Small is more
Both systems exist in Rajasthan. Small, cheap and easy-to-build water harvesting structures and a large canal. One relies on traditional wisdom and local expertise to function. The other, the Indira Gandhi Canal, has been built and maintained by a centralised bureaucracy. The canal passes through the sewan grassland regions of northwestern Rajasthan. It has brought with it a lot of water to the region. However, whether it has brought prosperity to the region remains debatable.
Everybody knows what the small water harvesting systems have done to Rajasthan's Alwar district. The workers of the Tarun Bharat Sangh ( tbs ), an organisation working with the villagers there, have regreened Alwar district. The hills of the Aravalli range were denuded in the area when tbs set up small check dams on the slopes in the 1980s, using the wisdom of the local people to assist them. These dams did what the green cover had done earlier. They trapped and held rainwater. By staggering rainwater run off, they recharged the region's groundwater.
By trapping only 20 per cent of the rainwater, the check dams revived the wells and five rivers in the region came alive. Migration from the village ceased. The people returned to try their luck at farming. The land became green once more and green became the colour of the money. Economic prosperity came as a consequence of ecological regeneration. Today everybody knows of the work of tbs .
Then there is the Rajasthan Canal. The work of the government-run agency, it dwarfs the tbs ' check dams, and has brought changes with it. But are these changes for the better? Today, grasslands that house Rajasthan's cattle wealth are under threat. Animal care and dairy activities are being sidelined for farming in the area. Farmlands are mushrooming all over the desert. The desert has become green here too, but there is a difference: the water that came to Alwar district was the water of life. The water that the canal has brought to Jaisalmer has displaced nomadic communities, rare grass biodiversity and threatens to displace milk as well. It also threatens to bring a host of diseases like malaria to Rajasthan. Only time will tell if the canal is a boon or bane to the state.
As of today, we have only a few standards with which to compare the check dam and the canal. In Alwar, we have a small structure requiring very little investment, which brings back four times the investment, while in the canal we have an immense structure, astronomical investment and mixed returns.