Despite the sweltering 40°C heat, Girdharilal relaxes on a cot under a tree close to his house in Gopalpura, a village in the desert state of Rajasthan, in north-west India. Using the end of his dhoti to fan himself occasionally, the 70-year-old fondly gazes at the river close to his home.

‘For years – no, decades – we suffered due to drought in this region,’ he says. 
‘Wells and rivers had dried up, the land was parched and crops were wilting. A lot of villagers left in search for work in the cities.’

He and a small group of people in the village had approached several government agencies for help but none was forthcoming.

‘We thought we would all die,’ he says. ‘Then, as if by miracle, Rajendra Singh landed up in our village one day. He changed not just our lives, but the entire state’s fate.’

The man he is referring to is an Ayurveda physician who gave up his job as the co-ordinator of a government-run adult education project in Dausa, Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, and joined the charity Tarun Bharat Sangh or TBS (Young India Association), also in Jaipur. He then went 
on to revive dried-up water bodies in more than 1,000 villages and almost-dry rivers like Ruparel, Sarsa, Bhagani and Jahajwali, to name a few, to change the lives of over three million people across India and provide lifelines to thousands of farmers.

Named by The Guardian as one of the 50 people in the world who could save the planet, Rajendra is today known as the water man of India. Last year, he won the Stockholm Water Prize, or the Nobel Prize for water.

‘To be honest, when I started off I was in a hurry to change things, improve conditions, bring about development,’ 
says the avuncular 56-year-old.

But clearly not everyone he was working with initially was in the same boat, and frustrated by the apathy of his superiors towards developmental issues and his own inability to make a larger impact, Rajendra quit the charity. Selling his household goods, he and four like-minded colleagues boarded a bus to a distant village in Alwar district, hoping to change the lives of as many people he could.

‘We bought tickets for the last stop, Kishori-Bhikampura village in Thanagazi,’ says the bearded Rajendra.

That was 31 years ago.

Suspicious of all strangers, the villagers did not roll out the red carpet for the five men. ‘They resented our sudden intrusion in a close-knit village community, but we were allowed to stay in the local shrine,’ he says.

Rajendra set up an Ayurvedic dispensary in the nearby village of Gopalpura, while his friends set up a school for kids. But days and weeks passed and Rajendra and his team were surprised that not many children were enrolling. ‘We then learnt that the youngsters were busy helping their mothers fetch water from the only pond more than five kilometres away,’ says Rajendra. ‘It took up several hours and attending school was not a priority.’

It was a shocking lesson for them, so they did a bit of research and learnt that Alwar was largely a dry and barren area due to years of deforestation and mining that had led to a dwindling water table and minimal rainfall. Villagers used bore wells indiscriminately due to which the water table had dropped alarmingly and nearby wells had gone dry. This forced women and children to trudge several kilometres to fetch water from water sources that were drying up too.

Rajendra wondered how he could solve the problem. A chance meeting with a 57-year-old farmer, Mangu Lal Patel, gave him an invaluable lesson in development. ‘Mangu Lal told me that if people had easy access to water, all other needs like education and health, would be fulfilled.’ The farmer also taught Rajendra the ancient technique of constructing a johad, a kind of check dam to collect and store water.

Rajendra’s first step was to clean up the village pond that had been lying nearly dry for years. The plan was to use it to collect and retain rainwater. However, his friends did not agree and they slowly parted ways, saying they were not ready to dig a pond with their bare hands.

Then, Rajendra was in for another setback. When it came to actually working on the site, he found that while the young were disinterested, calling it a crazy plan, children and elderly were of no help either.

‘The fact is, no one trusted him’ Girdharilal explains. ‘Despite his good intentions, the naïve villagers were not convinced that his plan would work and barely six people agreed to assist him.’

But Rajendra was like a man possessed. Working with a small team for seven months, he desilted the Gopalpura pond using his hands. When the rains arrived that year, the pond as well as all the wells in the area filled up with water, solving the region’s most basic problem. Almost overnight the villagers had enough water for long after the monsoons ended.

The spillover effect was that farming began to thrive. Soon, men who had migrated to cities for jobs returned to restart farming, and since wells once again became a source for water, women and children did not have to walk kilometres to fetch any.

‘It was phenomenal,’ says Badri, 56, one of the farmers who had left to become a construction worker in Delhi. ‘I couldn’t believe when someone told me the village wells had filled with water. I immediately rushed back. ‘Rajendra explained to many like me that it was no miracle, but the most practical thing to do. As a water body fills up, it helps the land retain its moisture, improving the water table, which, in turn, ensures there is water in the wells too.’

This changed people’s perceptions of Rajendra, who brought TBS back to life with its headquarters in Kishori-Bhikampura. His next step was to educate villagers on the importance of building check dams. The visual impact of Gopalpura was so impressive that people from neighbouring villages began visiting the site. Many started calling Rajendra for help, and suddenly his crazy plan was inspiring enough to turn this one-man army into a volunteering force, where thousands lined up to work with him.

But other challenges began to crop up. Moneylenders, who earlier exploited the poor farmers, ganged up against Rajendra. ‘Even some engineers and politicians felt illiterate villagers had no right to construct a pond, which could prove unsafe,’ says Bhiku, a 52-year-old farmer. ‘The state’s irrigation department issued warrants against Rajendra for the removal of the johad, claiming it was dangerous.’

But all the opposition came to a halt when the villagers stood up in unison, forcing the government to relent.

The model was successfully implemented in other areas like the Bhanota-Kolyala village that lay in the catchment area of River Arvari. A johad was constructed at the source of the dried river and alongside where small dams came up, and water began to flow here again after having remained dry for more than 60 years.

‘We did not start the mission with any grand idea of reviving rivers,’ says Rajendra. ‘The aim was to meet the local need for water. Seeing the success, representatives of village communities joined hands to make decisions without any conflicts.’

Next, the charity tried to create water sources for wildlife and initiated community-based conservation work for forests, forest dwellers and animals. But here too he had to overcome hurdles in the form of overeager forest officials who refused to agree or see the benefit of his initiative.

Rajendra also faced attacks on his life, but the social crusader stood rock solid. ‘My only worry was my family,’ he says. ‘My parents and wife, who right from the beginning felt I was a madman, had come to accept my social work. It had taken me two years to convince them of my sanity! I could not let them down,’ he laughs.

Today, thanks to his conservation work, the Sariska Forest cover has increased tremendously and the number of antelopes and leopards in the region has seen a steady rise.

‘The technique has been as effective as it slows the water run-off and prevents floods,’ says Suresh Raikwar, a 38-year-old TBS worker. ‘The water that earlier flowed away in flash floods is now stored underground. Farmers are able to grow a variety of crops, and there is also fodder for their cattle.’

Once apprehensive of his actions, today the villagers are in awe of their magic man.

‘No longer do humans or livestock suffer for want of drinking water even in the driest of summers,’ says Hanuman Meena, 48, the village head of Gopalpura. ‘Farmers work year-round cultivating wheat and vegetables.’

Rajendra, who has helped villagers take charge of water management in arid areas, won the Ramon Magsaysay Award for community leadership in 2001 for his pioneering work in community-based efforts towards water management and water harvesting. Meanwhile, TBS spread in other Indian states like Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh.

In 2005, the water man won India’s Jamnalal Bajaj Award for Outstanding Contribution in Application of Science and Technology for Rural Development.

In the UK, he is a founder-member of Flow Partnership, an NGO that aims to counter the negative effects of soil erosion and flooding. Rajendra is also a member of the National Ganga River Basin Authority, set up in 2009 under India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.

‘All that we’ve taught people is to set their priorities for natural resource development and find solutions,’ he says. ‘Sometimes, solutions are around us, but we tend to ignore them.

‘The world is heading towards acute water crisis and water wars, so we must address such issues fast, otherwise petty matters like river water sharing will gradually turn into a civil war. Globally, governments and communities should be made responsible for water management.’

Having visited several countries, the Rajendra observes, ‘Everywhere, I find tiled pavements that cannot absorb rainwater, so cities are suffering from floods that we’re unable to tackle. Also, changing weather patterns and climate change are leading to erratic rains, and drought-like conditions are becoming more frequent worldwide.’

All the lessons being taught by Rajendra are now being applied in Africa too. He believes that over the next three decades, water harvesting will become an essential way to save water everywhere.

‘The same principle applies everywhere,’ says Rajendra. ‘But the need to learn is becoming urgent. Neer, nari, nadi (water, women and river respectively) have to be respected and taken care of. We have poetry and songs about raindrops, but do not understand that it’s a crime to waste rainwater. Conservation and disciplined use of water is the only way to survive.

‘It’s time we saw earth like a bank. If you make regular deposits of water, you will always have some to withdraw. But 
if you just keep withdrawing without making any deposits, there will be nothing left in the account.’