Back to the Future

Mending the problems of modernization in Rajasthan, India

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After more than a generation of Western-style “progress” left their soil eroded, their water table spent, and their culture eviscerated, villagers in Rajasthan, India, a dozen years ago decided to return to traditional solutions. With the help of Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS), an Indian development organization, they built johads, stone and mud ponds to collect the annual monsoon rains; they planted trees to prevent soil erosion; and they re-established ancient rituals to encourage conservation.

Today, the results are nothing short of remarkable, notes Zac Goldsmith in The Ecologist (July-Aug. 1998). Nearly 600 johads have been built in more than 250 villages throughout the state, stabilizing what had been a disastrous water shortage; crop yields have increased by a factor of four to ten; and more than a million trees have been planted. As village life improved, people who had migrated to nearby cities to find work gradually returned home and the local culture blossomed. (One of the more telling indications: Liquor stores closed down.) One village even launched an Ayurvedic medical center, making use of local plants and minerals.

“What TBS has achieved has been, in effect, a slap in the face of conventional wisdom, which tells us that ‘what’s done is done; we can’t go backwards,’” Goldsmith writes. “Of course, a reversal of history is impossible, but a return to historical principles when modern-day principles have proved so disastrous is not only possible, it is vital.”