Scarce water resources, especially freshwater ones, have been stretched to the limit in India due to growing population, industrialisation and urbanisation, among other factors. With several major metros and rural areas facing inadequate water supply, policy makers are seized of this perilous situation.
This is evident by Prime Minister Narendra Modis call for a people-led mass movement to conserve water using traditional methods.
Making this point precisely is the recent documentary Lakshmanrekha, directed by Nandan Saxena and Kavita Bahl. They have tackled sensitive and burning subjects like farmers suicide and tribal issues in their earlier films.
Produced by Public Service Broadcasting Trust and Films Division, the one-hour film is an intimate, cinematic window into how Lakshman Singh galvanised the Lapodia village (Dudu tehsil) near Jaipur into a voluntary force, that changed the destiny of 58 villages in the region, besides motivating hundred others. The films taut script and competent cinematography capturing the village, its environs, and people, its women in particular, in all its hues, is bound to keep the audience engaged.
Way back in 2010, alarmed by the declining water table in Delhi and neighbourhood, the National Award winning director duo were directed to visit Lakshman Singh by environmentalist Anupam Mishra. At Lapodia, we found an oasis of green in a vast swathe of burnt ochre. The three ponds were full. The fields had millets and gram. The chequerboard-like shallow rectangular depressions in the commons were brimming with fresh rainwater. We found Lakshman both knowledgeable and an interesting character, recalls Saxena while talking about the films genesis.
Interestingly, Singh was inspired by the Dadasaheb Phalke awardee Manoj Kumars song Mere Desh Ki Dharti& in the film Upkar. Eager to make his land and country rich agriculturally, he read Gandhian Anupam Mishras Aaj Bhi Khare Hain Taalaab, which inspired him.
Singh, keen on getting educated hands-on, left school and led a few friends to repair the village pond. He recalls that in the beginning, people scoffed at him, but with word spreading a big force of volunteers joined. With the pond brimming with water during the rains, he was taken seriously.
Emboldened, Singh convinced the villagers to adopt and work on his innovative chequerboard, he termed as chauka system. This involved digging square and rectangular pits in a pattern that slows the surface runoff of rainwater, thus maximising ground water recharge.
According to Saxena, this concept of self-help was possible because Singh in spite of his position of privilege took the hoe and the spade in his hands to lead by example. This dismantling of the rigid feudal mores of Rajasthan by Singh encouraged the villagers to lend a shoulder. They worked on the ponds that re-charged the wells. Then they dug a canal to let the rainwater flow to the commons in the next village. Slowly, the earth turned, stretched its feet and snuggled under a green blanket. Revering water as an invaluable gift granted by God Indra, a signboard exhorts villagers not to pollute the water bodies and preserve them.
Thus, the documentary makes a strong case for adopting indigenous solutions. These have the backing of the people -- for their native intelligence and traditional wisdom finds its stamp in these cost-effective and time-tested solutions. Chauka-system' is one such example of common sense that eluded the mandarins of the irrigation department for many decades while they propagated contour-bunds regardless of their history of failure, avers Saxena.
With enough fodder, farmers and pastoralists bought 'desi' Gir cows
and buffaloes resulting in Lapodia and Nagar villages lead the pack of 58 villages where income from milk has changed many equations. The recharge of groundwater aquifers allowed two crops, sometimes three. From the helplessness of waiting for government doles for drought-relief, these villages are more self-sufficient and the people walk with their heads held high, observes Bahl. All this has significantly stemmed from the water-stressed induced migration.
Success egged Singh to turn peoples attention to environment protection. He pleaded them not to cut trees and plant babool, kair, neem and khejdi while weeding out only the foreign ones to protect the local varieties. The mass scale afforestation led to the creation of what Singh termed as dev banis (sacred groves). The soothing green cover over Dudu tehsil, compared to the dry, barren neighbourhood is the certificate Nature has awarded for this work. Different species of migratory and resident birds put their signature on this certificate every year, recollects Bahl. She quips, At Lapodia and Nagar, we woke up to the chorus of koels and pheasants every morning a respite from the blaring horns of Delhi. The film captures these serene moments of greenery, ponds brimming with clear water and the chirping of avians, at dawn and dusk, remarkably.
What will definitely intrigue viewers is the shot showing the signboard of chooha ghar, where rats are preserved. Singh, wondering why the world was after them, says, They have been created for a purpose which is burrowing and digging, thereby allowing seeds to take root in the soil. The absence of rats will definitely impact the lives of several animals, including snakes, eagles, and cats. Coming as it does from a school drop-out, it speaks volumes of wisdom acquired over generations by the villagers. Calling chooha ghar, a unique idea, Saxena says, It is not fashionable to talk about rats or termites, and yet these are very important for any ecosystem. Singh does not shy away from being politically incorrect.
Singhs opposition to contour dams outraged government officials, who rubbished his chauka system. This antagonism continued till Singh received his first award from the HRD Minister in 1992. With the National Award for Water Conservation by the President of India in 2008, his ideas found many takers, says Bahl.