civil society campaign against the government’s attitude. International organisations responded favourably to online lobbying efforts of CSE. Incidentally, Rajendra Singh received the 2001 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership, though it would be unfair to attribute it to the LKB incident. CSE also constituted a commission to look into issues of structural safety, violation of law and adverse impact of the johad on water availability downstream. The commission included top civil society leaders; they met the chief minister to convince him of the viability of the structure and the approach.

The lowest point of the conflict came two years after the controversy, when the LKB johad was breached on July 10, 2003 due to torrential monsoon rains. The bureaucracy was quick to ridicule the very idea of building a water harvesting structure based on “rural engineering” and said their stand had been vindicated. A TBS team that visited the spot for an assessment attributed the breach to the collapse of six upstream dams – some built by the state government under drought relief work the same year. TBS informed the media that villagers wanted to lay pitching on the dam, but the irrigation department, police and the district authorities prevented them from doing so. After the 2003 monsoons, TBS rarely invoked LKB.

Not Much Scope for Dialogue

The irrigation department maintained throughout that the dam was technically weak and that sufficient precautions were not taken to strengthen it. The technical

Economic and Political Weekly February 18, 2006

committee’s report and notices sent to TBS and Rajendra Singh prior to the enquiry, revealed that the structure was built without departmental permission. TBS and CSE maintained that people must be allowed to take control of local natural resources without going through bureaucratic hurdles. They also pointed out that catchment deforestation had reduced the Ruparel river into a seasonal stream three decades ago. They rejected the validity of the 1910 agreement signed between two erstwhile feudal states of Alwar and Bharatpur that ceased to exist after the amalgamation of princely states into the union of India.

The possibilities of a dialogue between the department and TBS seemed remote owing to the ongoing confrontation between the two since 1987 when the department issued a series of notices asking TBS to stop its work of “damming” the rivers. The LKB incident was the culmination of a rivalry between the department and an organisation that refused to be cowed down. To CSE goes the credit for mobilising top leaders and the national media. It built pressure on the state government, forcing it toultimately withdraw the demolition orders.

Another Look at LKB Technology

In order to challenge the dictates of the irrigation department, CSE asked M C Chaturvedi, an irrigation expert, to undertake a scientific analysis of LKB johad. To quote his report: “Preliminary studies2 show that the system has much higher capacity than that required for the storage of maximum annual run off....A more detailed analysis will be made after obtaining all the information and if any shortcomings are noted they will be rectified well in time...Measures for upstream and downstream slope protection will be undertaken” [Chaturvedi 2001].

This indicates that the structure was indeed vulnerable and needed additional work, investment, care and vigilance. In the past too, eminent experts have analysed the indigenous techniques of building water harvesting structures adopted by TBS, notable among them, G D Agarwal (retired professor, Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur). However, assessing the viability and robustness of a (indigenous) technique is quite different from assessing the robustness of the actual structures.

Community Effort,Private Benefit?

Chaturvedi’s and other reports suggest that significant support for the structure in question poured in because it was a “community initiative”; the structure would benefit the poor who had been neglected by the state machinery. It is therefore important to critically analyse the strength of community institutions and to examine how the johad benefited various segments within the community. Of the hundreds of media and other reports, there are only a couple that dwell on this issue. Civil society could benefit from carrying out serious introspection on the equity aspects of this work.3 The analysis that follows derives from evaluation reports by Kumar and Kandpal (2003), and Pangare et al (2003).

“The location of the johad was such that to lift water for irrigation, the water had to be brought to a minor ridge (‘Raadi’) after which it could be taken to the main agriculture fields in the villages of LKB and Bhagdoli. This could be done only by using a submersible pump. As the village transformer had a limit of 25 hp, only three submersible sets (each 7.5 horsepower) were running during February 2003. In addition, eight diesel pumps owned by people from Bhagdoli and three from LKB were lifting water from the bed to irrigate lands lying on the inside of the ridge, where it could be lifted with ease without the use of a submersible pump” [Kumar and Kandpal 2003: 51].

Table: Key Institutions and People

The johad also led to groundwater recharge. “However, all groundwater recharge was towards Bhagdoli. Thus 25 borewells were sunk in Bhagdoli of which 20 yielded excellent water at depth of 400 feet. In contrast, a farmer from LKB dug to 615 feet, but without finding any water” (ibid). On the other hand, as per the reports published by CSE, TBS claimed that the water in the check dam could take care of 12 neighbouring villages and additionally more than 1,00,000 people would benefit by the “recharge of thousands of defunct wells located downstream” [Down to Earth, Online 2001].

Private investment made for irrigation using the water from Johad in the two villages of Lava Ka Baas and Bhagdoli during 2003 was worth Rs 16,57,000 [Kumar and Kandpal 2003]. In this way, rich farmers who owned more than 50 bighas4 (5 ha) were the ones who benefited most. Of the total of 41 families in LKB, 30 had landholdings of less than 10 bighas (1 ha) and none of them derived any irrigation benefits at the time of the study. The study also mentions that the gram sabha (local institution promoted by TBS) was more or less defunct (ibid). This is further supported by Pangare et al (2003) wherein the evaluation team concluded that a majority of the water harvesting structures constructed by TBS were private assets and not community assets. Even in the case of community structures, no mechanisms were developed at the village level to ensure that benefits were shared systematically and equitably.

Excerpts from an article published in Manushi based on an interview with Rajendra Singh also help us in understanding the development approach adopted by TBS. Rajendra Singh was convinced that “the leftist obsession with class struggle, ‘minimum wage’” legislation sought to be implemented through a corrupt and insensitive bureaucracy or propagated through culturally alien,

S No Key Institutions/People Involved Position and Impact on the Conflict

1 TBS and Rajendra Singh Rajendra Singh and TBS promote a vision wherein communities are regarded as being fully capable of dealing with local development and governance issues. Inherent inequities and contradictions in communities do not really figure in their scheme of things. This has not changed despite a few evaluations that have raised this issue very strongly.

2 People of Lava Ka Baas Many in the village felt that arrangements should have been made to ensure equitable sharing of benefits. This did not mean that they had any sympathy with the actions of a government that left them to fend for themselves during the severe drought years.

3 Centre for Science and Environment CSE has championed the cause of rainwater harvesting at national and international level. It mobilised civil society and national media against the government decision.

4 Government and irrigation department The department saw the johad and the work of TBS as a challenge to its hegemony over water resources management. State government and politicians generally adopted a hard stand against TBS.

5 Media (local/national/international) Masterly media management by CSE and TBS brought media to Lava Ka Baas which highlighted the rights of the people.

6 Civil Society Some of the best technocrats in the country supported the village community and the NGO.

Economic and Political Weekly February 18, 2006 western educated political activists have led to severe fragmentation of the village society. Our villages don’t need class struggle, but strengthening of their mutual bonds which traditionally knit various caste groups into mutually interdependent and cohesive village communities” [Kishwar 2001].

While the ideologies of the “left” and those of “western educated political activists” must be debated, no second thoughts can be entertained over judicious use of public resources for emancipation of the masses. There is an urgent need to challenge developmental approaches that go overboard in extolling the virtues of greenery without tracing the hands that own the land and harvest the fruits of public money.




1 An area where the groundwater table has receded

below recoupable level. 2 Emphasis added by this author. 3 For an incisive analysis of this issue readers are

advised to refer to Amita Baviskar (2002). Incidentally, media campaign of CSE on much celebrated success of Jhabua Watershed Programme is at the centre of this analysis.

4 Four bighas = 1 acre.


Baviskar, A (2002): ‘The Dream Machine: The Model Development Project and the Remaking of the State’, unpublished manuscript, obtained from the author.

Chaturvedi M C (2001): ‘Lava Ka Baas Johad – A Scientific Analysis’, July 17, Accessed online at

Dasgupta, Kumkum (2001): ‘Jealous Bureaucracy Out to Thwart Village Initiative in Rajasthan’, The Newspaper Today, July 28, Circulated over DNRM Listserv, Archived at http://www.

Down to Earth, Online (2001): ‘Headline: Who Owns the River’?, Vol 10, No 5, July 31, 2001, Accessed online at http://www.downtoearth. on February 25, 2005.

Kishwar, Madhu (2001): ‘Villages in Rajasthan Overcome Sarkari Dependence – Profile of Rajendra Singh and His Work’, Manushi, Issue 123, March-April, Accessed online at issue123/rajendra.htm.

Kumar, Pankaj and B M Kandpal (2003): ‘Project on Reviving and Constructing Small Water Harvesting Systems in Rajasthan’, SIDA Evaluation 03/40, Department for Asia, Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.

Pangare, Ganesh; Talha Jamal, Rakshat Hooja (2003): ‘Community-based Rainwater Harvesting’, Process Documentation of the Activities and Approach of Tarun Bharat Sangh, mimeo, Indian Network on Participatory

Irrigation Management, Unpublished Report. July 3, Abstract accessed online at http:// Hindustan Times (2001): ‘Villagers Build Check Dam, the Government Wants to Destroy It’, index_news.htm.

Economic and Political Weekly February 18, 2006

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