Khushveer Singh Jojawar wins Assembly poll from Marwar Junction seat; Rajasthan water warrior was sidelined by Congress

It is rare in India for a man who launches a movement for water conservation and builds anicuts or check dams to contest in elections and win. It is even rarer if he also goes around sticking glimmering radium stickers on the horns of cattle to signal their presence to drivers zipping on highways at night. It is perhaps impossible for such a man to win if he dares to try his electoral luck as an independent candidate.

 Khushveer Singh Jojawar wins Assembly poll from Marwar Junction seat; Rajasthan water warrior was sidelined by Congress

Marwar Junction MLA Khushveer Singh Jojawar. Image procured by Ajaz Ashraf

But these are precisely the credentials of Khushveer Singh Jojawar, who won from Marwar Junction by a slender margin of 251 votes in the recent Rajasthan Assembly elections. It was not his debut triumph; he had last won from here on the Congress ticket in 2003, but then went on to lose in 2008 and 2013. With the political wind blowing discernibly for the Congress in Rajasthan, Jojawar applied for the party ticket this time round as well.

His chances were rated bright, not least because of a unique meeting he had organised on 30 September in his village, Jojawar. Before an earthenware vase containing water of five rivers—Brahmaputra, Ganga, Yamuna, Narmada and Banas—around 35,000 people took oath to preserve water bodies and keep them clean.

But then, India’s complicated caste calculations knocked out Jojawar from the race. Finding he had been denied the Congress ticket, Jojawar turned to Vivek Bansal, one of the four Congress secretaries in-charge of Rajasthan, for an explanation.

“Vivek Bansal said that the caste composition of my constituency went against me,” said Jojawar, who is a Rajput.

The population of Rajputs in Marwar Junction is said to be between 10,000 and 12,000. The team from Delhi was going by the electoral playbook that rated as minimal the chances of a Rajput winning from a constituency where the Other Backward Classes (OBCs) dominate and Dalits are 18 percent. And to think, Khushveer Singh had adopted Jojawar as his surname to underplay his Rajput identity!

As the election campaign gathered momentum in Rajasthan, it became clear to the Congress that its candidate, Jasaram Rathore, who belongs to the Seervi caste, was lagging far behind in the race. Jojawar was requested to withdraw in favour of the Congress before Rajasthan was to vote on 7 December. “I told the caller how dare he ask me to step down,” Jojawar said.

It was a ding-dong battle between Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate and Jojawar, who ultimately piped his rival to the post. The Congress’ candidate trailed far behind, bagging 21,037 votes against Jojawar’s 58,921. About Jojawar’s victory, Magsaysay Award winner and India’s water man, Rajendra Singh, said, “It is such a delight to see a water politician win an election.”

It is a delight, a reason to celebrate, because Jojawar defied the politics of caste and religion to win the election, said senior journalist Shripal Shaktawat, who is the resident editor of TV channel News 18, Jaipur. “Jojawar fought the election over the issue of water. If such people are elected to Assemblies and Parliament, our politics will change,” Shaktawat said.

Jojawar’s story as a water warrior began in 1995, when the monsoon failed and the water table plummeted. People digging a well had to burrow as deep as 60-70 feet before they reached the water table. Often, the water was of poor quality, its depth ranging between 20-30 feet. It had Jojawar thinking – with Marwar Junction nestled in the foothills of the Aravali range, could he not try to retain the water that flowed down its slopes before draining out?

He floated a community-based organisation, Gram Vikas Samiti Jojawar, which was to build anicuts. People either contributed money or supplied cement and stones or provided free labour. Five anicuts were completed. Within a year or so, the water table began to rise, earning a name for Jojawar among those engaged in rural development.

In 2000, as yet another drought ravaged the area, Care India, a non-profit organisation, made Jojawar its point person to build water harvesting structures. Around 120 check dams, including those made of mud and loose boulders, were constructed. He established a Jal Samiti that collected money to carry out repair works. The buzz Jojawar had created prompted the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation (RGF), which Sonia Gandhi chairs, to send India’s water man, Rajendra Singh, to Pali for inspection.

The RGF was willing to provide two-third of the funds required to construct anicuts as long as the local populace raised one-third through contributions. Between 2001 and 2005, another 45 anicuts sprang up in a 40-km-long strip where there already existed the 100 structures that Care India had helped build. During this period, Jojawar was made the RGF’s Rajasthan coordinator, but after winning the 2003 Assembly elections, he resigned from the post.

“We have hardly had rains this year,” said Jojawar, “Yet, in over 50 percent of wells in Pali district, water can be drawn from just 5-10 feet below the surface. As for new wells, people reach the water table at just 15-20 feet.” For the arid state of Rajasthan, such abundance of water is as good as wallowing in luxury.

Realising he could inspire people to strive for the change they wish to see around them, Jojawar initiated a campaign to relay the pasture land, which had been overtaken by prosopis juliflora, a thorny, poisonous shrub that is cited as the most compelling reason why mango, tamarind, jamun, date palm and custard apple trees have disappeared from Pali. Jojawar has had villagers plant dhaman (cenchrus setigerus) and sewan (lasiurus sindicus). Rich in protein, cows grazing on these two types of grass give a higher yield of milk.

Jojawar’s love for the bovine has not blinded him to the problems they pose. “They have become a nuisance, they destroy crops,” he said. During the monsoon season, they loiter on highways causing serious accidents. Last year, Jojawar gathered a team of volunteers to wrap radium stickers on the horns of cows and bulls. The stickers glimmer in the headlights of vehicles and forewarn drivers of the presence of animals at night.

His latest project is to check the bovine population. Jojawar has been asking people to keep cows and bulls separately in gaushalas, and also improve the breeds to enhance milk production. “The mechanisation of agriculture has rendered bulls and oxen useless. The yield from our local breeds is down to a litre or less. I have been encouraging people to crossbreed the local cows with the Gir breed. I am doing it myself,” said Jojawar.

His desire to improve the indigenous cow breeds had him suggest to the Congress’ manifesto team that it should substitute the word gaushala (home or abode of cows) with gau samvardhan-shala (Cow promotion home.) “These people educated in cities did not accept my suggestion,” said Jojawar, chuckling.

But it was Jojawar who had the last laugh on 11 December, the day on which the Congress fell short of the majority-mark in the Assembly by one seat. The Congress’ Delhi team called him to seek his support. “I said I believe in the Congress ideology. My support is unconditional.”

But Jojawar does not plan to return to the Congress. “I want the freedom to speak in the Assembly, to raise my voice against the shoddy treatment of rural India,” Jojawar said. A pause later, he added, “Tell me, why is it that cities get electricity 24x7, but not villages?”

If Jojawar is a metaphor of rural India’s innate wisdom and creativity, his electoral victory as an independent candidate is, to quote Rajendra Singh, “a metaphor for India still retaining the ability to go beyond caste and religion to elect a few good people”. By rejuvenating Marwar Junction, Jojawar has also invigorated the democratic idea of political representation.

Updated Date: Dec 21, 2018 12:25:13 IST