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Kavitha Dispatch

Keeping their heads above water!
May 17, 2000

Click image for larger view
Beautiful village women take a break from their hard work stacking stones to build a new johad
Caption

Have you ever heard about someone who has given so much of his or her life, whose example is so shining and inspiring, that you were in awe? A person whose work is so heroic that you wanted to follow in their footsteps but it seemed too out of your league? I mean, come on, we can't all be like Martin Luther King or Mother Theresa or Mahatma Gandhi... they were the right people in the right place at the right time. We couldn't possibly have such a huge positive impact on the world...right?
"I'm too young."
"I'm still in school."
"I have to consider my family."
"I'm too poor..."
There are thousands of excuses we could come up with, but the truth is we can all Make a Difference. As you've probably noticed if you've been reading our Web page, we at the Odyssey like to support all of you out there Making a Difference. Yup, each and every one of us no matter how young or old, how wealthy or poor, can make a difference. But, faced with the huge problems that plague our world today, it sometimes seems too intimidating. Well, I just got back from visiting an awesome project that showed me how a little good intention and effort can radically alter and help thousands of lives. I'd like to share with you a story about how a group of young students, armed with no money, no political backing, and no background knowledge of the area, entered one of the most devastated and destitute areas in India and changed lives forever. The students wanted to help but did not have a clue where to begin and ended up helping 650 villages revive their land, their culture and their security. If a group of young people can make a difference in a country as overpopulated and poor as India, surely we can too. Let's learn from these inspiring heroes.

Map

It all started over 20 years ago, when a group of students in Jaipur got together to attempt to bring some of Gandhi's visions of equality and self-sufficiency to a reality. They called themselves Tarun Bharat Sangh (Indian Youth Community), or TBS, and started out by helping the victims of a devastating fire in Jaipur. Soon, they went on to rehab work with impoverished people living in the slums. But, after a few years, they felt a bit empty doing this kind of aid work. It didn't really seem as though conditions in the urban slums were improving and they couldn't figure out a concrete solution. So, they decided to trace the problem to its root, and focus on the village areas that the poor people living in the slums had originally come from. Nine courageous students took the plunge. Together they left behind all they knew, and went to a village in the Alwar region of northeastern Rajasthan. This was one of the most devastated parts of the entire country. The region had been suffering from a severe drought for a number of years. They had seen the news images of parched land, dry river beds, and starving families who could grow nothing on their land....but now they were face to face with the reality, and realized how much more they needed to understand. Slowly but surely, the story began to unfold.

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You won't find these villagers complaining about working in the fields, for they have lived through times when there were no fields to work on... nothing could grow for miles around
Caption

It was the story of a people that used to live in harmony with their land, until the day the government decided to claim ownership of the forests, and slowly started to sell off the trees for commercial use. It was the story of a forest slowly disappearing to pave the way for the British pride and joy: the brand new railway. And as the fancy steam engines started tracing through this once green region, the hills started to go bare. As the trees disappeared, the hills started to erode. The bare hills could no longer hold in the moisture that would come during the few months of rains that graced the area during monsoons. Soon the rivers stopped running and the wells went dry. When the wells went dry, the people who had for so many years lived off of their agriculture, could no longer grow food, so the men had to leave for the cities to try to find work. By the time TBS arrived most men between the ages of 17-37 were absent. These were the same people, living in hopeless conditions in the slums of Jaipur! The community and family structure began to fall apart in these villages, as families went hungry and fathers disappeared to the cities (often to find no work there either).What did this group of young city-kids do?
The Goals of TBS

The major aims that drive TBS are:

  • Expansion or restoration of social and cultural values by setting examples in welfare action.
  • Energizing human power, especially youth power to harness energy to value-based work with an orientation to physical labor.
  • Finding a balance between human and natural resource development

    To find out more, or ways in which you can help, contact:

    Rajendra Singh
    Tarun Bharat Sangh
    Bhikampura Kishorivia Thanagazi
    301022
    or email:

    The National Alliance of People's Movements: napmdel@vsnl.com

  • They listened to the people. The older people of the village told them of times when the wells were full and the rivers were flowing. They told the students about traditional water harvesting methods that the villagers used to use before the government took control. The problem was how to go about bringing these traditions back. TBS decided that building a johad (a small dam-like structure) would be the best place to begin, but they didn't want to just build it for the village. If the students built the dam, the village would become dependent on TBS. Instead they wanted to mobilize the villagers and persuade them to offer their help. It was very difficult since the students were considered outsiders, and the villagers did not trust them. But soon the villagers realized that these youth were not like the other government workers who come through the village to 'help'. These youngsters were staying in the villages, living like the villagers themselves. They also offered to help build the johad alongside the villagers! In time TBS had convinced the villagers of the benefits of building the johad and had agreed that the community would put in as much as it could towards expenses, including physical labor and local materials, like rocks and cement.

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    The waters are finally flowing in the Alwar district of Rajasthan!
    Caption
    The older generation can finally smile about the world their great grandchildren will grow up in...a world where the rivers finally flow again
    Caption

    In 1985, TBS and the villagers of Gopalpura built their first johad, and by 1986 the results were already visible. The rains from the monsoons filled up the johad, and the riverbed retained the water for a much longer period than before. The villagers were enthused by the results and set out to build more johads and water harvesting structures. Surrounding villages also welcomed TBS to help them build their own structures too. Within just a few years, the region that once was labeled a 'black zone' by the Rajasthan government (meaning too dry to grow anything), had a stable ground water level, and the five rivers in the region were flowing all year long. The villagers have been able to grow crops again and the wells are full of water! TBS's success in one of the most drought prone regions in India, sets an example for the entire world. An example of how small scale, local solutions and effort can result in much more sustainable solutions than the large scale development projects commissioned by governments and international agencies who don't know or understand the area.
    Vocabulary

    empowerment - the process of getting legal or personal power, capacity, or sanction
    instigate - to urge, to get something going
    sustainable - healthy, supportable
    destitute - impoverished. Lacking the means to sustain a healthy quality of life.

    To date TBS has helped over 650 villages in the Alwar area rebuild their water harvesting structures, but their successes have been so much more. Organizing the community has created more self-esteem and has strengthened the village unit. Villagers have been more apt to conserve their environment since they are once again responsible for it. Not only are families producing enough crops to survive, but they are growing enough to sell, too! Even after all these years, TBS has not left the Alwar region. Some of the original students have come and gone, but more youth come each year, wanting to help. They are still there providing support and technical assistance
    Click image for larger view
    This village elder was happy to show me the success of their johad
    Caption
    for projects that the villagers themselves instigate. Today they are not just involved with water structures, but have helped with schools, women's education, health, and local empowerment. The volunteers of TBS are just regular youth like you and me. Some are students who have free time after school or during holidays. Some are young adults in between jobs or who happen to have a free season to spare. Some are people who have committed their lives towards helping others. These heroes have drastically altered the lives of thousands of villagers for the better and have saved a devastated environment. But, more importantly they have provided a shining example of how we all really can Make a Difference!

    Relevant Links:

    Excellent cover article from Down to Earth magazine about TBS.
    An interesting article about TBS.
    An Article about one of the founders of TBS.

    Kavitha

    p.s. - Please e-mail me at ...kavitharao@bigfoot.com
     

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