Today, a large population has become insensitive to the suffering of others. Famine, drought, farmer suicides are just another statistic touted by TV anchors and newspapers. After the debates die down, only a handful actively take up the cause, like Amla Ruia, who was moved by the terrible droughts and famine of Rajasthan in the late ’90s. She decided to seek a solution — water harvesting.
“My father-in-law (Radhakrishna Ruia) used to send tankers and water cans for the affected in Rajasthan but I realised that it was only a short-term relief. We required a solution that was sustainable and workable,” says the 72-year-old matriarch. Since then, she has been at the forefront of successfully transforming villages in Rajasthan, earning many accolades and the moniker Water Mother of India.
She founded the Aakar Charitable Trust in 2003, and decided to build check dams as a method of water harvesting. It is an age-old traditional technique using water flow from higher to lower ground into wells and reservoirs through channels.
She applied this wisdom to current day scenario, involving communities and villages in her endeavour. “I sought a small portion of the expenses from the villagers, in the form of materials, labour or material. This ensured their engagement, a sense of ownership and an interest in keeping up its maintenance,” she said.
Today, Ruia has been at the helm of building 276 check dams that have helped almost three lakh villages, helping generate an income of Rs 300 crore per annum from arid lands which used to record drought year after year. “The concept is to hold as much rain water as the region gets, which is ample for the kharif (monsoon) crop, with leftover water for more successive farming. But most importantly, it is beneficial for animal husbandry, with villagers now being able to afford upkeep of cows and goats.”
The abundance of water has brought not only financial wellbeing but societal uplift. Girls from these villages no longer have to walk long distances in search of a well, instead they now have the time for school. Families from arid regions used to find it difficult to bring home brides, as most would refuse to marry into such abject hardship and poverty.
This is no longer the case as agriculture is thriving and debts are paid off within just a few years. Earlier, only the old, women and children would be left behind as able young men would migrate to cities in hopes of employment and money. These migrants would end up doing menial jobs and sleeping on the footpaths. Today, the exodus has been successfully halted, as well as reversed as these young men are coming back to farming which is now lucrative.
But Ruia decided to take it one step further. At the beginning of every project, she holds a meeting with the villagers to explain the move ahead, but she puts down certain criteria for them as well. “I ask the villagers to give up dowry, alcohol, gutka and other social evils.” It is not easy for them to give up all these, most of which are embedded in their socio-cultural consciousness but this lady, who is also deeply spiritual, has quite an impact in changing lives.
The question then arises, if the technique of check dams were already known, why did the government fail to act on it? “The government often spends too much money on failed projects, sometimes using the wrong logic, inappropriate site or sub-standard materials,” she says. One such example is the Gunda-bera check dam which the government built out of clay and at the cost of Rs 75 lakh. The first heavy downpour washed away the clay and all those funds. The villagers then brought in Ruia to build a cement version of it, which cost roughly Rs 30 lakh. The size of the dam not only determines the number of beneficiary villages but also the cost, the average expense being Rs 10 lakh.
A resident of Mumbai, social activist Ruia has tried the same in Maharashtra with little success, essentially because the geographical elements are so very different. “The aquifers in Rajasthan are much closer to the surface, so it gets easily replenished and a natural spring is created. In Maharashtra, these aquifer levels are far beneath the surface and to reach them becomes very difficult,” she says.
Most importantly, it is the attitude which differs. In Maharashtra there always are industrial jobs to fall back on and agriculture has taken a back-seat. In Rajasthan, the desperation is high and villagers are ready to invest in long-term water harvesting methods. And since funds are finite, Ruia has to make a decision to help those who are ready to shoulder part of the responsibility.