Paani Foundation’s careful strategy enthuses half-abandoned villages to battle drought

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By Moin Qazi*

Historians will tell you that an explosion of creativity occurs the moment the world starts complaining that there is nothing left to invent, or that the search for solutions has come to an end.

This explosion is fate’s way of reminding us that there is always something just over the horizon of knowledge. Social entrepreneurs are now using their talent to bring lasting solutions to several entrenched social problems at a time when the world has never needed them more.

The Indian film celebrity Aamir Khan is shepherding a very revolutionary campaign–making Maharashtra drought-free in five years. Khan is in the news in villages of Maharashtra for the last two years as conceiver of a revolutionary initiative that is galvanising the rural population to go back to fundamental lessons of water management taught by their ancestors. The government has been purveying the same lessons for long but with little success. When the teacher is Khan, the whole equation of learning and inspiration changes. Maharashtra’s villages are seeing water in their parched lands after consecutive dry years.

Satyamev Jayate Water Cup is the revolutionary initiative of Aamir Khan. The water cup is aimed at building a grassroots people’s movement for water management. Since early times people have been conserving water for offseason by harvesting, storing, and managing rainfall, runoff and stream flow. But modern policies have made them abandon their native wisdom and they are paying a heavy price as they struggle against crippling droughts.

Ancient Indians had mastery over the art of water governance. Kautilya’s Arthashastra, written around 300 BC, has details of how tanks and canals must be built and managed. The key was to clarify the enabling role of the state, the king, and the management role of local communities. The kings did not have armies of public works engineers; they provided incentives to communities who built water systems and managed them. The British changed all this by vesting the resource with the state and creating large bureaucracies for management. People no longer remained part of the system.

But Khan’s enterprise hopes to restore the equation. Started two years ago with his wife, film producer Kiran Rao, his organisation, the Paani Foundation has one ambitious objective—to drought-proof Maharashtra. The central concept is the Satyamev Jayate Water Cup, the incentive for winning a competition on water harvesting. The competition is put together by three non-profits—Paani Foundation, Watershed Organisation Trust and Sparsh-Centre for Participatory Learning.

For the water cup, villages are assessed on watershed management and water conservation works. Last year, 116 villages entered the competition. This year, as word spread, around 1,300 villages from 13 districts in Vidarbha,Marathawada and western Maharashtra joined the fray.

The Satyamev Jayate Water Cup gives the top three villages Rs 50 lakh, Rs 30 lakh and Rs 20 lakh, respectively. There is also a prize for sustainability. Dr Avinash Pol, a dentist, now popularly known as the “paanyache (water) doctor”, is the foundation’s inspiration and guides its policies and programmes. From the historic Ajinkyatara Fort, Dr Pol began a shramdaan or voluntary work initiative to restore water levels in Satara town and his work is a testament to his commitment and ingenuity.

“Eighty percent of the villages that participated in last year’s competition bid goodbye to the water tankers they had been dependent on for years,” says Dr Pol.

Social mobilisation is the lynchpin of the success. The Paani Foundation has worked out a very careful strategy to enthuse half-abandoned villages into battling drought. The secret, of course, is Aamir‘s unique charisma that serves as the glue to enthuse and bind the people. The entire effort is voluntary and participatory and has the element of the Gandhian spirit of self-sacrifice.

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Shramdaan (voluntary labour) is a typical Indian strategy, rooted in its culture, to bring people together; it builds the social capital of a community to address critical local issues. “Unless the community is united, you can’t do this task effectively. The competition is very transparent. The marks card is published on the website. But we emphasise quality, not just quantity.” says Dr Pol.

By providing information, networking with other activists, rallying people to believe in collective action, acting as a bridge to the local administration and fostering community-level discussion through discussion clubs, Satyamev Jayate has lit a powerful spark in the deadwood of lost hopes.

The process commences with Aamir Khan writing a personal letter to every gram panchayat, inviting the village to join the water competition. Each competing village then sends five representatives, including two women, for training. A four-day residential training camp is organised. The five representatives return to their village and prepare an extensive watershed development plan. They are also expected to mobilise people by organising gramsabhas to explain the competition and why everyone must get involved. Over 5,000 villagers have been trained on watershed works.

Apart from learning to read contour maps, villagers are trained to construct various water harvesting structures, such as earthen dams, loose boulder structures, continuous contour trenches and deep continuous contour trenches, compartment bonding, etc.

The Paani Foundation arms the representatives with solid technical resources. The Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR), based in Ahmednagar, is Paani Foundation’s knowledge partner. WOTR has trained 40 Panlot Sevaks—barefoot watershed technicians—to provide field guidance. Three technical trainers are stationed in each taluk.

The annual shramdaan extends over 45 days which is not adequate to achieve the work of this size particularly when the identified village has to be made self-sufficient. Invariably, earth diggers have to be hired to dig deep continuous contour trenches (CCT), ponds and other water reservoirs. The village can raise resources from government programmes such as MGNREGA, IWMP (Integrated Watershed Management Programme), trusts or individual donors.

Several factors make Paani Foundation’s work strikingly unique. First, it believes staunchly in community-based development and has designed programmes accordingly. This knowledge, explained in simple terms, is understood and disseminated from village to village.

Second, the foundation’s strategy focuses on empowering stakeholders with knowledge and motivates them to build a non-political rural leadership. “The pace of work depends on their enthusiasm and motivation,” says Dr Pol. “The main difference in our work is that, unlike the government or the NGO sector, we aren’t giving a single rupee to the villagers. Given the right chance, we believe our villagers can do their work by themselves.”

“This is a movement from below,” says Satyajit Bhatkal, CEO of the Paani Foundation. “If you motivate and empower people through knowledge and skills and they decide to change, that motivational propeller becomes so powerful that no one can hold them back. Our single vision is to create a drought-proof Maharashtra.”

“This is an interesting experiment,” says Crispino Lobo, managing trustee of WOTR. “The timing is crucial. It just precedes the monsoon. Once the rains shower the earth, the accumulation of water in the reservoir is a very satisfying experience. That itself will spur them to greater efforts“.

Given the enormity of India’s water issues, encouraging single villages to revive and protect their own watersheds can seem a feeble response to a national crisis. But compared with controversial top-down, government-led efforts to build big dams and regulate the wanton drilling of deep wells, a careful grassroots effort to manage water locally can look both sensible and sustainable.

Maharashtra chief minister Devendra Fadnavis, inspired by the concept, has put his weight behind it. “Paani adva,paanijirva” (the water conservation slogan of the state government for 40 years) was just a slogan and not a people’s movement. Communication is important. Aamir Khan is a good communicator and he has converted struggle for water conservation into a celebration,” says Fadnavis.

*Author of “Village Diary of a Heretic Banker”, has spent more than three decades in the development sector

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