Published in TheWeek
Dated: 23-Nov-2003

ALWAR: Bhanwata village is not easy to find on the map, even for a Rajasthani. Embedded deep in the Aravalli tract in the Sariska region of Alwar district, its terrain is tough.

A stroll with the prince: Rajendra Singh, Charles and Mahaan

On November 2, I found myself standing there alongside the ‘water man’, whom The Week featured as Man of The Year in 1998-Rajendra Singh of Tarun Bharat Sangh. We were awaiting the arrival of Prince Charles, who was keen on visiting the arid zone that had turned into a water surplus area through people’s perseverance.

Singh had invited me to play translator as I had made the documentary film River Reborn on the incredible revival of the Aravari. As Charles stepped out of the helicopter, he admiringly told the Magsaysay Award-winner that he had read a lot about him. Shaking my hand, he wanted to know if I, too, was part of the water conservation movement. I told him that as a filmmaker and writer, I had documented its progress. Pumping my hand, Charles said, “That, too, is a great service as the world wouldn’t know of Rajendra’s work if it weren’t for people like you.”

As we walked into the Aravalli tract, we told him the history of the water movement and the difficulties it faced along the way. The water table lies deep below the earth’s crust in most areas in Rajasthan, and no river flows throughout the year. Charles was amazed that water was now available in the Aravalli tract at just ten feet below ground level.

He listened attentively as Singh recounted the two-decade-old efforts to make water conservation a people’s movement. I could see him glowing with the sense of a work well done as I translated the gist of the story for the royal ears. Singh used traditional wisdom for the project: villagers built and linked a number of johads (earthen check dams) and water bodies along the Aravari basin to prevent water wastage. Once recharged, the water bodies helped raise the water table and gradually, a river that had vanished 60 years ago came back to life. “It’s similar to what the Israelis did to save themselves from a water crisis,” said Charles.

Charles had read about the democratic moorings of the movement. As Singh’s ‘voice’, I explained how an Aravari Sansad was formed; how village committees abided by its rules. How self-discipline became the key to economic prosperity as people stopped cutting trees and polluting water bodies. How this led to empowerment of women and education of children, who no longer had to trudge long distances for water.

“Rajendra is an amazing man,” said the prince. In a spontaneous gesture that took us by surprise, Charles took off some of his garlands and put them on Singh, M.S. Rathore (who provided the technical information about the project) and me. After a long walk, we reached Bhanwata lake, where members of the Sansad welcomed the prince. As he went for a round of the lake, Charles was full of warmth for the bearded ‘water warrior’.

When we returned 90 minutes later, Charles acquiesced to the villagers’ request (despite his secretary’s hesitance) for an audience. Singh and I bid him farewell at the helipad. He held Singh’s hand and said, “I love India and I’ll cherish this visit for a long time.” Turning to me, he thanked me for the copy of the documentary. “I look forward to seeing it as soon as I can,” he said, waving goodbye.

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