gather and grow

Homegrown, hand-spun living in the city

It is late July in Laporiya village in Rajasthan — an arid region in India’s most arid state. When I arrived in this village of about 2,000 people, 85 km southwest of Jaipur, the monsoon rains had not yet come. Yet, you’d never guess it approaching the village: green grass, lush healthy trees, flourishing vegetable gardens and fields of staple crops like corn, lentils, and wheat. Water buffaloes are blissfully bathing in one of the village ponds. Both people and animals have enough to eat and drink. In fact, Laporiya is famous throughout the region for being completely self-sufficient in terms of water, even during severe drought years when neighboring villages have to rely on government water tankers. Even during the dry season, the wells remain full, and the GVNML5village ponds (talāb) retain water for the buffaloes, cows, goats and sheep to drink. The abundance of water and greenery means healthy livestock, and indeed the village gets a good income from its dairy, which it sells to Jaipur.

But it wasn’t always like this. Laporiya was once, until the 1970s, a village struggling with severe drought, poor soils, poverty and general malaise. It had a traditional village pond, but its mud embankment (bund) had long since collapsed. It was also so heavily silted that very little of the water percolated down to the underground aquifers; instead, during heavy rains, the pond overflowed, washing away the precious topsoil in the fields. Over-grazing and the cutting of trees in the common lands made the situation worse. When walking across a stretch of desert-like bare, hardened sand with no topsoil, the villagers pointed it out to me: the land of the entire village used to be like this.

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This is what Laporiya’s landscape used to be like. Whereas now:

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I came to the village to meet the man behind this remarkable transformation: Lakshman Singh, the founder and secretary of GVNML (Gram Vikas Navyuvak Mandal Laporiya, or “New Youth Village Welfare Association”). I ended up staying for a few days, enjoying the Singh family’s hospitality at their 350-year-old haveli that doubles as the organization’s head office, eating home-cooked Rajasthani food including fresh farmstead cheeses and buttermilk from the family’s own cows, watching village life, going on epic photo shoots with goats and sheep, and chatting in Hindi with the villagers… In short, it was quite magical. In this post, I want to introduce GVNML in general; in my next post I will describe in more detail the unique water conservation techniques it has developed.

IMG_0144Singh, 58, is a down-to-earth guy who nevertheless can speak with ease and confidence about his approach to community regeneration, for it has been time-tested and has made Laporiya a symbol of rural revival. The secret is recharging groundwater — and following up with above-ground activities (so to speak) such as building community, protecting wildlife, and planting trees. “If somebody wants water, they should do the kind of work that brings water,” Singh said. “You want water? Plant trees, then water will come.”

Singh dropped out of high school at age 17 to dedicate his life to helping his village. He realized early on that, in order to turn his village around, he needed to address the drought problem first of all. He mobilized the villagers to fix the collapsed mud embankment (bund) of the village pond. Later, he initiated various kinds of other waterworks on the village common land, which had thus far been abandoned as “wasteland.” Two other village ponds were dug and the existing one de-silted and expanded.

He later set out traveling throughout Rajasthan looking for examples of watershed management that worked. Whenever he happened to drive by green, healthy-looking fields, he would stop to investigate what the villagers there had done right. Gradually, over many years of experimentation, he developed the chauka system. Initially, development agencies and funders refused to support him because he was not an engineer and had no complicated formulae. Even the villagers were initially suspicious when Singh proposed to initiate chauka works on the village commons, which they thought he was going to grab the land for his own purposes. It took many community meetings and conversations with individuals to convince people. After the first chaukas were built, people themselves saw the results: more grass in the pastures, more water in the wells and in the village ponds, better resilience in the face of droughts.

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GVNML workers planting pipal trees by Dev Sagar, one of the three village ponds

GVNML was founded in 1977 and since then, in addition to building waterworks, has planted trees throughout the village, established wildlife sanctuaries and bird-feeding areas, promoted organic farming methods and initiated programs in education, reproductive health, women’s and children’s rights. They have also taken the watershed management system to other villages, and trained people from as far away as Afghanistan. Every year in November, they organize a 5-day padyatra (foot march) that goes from village to village organizing celebrations and rituals in which the village ponds and trees are blessed, and people take vows to protect the trees and the water like their brothers.

In the afternoon of my second day in Laporiya, dark clouds began to gather in the sky. At 3pm, the rain began and fell heavily the rest of the afternoon to the sound of thunder. By the next day, the water in the ponds was higher, the chaukas were even greener, the air was fresh. Just before, some villagers had organized a 24-hour continuous religious singing at the temple to persuade the gods to send rain (and had it all transmitted throughout the village via loudspeakers, day and night, much to my annoyance). So maybe it was the gods. Or maybe it was GVNML’s tree planting over the years. But something worked in Laporiya that day to bring the longed-for, life-giving rains.IMG_0132

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