Bhanwata–Kolyala is not easy to find on the map, not even for a resident of Rajasthan. So deep is it embedded within Sariska forest, that not many locals are even aware of its existence. But it was in this inhospitable, rocky terrain that I met King Charles III of Great Britain, then Prince Charles, on November 2, 2003, at the invitation of the British High Commission.
The invite came as I had documented the conversion of the dark zone into a water surplus area via my documentary “River Reborn”. I was informed that the Prince wished to understand the rebirth of the river Arvari that had vanished nearly sixty years ago and I was required to not just explain the nitty-gritty of the project but also be the communicator between the royal visitor and the rural folk. I was happy that the stupendous work of villagers alongside Magsaysay Award winner Rajendra Singh of Tarun Bharat Sangh (TBS), after kudos from the President of India, was now receiving international recognition.
So, along with Rajendra Singh, I met the British heir that day after he and his entourage disembarked from the ME-8 and ME-17 helicopters. Amidst the huge welcome roar by the crowd standing on the fringes, the Prince complimented Rajendra Singh for his outstanding work. Informed I was the documentary filmmaker who had documented the project, he shook my hand and said he had heard of it and looked forward to seeing it soon.
The three of us, along with the British High Commissioner Sir Michael Arthur, then walked to a nearby site where local children welcomed him with traditional garlands. Trooping down the heavily guarded Aravali tract, we were joined by Dr MS Rathore (a geologist) and the village headman since only the four of us were to accompany the Prince and the High Commissioner to explain the intricacies of terrain and the methodology and logistics of water conservation.
I recounted how fetching water in the desert state was a back-breaking affair in the absence of a free-flowing, year-long river but how water was now available in the rugged topography at just 10 feet below ground level!
“Yes, I can imagine the difficulties. Water scarcity can make life immensely difficult in the rural countryside”, Charles replied.
After I conveyed Rajendra Singh’s immaculate synopsis of how water conservation became a people’s movement and how skepticism turned to cooperation, the keen listener asked, “Were water conservation techniques well known or did people need some training?”
We informed the old age wisdom had rusted but was quickly adopted, leading to the construction of numerous Johads (earthen check dams), Anicuts and water bodies along the Arvari basin, helping recharge water bodies and raising the water table.
Charles noted it was akin to “what Israelis had done to save themselves from a water crisis.”
A group of buffaloes was taking a bath in the pool of water at a curve. He stopped and asked, “Do villagers need permission to use any of the water resources?”
We explained that as conservation had become a people’s movement, “rules made regarding water bodies, cutting trees or protecting the environment were respected by everyone.”
If walking wasn’t easy on the trail full of thorns, stones and dung, the flies, the mosquitoes and foul smells of carcasses added to the misery of the hot and humid weather. But there was no complaint from the famous visitor; on the contrary, he was enthusiastic.
As he surveyed the scenery, I asked: “Sir, have you enjoyed your visit?”
“Oh absolutely! India fascinates me like no other country. So much colour, vibrancy and the people are marvellous”, he gushed in sincerity. The future King also informed how his parents had enjoyed the warmth extended to them during their visits. Walking along an incline, he gently prodded me about my background and I informed him how I had studied in a Jesuit convent, held a secular outlook and lived happily in a joint family, only to add that my childhood friend-turned wife’s zodiac sign was Scorpio like his.
He replied: “Hope you have no complaints,” saying that broke into a mischievous smile.
Soon after, he interjected: “Did the water conservation movement strengthen the democratic functioning of village committees?”
Answering in the affirmative, I detailed how benefits flowed with better water availability. With inputs from Rajendra, I explained how self-discipline led to people refraining from cutting trees or polluting water bodies and how economic prosperity paved the way for women’s self-help groups and empowerment, thus improving the numbers of school-going children.
At this, he exulted: “Rajendra is an amazing man” and in a spontaneous gesture took off some of his garlands and put them on Rajendra, myself, Dr Rathore and the village headman. It was apparent that Rajendra’s pioneering work had stirred him deeply.
Even after the long walk to Bhanwata lake and back, he was unfazed. Much to the annoyance of his security staff, he acquiesced to the villager’s request for an audience with him, exhibiting his warmth for the ‘water warriors.’ After spending 15 minutes, he asked me to convey his deep sense of appreciation for their efforts and how overwhelmed he was with the love and affection showered on him. My translation was met with sustained applause from all quarters especially since he also garlanded and patted a few children.
As we bid farewell, he confided, “I love India and I’ll cherish this visit for a long time. Thank you so much, Deepak. Do extend my best wishes to your wife. And yes, have a wonderful anniversary.” He waved goodbye and I realised Charles had wished me for my wedding anniversary the next day and whose date had inadvertently slipped out of my mouth during our conversation. The greetings left a fine taste in my mouth but also revealed that the man had a sensitive breast beneath the severe countenance. Since “each happiness of yesterday is a memory for tomorrow”, I hope we’ll get to meet again and relive our trek in Aravalli.