“Can you see the alternating bands of light and shadow in the sky?” Chattar Singh asks me. When I nod in affirmation, he continues, “This is Mogh. There are clouds where the sun is setting right now. If we get a favourable wind, these clouds will reach here and we may get rain by night. In desert, people live by such clues from nature.”
We are at Ramgarh, around 60 km from Jaisalmer towards the Indo-Pak border. This region gets an average annual rainfall of just 100 mm and that too, not every year. A period of 10 years sees three years of drought. Despite that, there is always water in these villages and hardly anyone leaves here in search for better living. A big credit for this goes to 54-year-old Chattar Singh.
Bringing villagers together
Singh works with Sambhaav, an organisation that focuses on strengthening local ecological systems. In the last 10 years, he has mobilised people to revive traditional water-harvesting practices which sustain livestock and farming despite the tough terrain and low rainfall. A two-tier system works here. A normal rainfall year fills up the ponds but during drought, the ponds dry up and the beris take over. A beri is a small well that accesses rainwater trapped by impervious layer of gypsum that runs 15-20 feet below the ground. The reserve is different from the groundwater aquifer which lies deeper and is usually saline. The layer of gypsum does not let the sweet water mix with saline groundwater.
This geological feature also helps grow grains in khadin, a farm with a bow-shaped embankment. In a good monsoon year, the embankment collects rainwater coming from the vast catchment area. The gypsum layer does not let this water percolate deep and keeps the soil sufficiently moistened for rabi crops to flourish. Several community khadins have been serving the region for centuries providing food in an equitable fashion to all the shareholders.
These structures, however, collapsed, thanks to the social welfare schemes that made people rely on government support. But that did not last long. When the government plans became unsustainable, the villagers were forced to migrate as they had also lost the heritage of self-reliance. It was then that people like Chattar Singh motivated them to work together and revive the beris, khadins and ponds of their forefathers and build new ones as well.
'It's people's work, not mine'
Though Singh has worked with several social organisations, it was only after joining Sambhaav a decade ago that he says he realised what working with people meant. “Earlier I was just following the usual NGO style of project-based work and fundraising. Though the work was on water harvesting, there was little involvement with the locals. With Sambhaav, I learned how we have to make it their work, not ours,” he says.
This concept became apparent to me in 2014 when I went with Chattar Singh to Meerwala, a desert village that wanted to revive its dysfunctional well. After the physical examination and discussion about geology and water quality with the villagers, Chattar Singh turned to me and said, “This well goes 252 feet down. Digging deep is the most dangerous job out here because the sand can cave in. But they must have water.” By the time we left, the arrangement had already been made to get a team of professional well-diggers from the neighbouring Barmer district. Sambhaav only facilitated the process while the villagers bore all the expenses and the well was yielding water again. The impact of such works has been long lasting as villagers feel greater ownership of their water resources.
Chattar Singh has also adopted a 50 hectare khadin jointly owned by eight villages which was lying neglected and infested by the weed (Prospois juliflora). “This is to further the idea of community sharing and be grateful to the benefits of nature,” he had told me three years ago. It has been a journey of mixed results so far as the rain failed in the first year and the second year was bountiful. This year again, the region is facing drought. “People have taken notice of this work and after the next rainfall, they will start participating,” he says confidently.
Many a times, Chattar Singh has also gone against the mighty to support a just cause. His complaint against the land mafia in Ramgarh brought some unsavoury consequences but he continued to fight and also supported RTI activist Babu Ram Chauhan in his anti-encroachment campaign.
A master of storytelling
There is another layer to Singh’s personality that is equally endearing--his ability to narrate stories and use them to convey messages to a larger audience. Leaning on his vast knowledge bank, Chattar Singh carries forward the oral storytelling tradition of Rajasthan. Whether it’s the somber tale of overnight migration by Paliwal Brahmins or the celebration of collective work to build a pond, the fluctuating timber of his voice always tugs at the heart strings.
From easy to grasp botanical lessons on desert shrubs to the night sky map travelers use to navigate in the desert, Singh knows it all. Another trademark of his storytelling is the humour. Sample this: “I had never heard of a mosquito till the time I went to Jaipur to appear in a school examination. When the village elders asked me how I planned to defend against the attack of mosquitoes, I said, “Let them come I will have my stick ready.” The desert never had mosquitoes, but now we get malaria epidemic every other year thanks to the Indira Gandhi canal.” It's not surprising that a good number of people from both rural and urban areas call him their guru on desert ecology and community relations.
Meanwhile, Singh has also started using newer mediums of communication like Facebook which have brought his wisdom and wit closer to his urban students. This write up by him last year on drought in Latur as compared to abundance in Ramgarh was appreciated widely for conveying a vital message in a simple manner. Despite all the great work, the unassuming demeanour of this man from Ramgarh makes you trust the goodness remaining in this world.