Sachidanand Bharati, a key Chipko activist and environmental crusader, is organizing women into groups of green police, the Mahila Mangal Dals, to create and manage "forests of water" in the drought hit Himalayas. His water management system combines traditional methods found throughout India with new, homegrown techniques and aims to halt the famine and degradation of forest lands in the Himalayan region through locally initiated and managed conservation programs.
The New Idea
Based in Ufreikhal, a village at the height of 6000 feet above sea level in Pauri Garwhal, Sachidanand Bharati is demonstrating and filling the gaps in the prevalent water management policies and practices of the region. He is bringing traditional wisdom, local practices, and new, practical re-greening techniques into an organized model of optimal rainwater use to be managed and spread by women. The model aims to arrest the water crisis in the mountain villages of North India in the next five years and to reenact the spirit of female activism that the region witnessed during the Chipko movement. The design is friendly to the region and construction is quick and cheap. A water pit takes two men one day to dig and costs Rs.50 (approximately US $1.45). The main motors of the model, groundwater channels, are fed by rainwater harvested optimally through the year. The channels service communities by irrigating cultivable plots naturally. As an effective alternative, Bharati's water conservation project has, since its origins in a trip to Rajasthan in 1992, been tested and has now spread to 30 villages and created a network of small support pits, 1000 large pits and 25 main ponds. As a result, it has given back to the communities a natural watershed spread over a vast expanse with a retention capacity of 75,000 liters.
India's annual average rainfall is about 1,250 mm. It is estimated that even after full proof harnessing, only 25 percent of the total rainwater can be used. Specifically in the hill regions of Uttar Pradesh, 40 percent of the average rainfall ---1946-mm --- is lost as runoff. Irrigation is not available to more than 10 percent of the total cultivable area. The best crops are grown only at altitudes between 891 to 1525 meters. State efforts to bring more areas under irrigation have not benefited small and marginal farmers, especially those living in higher altitudes. Early gazetteers report that a hill farmer would harness even the most insignificant water source that could be diverted to the field. The traditional irrigation systems before independence had been almost entirely initiated and managed by communities of, irrigators. While the British government developed numerous irrigation systems in the plains, it did not develop any such systems in the hills. However, presently traditional water harvesting systems (largely surface irrigation), have declined substantially in the hills as in the plains.Drought in the Himalayas, the origin of most Indian rivers and glacier lands, has led to growing national bewilderment in the country. Current data reveals that seven among the nine Himalayan districts of North India are drought prone, only 22 percent of available cultivable plots in the mountains is irrigated and over 11,642 hill villages suffer severe scarcity of drinking water. Most corrective measures by the state and NGOs have been heavy on cost and infrastructure and indifferent to popular ownership over technology. They have thus, worked without the energy and instruments for replication. At the other end, traditional water management systems, which have historically taken care of the region's water needs, are fast dying from generational amnesia, lack of technological improvements, dwindling managerial capacity due to male migration to towns and political indifference.In the hills of Uttar Pradesh, arbitrary land regulations after independence have vested rights over all water sources in the government. This has been hugely detrimental to people-led water management styles that have worked successfully over centuries.
The blueprint engineered by Bharati is a shimmering net of earthen water pits, ponds, and tanks laid out across mountain slopes, from the apex to the base. At the apex of the mountain, above community pockets and cultivable plots, a cluster of small water pits, each two feet deep, are dug at a distance of two meters from each other. Every pit carries a retention capacity of 25 to 30 liters and stores rainwater through the monsoon months. As water accumulates in them it gradually seeps into the lower soil, layers, forges underground channels, and cruises down the mountain incline. Lower down the mountain slope, larger ponds are dug to capture more rainwater from this part of the watershed and prevent run-off. Underground seepage from ponds at this level meet groundwater channels originating from water pits above, and grow into cascading streams. Thus, Bharati's construct ensures that groundwater recharge at these altitudes matches groundwater use lower down. Closer to cultivable plots and residential pockets, as underground streams surface in waterfalls and open streams, a large earthen tank is constructed. The tank further streamlines underground seepage and services communities as a perennial open lake from where they can draw water for agricultural and domestic chores. Tubewells and tap water lines drawn from tanks have provided succor to the drinking water crises in villages where the water map has been applied. Canals constructed from the tank have bolstered agricultural yields. The combination of water pits, ponds and canals are held in firm support by plantation bases of diverse indigenous green species such as acacia, deodar, bamboo etc. These plantation bases are veritable "green banks' that hold soil in precarious inclines, promote bio-diversity, provide fodder for cattle and fuelwood for the hearth, secure ponds from pelting rain, and most importantly, have given women ownership over large green nurseries thereby turning around the politics of water and the' politics of domestic fuel in favor of the real end-users. The program has spread by linking it to Sachidanand's successful reforestation effort led by female 'green managers', members village women councils, Mahila Mangal Dals, in Himalayan villages. Set up in 1982, Bharati's organization, Doodhatolli Lok Vikas Santhan, set up Mahila Mangal Dals in villages because women responded to the call for reforestation, intuitively and emotionally. Bharati helped them grow into a new entrepreneurial role -- green managers who would recreate, manage and grow to scale green banks (forests and orchards) for generations after them. Today, there is an active collective of more than 15,000 women in 150 villages. The next stage has involved redirecting the energy of these task forces to the obvious sequel -- savvy water management for twice-born forests. While Bharati works with the Mahila Mangal Dals, construction of the water network is essentially decentralized. Bharati's organization only provides them the basic technical blueprint. Labor is hired by the women on the imperative that workers plant trees around every cluster of water pits they dig. Male members of families who have not migrated also participate. Wages are distributed equally to families. Management of the network is the central responsibility of vigil forces set up by Mahila Mangal Dals who maintain routine checks to stall theft of water, fuelwood and fodder from their hills. By building equity, where women have equal access to recreated green and harvested water, Bharati has obliterated all trappings of "water lordism" in an economy where water is the current asset. The gains are visible- An active, natural irrigation motor that recharges springs and waterfalls and irrigates land perennially has bolstered agricultural yields. Sale of saplings from nurseries earn individual Mahila Mangal Dals annual incomes of 1.5 lakhs rupees. Additionally, large orchards of citrus fruits and walnuts have strengthened family nourishment charts and income graphs. Female entry into local markets has increased monthly family incomes by Rs.2000 and ended the isolation of women living in remoter: difficult terrain, who had earlier managed subsistent economies with little or no success. The roster of rewards does not end here. Active Mahila Mangal Dal members are given a pressure cooker and a stove by Doodhatolli Vikas Sansthan in recognition of their contribution to the water design. A smokeless chullah (cooker) designed by a group of schoolteachers under Bharati's tutelage has been distributed to over 500 families of women green managers. The chullah has a special dampner, which works longer and needs little or no fuel to provide households relief from lung diseases -- a chronic health scourge in the villages of Uttrakhand. Bharati uses environmental camps as strong advertising ground for his water model. The sheer size and impact of the meetings have attracted governmental attention to the concerns of hill committees, and drawn critical financial and non-financial support. Similarly, Bharati aims to draw government recognition for the water model during environmental camps and then spread them as bridges to many more developmental supports. The education effort of his movement also relies upon a sub-group of green crusaders -- school children who are active partners of Mahila Mangal Dals. Bharati's training as a teacher has led to the introduction of regular environmental classes in primary, middle and secondary schools of the region. Bharati hopes to set the foundations for a line of environmental schools that will partner in the construction and spread of the water model. In villages beyond the Dobdhatolli Mountains, he aims to spread his model by partnering actively with NGOs and government.
Sachidanand Bharati was born in 1955 in the Himalayan village of Badhkharh in the Doodhatolli range. His was a family of affluent farmers and his mother was the first woman panchayat leader of the region. When he was older, Bharati became involved in the Chipko movement. He traveled to far-flung villages in the Himalayas cutting through difficult terrain and reliving with the women of the region, the pain of forestlands lost. As a leader in the Chipko movement, Bharati mobilized cross-generational, non-violent environmental uprisings and groups across Uttrakhand. In 1980, Bharati returned to the Doodhatolli Mountains, to stall government plunder of the Himalayan range. Though Chipko had led to growing eco-conciousness in the region, the state, empowered by legislation, had established ownership over forest lands and diverted over 4.3 million hectares for commercial use in less than 30 years. Bharati initiated successful dialogues and non-violent confrontations between hill communities and the government. It led to policy reversal and the retreat of state presence from indigenous, green turf.Bharati's up-close experience in leading, managing and sustaining emotional uprisings helped him understand that activism alone cannot work the magic. It needs to be married off responsibly to strategic action, planned partnerings and organized spread; that the energy of a spontaneous movement should be the building blocks of organized, sustained action. Thus, on his return to Uffirekhal, where he now lives with his wife and children, Bharati established an organization, Doodhatolli Vikas Sansthan. Sachidanand Bharati's strategy for expanding the water conservation program grew out of his key participation in the Chipko movement, which helped him get an up close view of what it takes to sustain the energy of a popular movement and show it the next steps. His ideas for building broad-based people's movements have been tested in his work developing and extending a reforestation program that has taken root in regions throughout Uttar Pradesh and Himachel Pradesh.