Water Solutions: Leveraging Impact Through Smart Philanthropy

Water Solutions: Leveraging Impact Through Smart Philanthropy

October 22, 2019 | Philanthropy

Organised by Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies and curated by Arghyam, ‘Water Solutions: Leveraging Impact Through Smart Philanthropy’ was a day-long ecosystem convening held in order to bring together like-minded philanthropists and practitioners to deep-dive into solutions and opportunities for action at scale in water. The event kept in mind a strong solutions focus; with information and interactions that forged a positive bias for action in supporting scalable pathways to the water crisis. It highlighted the work of innovative water solutions, working on the themes of Community and Technology, and Governance and Policy, through three distinct lenses of access, quantity and quality of water.

The following twelve water innovators and practitioners presented their organisation’s solutions at the event through a crisp showcase.

  1. Aga Khan Rural Support Programme India – Video | Presentation
  2. Bharat Rural Livelihoods Foundation – Video | Presentation
  3. Himalaya Seva Sangh – Video | Presentation
  4. Foundation for Ecological Security – Video | Presentation
  5. Rajarhat – Video | Presentation
  6. Goonj – Video | Presentation
  7. Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment – Video | Presentation
  8. Professional Assistance for Development Action – Video | Presentation
  9. Watershed Support Services and Activities Network – Video | Presentation
  10. Drinkwell Systems – Video | Presentation
  11. People’s Science Institute – Video | Presentation
  12. Consortium for DEWATS Dissemination Society – Video | Presentation

A graphical representation of the presentations and the distilled learnings and key insights from them are below:

Arghyam’s presentation and video on “Re-Imagining Capacity Building at Scale”

Ahead of the event, Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies, Arghyam and Sattva curated a report that focuses on water solutions, and the role philanthropy can play in their acceleration. The report features solutions that focus on community empowerment, technology-enablement and effective governance, which are critical levers for achieving scale and sustainability in improved water access, safety and security. It also profiles 24 water innovators and practitioners and can be read here.

IDR has published a conversation with Himanshu Kulkarni and Uma Aslekar of Advanced Centre for Water Resources and Development (ACWADAM) where they discuss our poor understanding of groundwater, which impacts both policy and practice.

पानी की समस्या के समाधान को समाज दिखाए राह

पानी की समस्या के समाधान को समाज दिखाए राह

June 22, 2019 | Water

जिम्मेदारी… पुरानी परंपराओं और नए विचारों का उपयोग कर, सरल तरीकों से पानी का संरक्षण कर सकते हैं

अमेरिका में एक पर्यावरण एनजीओ सिएरा क्लब के संस्थापक जॉन मुइर ने कहा था कि जब हम किसी चीज को दुनिया से अलग करने की कोशिश करते हैं, तो पता चलता है कि वह किसी न किसी रूप में दुनिया की बाकी सभी चीजों से जुड़ा हुआ है। अगर हम पानी की बात करें तो यह भी कुछ ऐसा ही है। जिस भी पानी को हम छूतेे हैं, जो भी पानी हम उपयोग करते हैं, वह संसार में मौजूद हर तरह के पानी से जुड़ा होता है। चूंकि पानी ग्रह पर खुद को रीसाइकल करता रहता है, इसलिए हम वही पानी पी रहे हैं जो लाखों साल पहले डायनासोर पिया करते थे। पानी न घटता है, न बढ़ता है, बस रूप बदलता रहता है।

हम मानसून का उत्सुकता से इंतजार कर रहे हैं, उसे ट्रैक करते हैं, क्योंकि यह हर साल कई तरीकों से हमारे भाग्य का फैसला करता है। भारत में जल संकट अब हमारे भविष्य के लिए सबसे बड़े खतरों में से एक बन चुका है। हालांकि दूसरे देशों की तुलना में भारत एक जल समृद्ध देश है। हमारे यहां औसतन हर साल 4000 बिलियन क्यूबिक मीटर के करीब बारिश होती है। लेकिन एक समस्या यह है कि इसका आधे से कम इस्तेमाल लायक होता है। बाकी हिमालय में बर्फ के रूप में रहता है, या फिर जमीन की गहराई में चला जाता है। दूसरी बात यह है कि हमारी आबादी पिछले 70 वर्षों में 30 करोड़ से बढ़कर 130 करोड़ हो गई है, इसलिए प्रति व्यक्ति का पानी का हिस्सा कम हो गया है। पैमाने के हिसाब से आबादी पानी की कमी का अनुभव तब करती है जब आपूर्ति प्रति व्यक्ति 1000 क्यूबिक मीटर से कम हो जाए। हम जल्द ही यहां तक पहुंच जाएंगे, जबकि कई जिलों में पहले से ही पानी की यह स्थिति बन चुकी है। लेकिन भविष्य उतना डरावना नहीं होना चाहिए। सच तो यह है कि हमारी बहुत सी समस्याएं जल संसाधनों की बेतरतीब शासन प्रणाली की वजह से ही हैं। और हम यह बदल सकते हैं।

हम सब जानते हैं कि प्रमुख मुद्दे कृषि नीति से जुड़े हैं। उपलब्ध पानी का करीब 80% से अधिक भोजन और गैर-खाद्य फसल उत्पादन में जाता है, लेकिन हमारी उत्पादकता पानी की प्रति बूंद के हिसाब से कम है। हमें कम जमीन का इस्तेमाल करते हुए पानी की हर बूंद से और ज्यादा फसल उगाने की आवश्यकता है। सिर्फ तीन फसलें, चावल, गेहूं और गन्ना अत्यधिक पानी खींचते हैं। अगर हम खाद्य सुरक्षा से समझौता किए बिना इस मुद्दे को हल करें, तो लोगों के रोजमर्रा के इस्तेमाल, शहरीकरण के लिए, उद्योग और ऊर्जा उत्पादन के लिए बहुत अधिक पानी बचेगा। आम जनता सोचती होगी कि इससे हमारा क्या लेनादेना? यह मामला तो राजनेता, सरकारी अधिकारी और सेक्टर के विशेषज्ञ ही संभाल सकते हैं। लेकिन इसके बावजूद हम नागरिक अपनी ओर से पानी बचाने का प्रयत्न करते रहते हैं। हम पुरानी परंपराओं और नए विचारों का उपयोग करते हुए, सरल तरीके से पानी का संरक्षण कर रहे हैं। हम नहाते वक्त या घर में साफ-सफाई के दौरान पानी बचाने की कोशिश करतेे हैं। आजकल हमने बोतलबंद पानी का उपयोग करने से पहले भी दो बार सोचना शुरू कर दिया है। एेसी हर पहल महत्वपूर्ण है। खासकर, एक ऐसे देश में जो अमीर होता जा रहा है और अधिक खपत कर रहा है। ऐसे में हम अपनी सावधान रहने वाली सांस्कृतिक नैतिकता को खोने का जोखिम नहीं उठा सकते। पुराने मूल्यों को सराहा और संरक्षित किया जाना चाहिए, लेकिन उन्हें और भी नए क्षेत्रों में विस्तारित करने का समय आ गया है। यदि चावल, गेहूं और गन्ना ऐसी फसलें हैं जो अधिकतम पानी लेती हैं, तो हम एक संतुलन को बहाल करने के लिए व्यक्तिगत स्तर पर क्या कर सकते हैं?

पारंपरिक तौर पर जो हमारा खानपान रहा है नए शोध भी उसे सही ठहरा रहे हैं। जैसे प्रोसेस्ड चावल की तुलना में ज्वार-बाजरा ज्यादा बेहतर होता है और कुछ लोगों को गेहूं हजम नहीं होता। जबकि चीनी को तो अब जहर के समान ही माना जाता है। ये अच्छा संयोग है कि हमारे स्वास्थ्य के लिए फायदेमंद फसलें कम पानी में तैयार हो सकती हैं। जो लोग अपने शारीरिक स्वास्थ्य के प्रति बहुत सचेत हैं, वे तीन सफेद चीज, चावल, मैदा और चीनी से पूरी तरह से बचते हैं। उच्च रक्तचाप, मधुमेह और मोटापे जैसी कई बीमारियां इन खाद्य पदार्थों के ज्यादा इस्तेमाल करने से जुड़ी हुई हैं। फिर भी हमारी सरकार सार्वजनिक वितरण प्रणाली के माध्यम से इन तीनों वस्तुओं को अत्यधिक रियायती मूल्य पर बेचती आ रही है। जिन लोगों को राशन का मासिक बजट बहुत सावधानीपूर्वक खर्च करना होता है उनके पास इन चीजों को खरीदने और इनका उपयोग करने के अलावा बहुत कम विकल्प होते हैं। यह गरीबों के साथ बहुत नाइंसाफी है और इसे बदलना ही होगा। कर्नाटक जैसे राज्य राशन की दुकानों में इन अनाजों के साथ-साथ रागी और कांगनी उपलब्ध कराने की कोशिश कर रहे हैं। इस कोशिश को और आगे तक ले जाने की जरूरत है, लोगों के स्वास्थ्य के लिए भी और पानी की भारी बचत के लिए भी। कई परिवार पहले से ही ऐसा करने लगे हैं। रागी, ज्वार और बाजरा से स्वादिष्ट खाना पकाने के लिए प्रतियोगिताएं भी होती हैं जो युवाओं को आकर्षित कर रही हैं। आजकल माएं चाहती हैं कि स्थानीय, मौसमी उत्पाद और सब्जियां सुरक्षित रूप से उगाई जाएं और वे हार्मोन और कीटनाशक मुक्त दूध का उपयोग कर सकें।

जब हम फूड स्मार्ट होते हैं, तो हम अक्सर वॉटर स्मार्ट भी होते हैं। हां, हम सभी कभी-कभार पिज्जा, समोसा और फ़िज़ी ड्रिंक पसंद करते हैं, लेकिन मध्यम वर्ग ने थोड़ा बदलाव करना शुरू कर दिया है। लाखों लोगों द्वारा किए गए छोटे परिवर्तन मिलजुलकर बहुत बड़ा प्रभाव डाल सकते हैं। कौन जाने कृषि नीति को राजनेता और अधिकारियों के एक्शन के लिए कितना इंतजार करना होगा। तब तक हम खुद भी कुछ कर सकते हैं। यही सही वक्त है। खुद को सुरक्षित और पर्याप्त पानी मुहैया कराने की जिम्मेदारी लेने का।
जैसा मुईर ने कहा था, हर कुछ, सबकुछ से जुड़ा हुआ है। हमारी व्यक्तिगत जीवन शैली और भोजन के विकल्प जल संकट पर व्यापक रूप से प्रभाव डाल सकते हैं। कभी-कभी हम नागरिकों को पहल करनी होती है, रास्ता दिखाना होता है। और फिर कई बार सरकार और बाजार को भी इसी रास्ते पर चलना पड़ता है।

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The jewelled Aghanashini: It’s the last major free flowing river of peninsular India, don’t put the squeeze on it

The jewelled Aghanashini: It’s the last major free flowing river of peninsular India, don’t put the squeeze on it

May 10, 2019 | Environment

For its entire 124 kilometres, this jewel of a river flows free. It is probably as old as the Western Ghats, older than the Himalayan range. Though not especially long, this west flowing river has a volume of water equal to the bigger Kali or Sharavathi rivers nearby. It originates in Shankara Honda in the town of Sirsi and meanders clean and clear through gorges, unique swamps, ancient forests and agricultural fields, till it flows to the Arabian Sea at Kumta, in Uttara Kannada district, Karnataka. Its forest floors are carpeted by bioluminescence, its estuary is rich with bivalves, crabs and mangroves harbouring dozens of varieties of fish.

Because of its gradient, it is the site of many spectacular waterfalls, like the Unchalli Falls, near which, on a full moon night in winter, you might even glimpse a moonbow – a rainbow generated from the moonlight. This is the river Aghanashini – ‘the cleanser of sins’.

This peninsular river is unique, because it is free flowing, unpolluted and retains its millennia old natural course. Most rivers in India are not free; they are dammed, or forced into channels. Others have just given up because their catchments have been destroyed; their drainage paths encroached upon. Most of our rivers do not even reach the sea anymore. Yet the hydrological cycle and the monsoon depends on rivers flowing to the ocean. A prevalent hydro schizophrenia refuses to acknowledge this reality, and we continue to build infrastructure along our rivers.

For the lakhs living along its banks, the Aghanashini has given people life and livelihoods. Even today, around 2 lakh households are directly dependent on the estuary, famed for its protein rich bivalve, crab and shrimp harvest. For the thousands of pilgrims that come to its many sacred spots, the river offers spiritual solace. For the growing number of tourists and researchers, the Aghanashini tract offers unique sights. Its sacred groves where trees have never been felled, its dense mangroves, its endangered lion-tailed macaque that came 5 million years ago, its tribal populations like the Halakkis that keep the Yakshagana art form alive; its appemidi wild mangoes that make the best pickles; its salt and pest resistant kagga rice – the list is endless.

Periodically, infrastructure is planned along this free flowing river of peninsular India. Once, industrial salt production was tried and abandoned. Then came a hydroelectric project, a thermal power plant, a port and a scheme to divert the river water for faraway towns.

People poured out in strong and sustained protests; people from every walk of life – ecologists, spiritual leaders, and fisher folk. The plans were shelved. The river ran free.
Now, a mega all weather port is once again imagined at its estuary, as part of Sagarmala. This port, which will expand the existing small Tadri port, will be built at an expense of about Rs 40,000 crore.

Karnataka already has 13 ports along its 300 km coastline, out of which one, Mangaluru, is a major port handling the bulk of shipments to and from the state. It is not clear on what basis the state expects Tadri port to be viable when nearby ports remain underutilised.

Just 25 km north is the Belekeri port, which was used to export iron ore and import coal before the industry collapsed. Just 25 km south is the Honnavar port, with a recorded maritime history going back centuries. Both these are well connected through the Konkan railway line and NH-17.

While it is unclear whether this port will ever be economically viable, environmental clearances have speeded up, with the usual contestations over what the reports left out in terms of the natural wealth of the region, and what would be lost through the creation of this port.

Meanwhile, the economic and future proofing opportunities created by the river and its catchments have not been properly documented. With its extreme natural beauty, just the potential of eco-tourism, if properly handled, could yield substantial revenue. The Western Ghats together with the sand and mangroves at the estuary are also effective carbon sinks. They provide untold ecosystem services in the region, including flood and erosion prevention.

If the port is built, it will require extensive dredging, as the current water depth is hardly two metres at the estuary. For ships to dock, it will have to be dredged up to almost 20 metres, releasing a vast amount of carbon rich soil and sand. Who will benefit? We often destroy ecology-based livelihoods in the name of employment creation. Who will be accountable when the marine production drops, as has been the experience at ports close by?

Economic discipline requires an ecological discipline as well. If we go ahead with each and every port designed for the Sagarmala project, we may create stranded assets and waste billions of dollars in underutilised infrastructure. Exactly the same result is visible in the Himalayas where dam after dam was built without making a holistic, scientific assessment of the total impact on the land and the economy.

In this great nation of saints and poets, public administrators and ingenious architects, has our national and local imagination shrunk so much that we cannot leave the last major free flowing river of peninsular India alone, for future generations to explore, enjoy and benefit from? Let the Aghanashini flow with Aviral, Nirmal Dhara.

Times of India

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Our Cities, Our Rivers: Re-imagining the Relationship

Our Cities, Our Rivers: Re-imagining the Relationship

February 9, 2019 | Uncategorized

As 1.3 billion people seek better lives in a monsoon-dependent economy, the white and green revolutions may have produced grains and milk, but water is in some parts of India today more expensive and less accessible than milk. Ground water resources are depleting. NIITI Ayog sees a crisis by 2020. Where do we stand? How can water sharing disputes like the Cauvery problem be really overcome? Where can we go from here? How can communities, technologies or business models solve the problem or not? How can corporate, policymakers, NGOs and individuals contribute constructively.

Rohini Nilekani and Dr. Mihir Shah, in conversation, at Knowledge Factory, 2019 held at Bangalore.

Transcript

00:35 Rohini Nilekani: So, I’m going to ask Mihir. We are going to talk about cities and rivers as our session says but I thought that I would ask Mihir to dwell on his work in the planning commission and which of course came out of the work he’s been doing for years in Samaj Pragati Sahyog, so that we can talk about the basic principles of water management that he has helped to embed in central and state laws and policy. So Mihir as we discussed, could you share with us the process by which you created such far reaching new sort of policy and what it means for the future of water in this country?

01:14 Dr. Mihir Shah: Thank you, Rohini and thank you very much for having me here in this very exciting event. I think the important thing that we need to understand is that when we speak of reforming policy or making a change happen, which actually impacts people positively on the ground. First thing is that, we have to reform government system and government process. I think it would be too fanciful to imagine that solutions to our most important problems like water can happen without involving the government. I just wanted to say that in the beginning. So, when Dr. Manmohan Singh just out of the blue in 2009 called me and I was in a remote tribal village in Madhya Pradesh and he said, “Look, I want you to come and join the Planning Commission.” And I said, “Sir, I’m not looking for a job as you know. And I consciously took a decision to stay away from the corridors of power.” And he said, “Look, that’s all very well. But for the last 20 years, you’ve done some work which we believe can make a positive impact on national programs and policies.” And after giving due thought to it, I accepted very gratefully his invitation.

02:27 DS: And what I thought I would do is to briefly describe a very different process that I followed while drafting the water policies for the 12th five year plan. See, what has happened is that when a plan is prepared, generally, there are working groups. Each subject such as water, you have about eight to 10 working groups, dealing with different aspects of water. Traditionally, every working group in the Planning Commission was headed by the secretary of the concerned ministry in the central government. Now, I decided that we have to make a change. While I said, we must work with government, we must also recognize that all wisdom does not reside in government and that there are many, many people who have done outstanding research and outstanding work on the ground, on water, whose insights and whose understanding and experience must benefit the formulation of the 12th five year plan.

03:24 DS: So, what I did was that every chair of every working group that I set up under water was headed by a person from outside of government. And, as you can imagine, a veritable storm was in the making and there were letters flying from the secretaries to the honorable prime minister that look, this guy, who is he? He is coming from the outside and he doesn’t understand government procedure etcetera. And I must pay the due credit to Dr. Manmohan Singh that he completely backed and he said, “You go ahead quietly with what you are doing and I will manage all those ruckus that’s been created.” So, what I did was, the chairs were the people from the outside, outstanding experts such as Tushar Shah, Sunita Narayan, people like that were the chairs of these groups but the co-chair was the secretary. So that you know the idea is that we must learn, how to influence policy. And the success of this process, which took about a year which I can not go into the details of. The indicator of success was that, at the end of the process, there was no one left happy. When everyone left the room, feeling upset about the fact that their pet idea had not got the kind of attraction that they would’ve wanted.

04:40 DS: And for me, that was the measure of success because everyone had left their fundamentalisms outside the room, they had to come to a common ground which is what we need to forge on water. There were compromises made along the way, but I think everyone finally signed off on a document which I would say, represents a paradigm shift in the way we want to manage water in this country and subsequently this process is moving forward.

05:06 RN: So I think from that I would say if we were to re-imagine the relationship of rivers and our urban settlements, this could be one sort of model, where you create working groups and you bring elements of what I call the continuum of Samaj, Bazaar and Sarkar. You cannot solve complex societal issues without reducing the friction to collaborate between Samaj, Bazaar and Sarkar. And I think in some way Mihir’s example shows us some way forward. But Mihir, what were the three or four things that you made, I could see, because in our work, we also collaborated with you as Arghyam. And, we saw some new as you said a paradigm shift. Can you tell us some of the three or four pillars of that shift in water management governance?

05:53 DS: The fundamental principle that lay behind the new thinking was that you cannot view an economy without regarding it as part of a larger ecosystem. It’s true of water, it’s true of all the natural resources that we’re really blessed with and which we completely disregard. And we, have this worship of the manner of higher rates of growth, but we don’t realize that these rates of growth cannot be sustained unless we also take care of the larger ecosystem, the ecology that is sustaining this process of economic growth. And without doing that, the growth process itself will be deeply complicated.

06:33 DS: It will neither be inclusive nor will it be sustainable and finally, you will run out of the absolutely precious resources that are sustaining this process. So, in every element of the paradigm shift, you will find this principle resonates throughout what was being proposed. And I can actually try and connect it to the topic we are discussing today. For example, let’s take the whole issue of, we’re saying, “Our cities, our rivers.” Now the fact is, there are two ways I can see how cities and rivers have a very important relation. The first is that you actually bring river water to fulfil, to quench the thirst of the city. By damming the river, what we’re doing is, we’re trying to say that we’ve solved the water problem of our cities and more and more rivers have to be dammed. The extreme of this, of course, is this, I call it, a grotesque plan for the interlinking of India’s river.

07:32 DS: And, I just want to take two minutes to bring out certain very important facts about this whole idea, which could be a complete disaster for the people living in Indian Subcontinent. And, I’ll explain the point about the economy having to be embedded within the ecosystem through this example. So, what they’re proposing is that, there is an engineering, there’s these cliches that Madhavan who was talking about. So, there are a lot of engineering cliches, and they’re actually also mixed. One of the favorite engineering statements is that we must not allow the water in the river to flow wastefully into this. So, the emphasis is on the word wasteful that any water that is reaching the sea is actually water we’ve lost. We should have consumed this water before it wastefully reached the sea. So, the idea is build more and more dams and get that water to provide the needs of the people, wherever the civilization exist. The difficulty with this proposal, if it were to be carried out and I’m glad that governments are struggling and not…

08:37 RN: Let me just reinforce for the audience, that you remember your third standard lesson on the hydrological cycle. It doesn’t make any sense not to allow rivers to flow into your ocean. Many of our rivers today are not reaching the sea and that’s gonna have serious consequences on the hydrological cycle and the monsoon patterns over time. So, to say that you’re wasting water, when you let it go into the ocean is really ignoring very basic science that we learnt in third grade.

09:07 DS: Absolutely. Thank you, Rohini because everybody, I think use to have this diagram. In our time, it was called Geography. Now, I think it’s called EVS.

09:15 RN: EVS, yes.

09:15 DS: I’m as ancient as that but the fact is, why is the monsoon cycle compromises. It’s something very interesting. So, when the fresh water of the rivers reaches the sea, it creates a low salinity layer in the upper water of the ocean and this low salinity layer triggers the high temperatures and low pressure which finally, actually is the trigger for the monsoons. If we stop the fresh water from reaching the sea, we would have deeply compromised a monsoon cycle. Life and livelihood in the subcontinent could be deeply threatened. So, I think this is an example that in thinking of development if we do not understand ecology, if we do not understand our rivers and how to sustain them, we could be making a very serious… The second element of this river-city relationship is the rivers that flow through our city.

10:09 DS: And there what we are doing is, it’s not because we want to stop them from reaching the sea, but because we want this real estate and to make profits out of that, we’re constantly encroaching on the drainage lines which means the channels through which these rivers are flowing through the city are being encroached. So, I’m just asking you if you do not allow this water to flow in its natural course, it is bound to change course and at the time of heavy rainfall and the climate change and these kinds of events or precipitation happening, extreme rainfall happening, the water has to find it’s way. It’s going to find its way into your homes. And that’s where, the urban flooding issue become so serious.

10:58 DS: Because again, we’ve neglected the fact that a city must grow organically, around the rivers with which it is blessed. And if we encroach upon the way the water moves in these rivers, we are going to create, we are going to actually exacerbate the problem of flooding in urban.

11:14 RN: Right but also Mihir, Bangalore is particularly interesting because one is, of course, we bring water from the Kaveri at great expense and a great energy cost. From so far away, we actually pump it up, and all of us sitting here who are from Bangalore we just take the Kaveri for granted. And the fact that the Kaveri is coming here, we’re not thinking of who’s deprived on the way of the Kaveri water but more than that, it is where is all that water when we use it, we pollute it, we don’t treat it, and then we send it off. And there are lot of downstream impacts on that. So imagining how a river can come from far away and sustainably be used within a city or something we have not really thought about at all.

12:00 DS: Actually, what I’d do is I request Rohini to speak about the extraordinary work she is doing within Bangalore and to illustrate this point, what is the state of our lakes and our rivers, what we have done and hopefully what we can possibly do to correct that?

12:14 RN: Yeah. No, so actually even the Arghyam doesn’t work particularly in Bangalore. ATREE is another organization I support. I urge you to look at atree.org. They’ve been doing a lot of work on the Vrishabhavathi and the Arkavati, two rivers that were tributaries of Kaveri, that were flowing through our city. Vrishabhavathi from the bull-temple itself. And also the Dakshina Pinakini not so far from here, originating in the Nandi Hills. Now, there are lot of people trying to understand how can we revive these rivers and Bangalore can actually drive back the Kaveri because we have enough rain, we have enough lakes. We had rivers if we rejuvenate them. We really don’t need to bring Kaveri water at that cost to feed this thirsty city. But the Vrishabhavathi, what is it? It is nothing but a drain. The imagination of citizens with their rivers is destroyed, we have no relationship with the idea of a river anymore. And, nobody remembers a healthy flowing river in this city anymore, which is a real pity but imagine if we could bring back these three rivers, the Dakshina Pinakini, the Vrishabhavathi and the Arkavati.

13:19 RN: What it would mean? But Mihir I did want you to address the ground water issues connected to this because some of the research that ATREE and others did shows up that one of the reasons why the Arkavati is not flowing anymore is one is because change in rainfall, but upstream and in the catchment, but also because so much groundwater pumping is happening in such an unrestricted fashion that it is affecting the base flow of rivers. So understand this, because in India we have un-channelled groundwater regime, our river flows are getting seriously affected because people are sucking groundwater from anywhere without any regulation. Do you want to talk about that and how?

14:02 DS: Yeah. I think I’ll quickly explain that depending on the time we have. See it’s very important to understand where does the water flow in our peninsular rivers come after the monsoon. See after the monsoon is over, these rivers are what are called gaining rivers. They gain water from groundwater. It’s the groundwater basin which feeds these rivers, but what has happened over time as we have extracted deeper and deeper for groundwater, the rivers have become losing river. The water will keep its own level. So the water instead of flowing from the ground into the river is now flowing from the river into the ground. Rivers are the main reason what Rohini is saying. The main reason for rivers drying up in India is over-expansion of ground. And just to connect the planning commission point to what can happen in Bangalore, I think I have the fortune of actually currently being asked by the Government of Karnataka to draft the Karnataka State Water Policy.

15:04 DS: And I’m here also for linking with that connection. So one of the major things we are recommending in our policy is that we need this kind of people’s movement around water. It cannot be done just by government alone and especially when you take the work on lakes that is happened in Mangalore, the kind of work that will be required to manage groundwater. If the citizens don’t understand what is the nature of the aquifer is called. Aquifer is the place where groundwater is stored below the ground. If we understand this, so what I’m urging the government there is what is called Atal Bhujal Yojana, which the Government of India, they something had initiated in the 12th five-year plan. It has come through now. Six thousand crores have been given by the World Bank, but it will remain only on paper.

15:47 RN: Yeah, three thousand from the World Bank and three thousand coming from India.

15:50 DS: So the total six thousand crores. The problem is if we don’t involve people in the management of groundwater, it cannot be done by the bureaucracy or hydrogeologists alone, and that becomes a major point of action for citizens to come together, where they have rivers, lakes and the groundwater. If we can disseminate this information to the primary stakeholders, people who are actually using this groundwater, then they can possibly use it more sustainably, that will not only ensure sustainable water supply in the city without depending on expensive solutions like Kaveri, but also revive our rivers and lakes, which are, as you said, so dependent on this groundwater. So it’s a complete relationship of interdependence between different forms of water and between nation and society. That interdependence has to be embodied in powerful partnerships for change. Without that, I think we will continue to make the mistakes and the paradigm shift will not come.

16:46 RN: Yeah. I think also we need to look at urban governance in India. If you are talking about cities and rivers, unfortunately the model of urban governance that is right for this country has not yet emerged. I mean even in a powerful place like Delhi, the Yamuna is nothing but a drain. It’s the most polluted stretch of river you can imagine and you would think with all the money being pumped in there and the national capital should be setting an example of how you look after your own rivers flowing through your capital city. But unfortunately it’s because we have not empowered our cities at all, in terms of how they are run, who elects the mayors, how long the mayors are empowered to do their job, how they can raise financing to do intracity projects because that allows then citizens to be directly in connect with the responsive and accountable administration, and Bangalore is also very much suffering because we don’t have the right governance institution for urban management.

17:44 DS: See, we admire a lot of things about countries in Europe, etcetera. We don’t realize, they have the most powerful Panchayati Raj in the world. I mean, it’s the mayors and the councils that are running those countries. It’s somehow something which we don’t seem to absorb in our imagination. So we tend to copy a lot of stuff from there. I wish we would be copying this for a change.

18:05 RN: Decentralized accountable governance that has the capacity to raise capital, tax to raise revenues.

18:13 DS: Absolutely.

18:13 RN: Yeah, I think often many of us take hope from what happened to the River Thames. In the ’60s, it was a biologically dead river and the city got its act together and today they say that the River Thames in London is the cleanest river in Europe. Because they’ve done so much work. Today, there’re, I just read, there are 125 species of fish. River and biodiversity ecosystems are so linked. I want you all to imagine Bangalore with two rivers flowing from it with clean treated water feeding those rivers. I wanted to imagine our lakes being revived because all of you did something to revive them. How many of you live near any lake? There you go. How many of you walk around your lakes?

19:00 RN: How many of you are interested in participating and restoring your lakes? There you go. So I think it’s very important for us to be able to come together, and I think Bangalore is at a stage, of course, it’s still growing. It’s still growing like a teenager raising on some hormonal sort of kick, but I think it is stable enough in spite of that, for us as citizens to be able to recover our water bodies and to start thinking of letting rivers cleanly flow through our cities. Can you imagine we could let through the whole heart of the city two rivers flowing just looking like the European rivers and still allowing the river to flow to have good biodiversity, ecologically managed rivers, not just from an engineering perspective, being part of the economy and the culture of the city what would Bangalore be? I think we should strive for that imagination.

19:56 DS: I think, yeah, absolutely, and it’s the questions being sort of…

20:00 RN: We will open it up. I just want to say one thing, I went to Uttarakhand with Ravi Chopra of People Science Institute. We went through 16 river valleys. And just before the massive floods that took place. And, it was heart-breaking to see how the dams were built back-to-back and to serve cities far away. And, of course to serve energy needs of cities far away and how river that was live and blue and so full of life became deader and deader and deader and deader until you reach Delhi when it was nothing more than a slum.

20:37 DS: Absolutely.

20:37 RN: We cannot afford this. As Mihir said, the economy rests on the base of the ecology and if we forget that connection, we’re not going to be even able to have the sustainable growth, that is going to still live the remaining 300 million people out of poverty in this country. So, I think even though it seems like such a distant thing, our cities, our rivers and what we do to talk to each other, to create small citizens movement, to put pressure on our politicians. Without water, there is no life. Without water, your urban economy suffers and we already seeing that in parts of Bangalore where there is water scarcity. Some people think that the city will have to empty-out if we don’t manage our water properly and it has happened in the past. We cannot afford that. So, how all of you start thinking about re-engaging with Bangalore’s water futures can make the difference between whether Bangalore is going to thrive or have to face serious crisis. And this is the story of every city in the country which has a river or a drain flowing through it. So, both of us feel very passionately about it, but may be it’s time to open it up for… We have less than 20 minutes. Ask us some hard questions, we will try our best to answer, I think you’d need a mic though.

22:00 Speaker 4: Yeah. I’m Madhavan. Rohini, I’m very keen to know. You mentioned Samaaj and Bazaar and I find that, that has been the biggest nut to crack in this. The Samaaj means participatory involvement of citizens and Bazaar means actually financial and economic activities that are based on price signals.

22:19 RN: Yes.

22:19 S4: These two dots have not been connected in India, substantially on the issues. Do you have any ideas and views on how to connect the Samaaj with the Bazaar because that’s where I think a huge amount of the challenge lies.

22:30 RN: I don’t know how, in this particular instance connecting the Samaaj and Bazaar but I’ll tell you in terms of the Bazaar. The Bazaar has a lot of innovation, including technological innovations to offer the water sector and I think we’ve not deployed enough of those. From the Samaaj side, from civil society organization side, sometimes there has been a resistance to using technologies but I think the time has come when we seriously can look at many new technologies which need the Bazaar’s active involvement to put them out into the world at large with policy support from the state.

23:05 DS: Well, Rohini, the other thing, more directly to what Madhavan is saying about pricing. I’ll tell you all the water projects, hundreds of water projects that I’ve run in the last 30 years, the only ones which have really succeeded are ones which have been participatory as you said. But where the people themselves, whether it’s a drinking water project or an irrigation project, the people have agreed together with women in the leadership by the way, that’s very important critical element of Samaaj which we sometimes ignore and is the most powerful agent of change. They’ve all agreed to pay for the water. They themselves in a participatory transparent manner arrived at the tariff structure and then because they are assured, because they own the system, they are running the system. The expenses of running the system are actually met by the price or sometimes called the irrigation service fee and those cases it’s the farmers who paid and it’s the farmers who run the show. So, I think Samaaj and the economic element is already integrally united except when we try to impose this on people.

24:13 RN: Yes.

24:14 DS: When there’s a threat. So called of privatization of water that is a non-start. What we need, okay? Even if you bring in capital and you bring in a company, my formulation has always been you build the capacities of the urban local body. You be there for a short period of time. You bring in your professional expertise, your technology and you equip the urban local bodies. In Paris, it is re-municipalization of water.

24:40 RN: Yeah. They’re re-publicing the water.

24:42 DS: It’s all going back to the municipal control because that kind of privatization is not going to work, not those principle if exercised by the representatives of the people themselves, in transparent and participatory manner. They’re really the recipe.

25:00 RN: Yeah. So, I think pricing is an important mechanism in water governance, but I think it matters how it is done, how participatory and transparent is the process of making that pricing happen. And, you need the state to have the capacity to create good contract, where the people who are awarded the contract, usually the private sector companies have a mechanism of accountability to the larger public interest. And when that fails, I think the whole thing about pricing gets a bad name, but I don’t think today anybody gets fully free water anymore. In some way or the other, we all pay. So, I think doing the right form of pricing mechanisms has become very critical for the water sector.

25:48 Speaker 5: Good morning. I’m V. Shankaran, I came from Hubli. I’m having question to Dr. Mihir. So, recently government has announced to the linking of…

25:55 DS: I can’t see, where the question is coming…

25:56 RN: Right in front. Right in front to the left.

25:57 DS: Sorry. Okay, yeah.

26:00 S5: Recently government has announced linking of Godavari and Kaveri. Whatever your opinion being an ex-planning commission member. Second is, sir, why is not much attention given for the re-cycling of drainage water system like infrastructure…

26:14 DS: De-silting?

26:15 S5: Recycling of drainage. And third is sir, why not much attention given for that preserving of rain water? So, Bangalore is every year the rainfall is comfortably, it is. But why instead of bringing water from Kaveri and other channels? Why can’t we sustain this, rainfall itself, why can’t we preserve?

26:36 DS: So, I’d like to answer your question from the rivers because that’s exactly the answer to your… What we’re putting in the Karnataka water policy also is that roof water harvesting in urban Karnataka especially in Bangalore is hardly, what it was meant to be.

26:51 RN: Less than 50%.

26:52 DS: Yeah, less than than even. Obviously firm estimates don’t exist. So what we’re saying is, before you go in for expensive ecologically more harmful energy-intensive solutions which may or may not actually come about, because when you try to interlink rivers you know the first Ken-Betwa link, which has been in the pipeline for more than 15 years, it’s just not happening because the two states are not being able to agree. So I think these are very contentious issues. Instead of that, if we focus on local solution, which are, for example, the revival of the lakes, roof-water harvesting, managing your groundwater more sustainably and using your waste water more creatively. We didn’t talk about that very much.

27:32 RN: But waste water is the key.

27:34 DS: It is a huge resource, it’s on one end a problem because water quality is becoming a very, very serious issue. I would say that we are just not understanding how serious an issue this has become. And unless we’re going to recycle water and make it of the requisite quality, we are causing very great ecological damage. But if we do that and by the way, again, the economics Madhavan on this, the rates of return, be the payback period it is called, of these investments is very low. It’s not more than three years in most cases. You can actually invest in this equipment and you can get the return. So instead of destroying the fresh water, which is any way running out, we recycle water at very reasonable cost. People should be able to…

28:19 RN: And of course on a decentralized way Mihir, because the city’s, our city’s imagination is to put treatment plants at the end of the city. Actually they need to be throughout the city. So you’re returning clean water into your storm water drains and allow… Yeah.

28:33 DS: If you will read our draft policy document…

28:34 RN: Policy which we look forward to.

28:36 DS: This is exactly what we are saying, it should be decentralized waste water treatment and using biological means. Low cost.

28:42 RN: Yes, like we have in Jakkur, we have several examples of that.

28:45 DS: Absolutely, we have so many examples we’ve cited in the…

28:48 RN: Bio-remediation, yes.

28:49 DS: Exactly. So, we have ways in which, because the world has moved on. And we have, we can leap frog into the 21st century. Especially in the smaller towns, which you have been working in, instead of making the same mistakes the outmoded 20th century paradigm, we can straight away leap from into the 21st century using these technologies. Sometimes we call it reverse innovation or whatever but it’s about understanding the power of nature to fulfil the requirements of human supply.

29:19 RN: I think, breaking down the pure engineering paradigm, understanding the power of decentralization and keeping an interdisciplinary and ecology based sort of… Yeah.

29:30 DS: Absolutely.

29:31 RN: And landscape oriented design.

29:34 DS: Exactly.

29:35 Speaker 6: Hi, morning, this is Ramesh Padmanabham. See, we always have a focus internally on this country, whether it’s our banking industry or anything. If we really look outside and see the example of Israel, it’s very interesting how they went into recycling of water and it has led to peace with Jordon. Because Jordon actually speaking, even though it’s an Arab country, does not want to fight with Israel because river Jordon went dry and the water today is being replenished by the Israelis.

30:04 RN: Yeah.

30:04 S5: Israel has the highest rate of actually speaking, conserving recycling water etcetera and water is treated as a national resource even if it falls on my backyard.

30:15 RN: Yeah.

30:16 S5: In the absence of these kind of things, we should also note one more thing, Israeli companies have supplied two big sites for desalination, both Reliance and SR which are in Gujarat, use their technology.

30:28 RN: Yes.

30:28 S5: California is now bound to accept the same technology. We, people who claim to be so called entrepreneurial, are missing a big opportunity which is being capitalized and taken over. Israel is punching way above it’s power in the water recycling, water resources market.

30:48 RN: Thank you, yes.

30:50 S5: And we should also look at it, the drip irrigation was also an off-set of this project. And unless we plan this out and we keep growing sugarcane, in Rajasthan, we have a problem, serious problem which is not understood.

31:04 RN: Very true. 80% of our water goes into agriculture.

31:04 S5: And sugar surplus we are proud. Please think about it and respond. Do we need crops like sugar growing in the deserts of Rajasthan?

31:13 RN: Well, Mihir feels very strongly about this.

31:15 DS: So, I won’t go to Rajasthan. Let’s stick to Karnataka. And you take rice and sugarcane. Okay so now I’m going with you have a quiz later in the day, so let me ask you a quiz question. I’ll ask about both Maharashtra and Karnataka actually. Maharashtra is even more striking. So let’s begin with Maharashtra, you know it’s a Sugarcane state etectera, how much of the cropped area in Maharashtra, is occupied by sugarcane? Okay, anyone? Sorry, okay that’s a, that’s a very informed guess, because normally the answer. Oh my God.

31:56 RN: That’s Saman for you.

31:56 DS: That obviously, I should have known. So you should have been disqualified from answering the question, but I asked Jairam Ramesh in a meeting recently. And he said it’s about 60%.

32:06 RN: Six, Zero.

32:07 DS: Because the fact is that actually it’s only 4%. Maharashtra ‘s Sugarcane area is just 4% but how much… And you’re not gonna answer that, how much of the water of irrigation does sugarcane take up in Maharashtra? It’s 65%, so when the Chief Minister of Maharashtra asked me, “What should I do to solve Maharashtra ‘s water problem?” He is facing drought after drought. I said,”Just tweak 4% to 2% your entire water problem can be solved.” And the same thing we are saying in Karnataka, in our water policy’s document, that rise in sugarcane are taking up nearly three-fourth of the state’s water while they occupy just 20% of the cropped area. What I am recommending is that you move, because Karnataka has, after Rajasthan, the largest dry rain-fed area in the country.

33:03 RN: Yes.

33:04 DS: And all of northern Karnataka has traditionally grown millets and pulses.

33:08 RN: Millets, yes.

33:09 DS: And if the government can decide to introduce these crops into the mid-day meal and the ICDS program, can you imagine the demand that it will create?

33:18 RN: I think Karnataka is moving in that direction.

33:20 DS: It is.

33:20 RN: So I think Karnataka ‘s done some fairly progressive work on millets policy.

33:23 DS: It is pilot and what we are saying is scale up the pilot and you will have a major impact on health because, you know how diabetes has become a national epidemic. We are the fastest diabetes growing population in the world.

33:35 RN: Yeah.

33:36 DS: We have a multiple win-win. Farmer incomes, because the cost of cultivation will come down, water security, ecology and also consumer.

33:44 RN: Public health, yeah.

33:45 DS: So by just making the shift exactly as you said, away from sugarcane and crops like rice. I’m not saying get rid of the them because then people raise this alarming scenario.

33:55 RN: No.

33:55 DS: We’re saying just reduce the percentage a little bit, bring it into the mid-day meal ICDS, bring in in the PDS.

34:00 RN: And also grow it in a more water-wise way. A simple thing someone told me is that farmers bulk-up sugarcane with extra water just before it goes to market. If instead it was sold on sugar intensity, you would save a lot of water. So, there are many tweaks you can do even in sugar and rice.

34:17 DS: Absolutely.

34:18 RN: How many of you have thought of eating millets of late? How many of you’ve increased millet intake? See I think these are the changes that we’re seeing happening especially the young people in this room. You all can actually make public policy change much faster, than if people like, old people like Mihir and I sat on this platform giving lots of gyaan.

34:39 DS: Absolutely.

34:40 DS: So, the more you eat millets, the faster the sugarcane economy is going to shift.

34:44 Speaker 7: The question I had was from a policy continuity perspective. How different Dr. Shah do you view the work that was done by the erstwhile planning commission replaced today by the Niti Aayog and linked to that. And pardon me, if this is political, do you view the project about cleaning the Ganga as a purely a political project?

35:02 RN: Yeah we can’t hear you. Sorry, is the Ganga rejuvenation, Namami Gange? No. What did you say?

35:06 S7: So two aspects of the question. The first was around policy continuity and how it’s different and second whether you view the Namami Gange project as purely a political project?

35:16 RN: Okay.

35:17 DS: Okay. No, I think… Look I was one of the six… The way the planning commission functioned for all these years in this country. I think we cannot any more have a command and control approach. I was not happy with chief ministers coming every year and presenting themselves to us and like school child coming and presenting a report card. I think that was, which was good to do away with that. But I think the Planning Commission was playing an increasingly important role in the economy. And I’d like to take two minutes over that. The potential role of the Planning Commission in my view is to be a Reform Commission. If the implementation is done by the ministries and the state governments. But there has to be somebody and the Planning Commission was an unique institution. It was both within government and outside government. It had people like me, largely who are from outside government, most of the members who are experts in their own fields drawn from outside government but embedded within government, in a way that their voice carried weight and could push and facilitate reform they’re required.

36:18 DS: I would have State governments coming to me to help them resolve disputes among them. I would have people coming and asking, how can we implement this government program better. And the role of the Planning Commission was therefore like a knowledge commission providing answers to difficult questions which the implementer was faced with. I think that role is important, that role I don’t know how much is being played by the current Niti Aayog but we do need an institution like that, whatever name you give it. An institution like that has a crucial role in improving the quality of outcomes of the huge expenditure that government is now undertaking. We have to attend to the quality that we are achieving as a reward to their expenditure. On Namami Gange I don’t think it’s political at all because from Mr. Rajiv Gandhi’s time, the same program has been ongoing. The problem is, there is a resounding failure, whether it is one party or the other. So it’s completely non-political, if you like because it is universally unfortunately been a failure because we continue to look at it from an engineering perspective. I would have thought that when I met Ms. Uma Bharti, she was one of the great campaigners for saving the Ganga.

37:26 DS: So I appealed to that side of her. I said, “Look, you need a people’s movement around the Ganga. Of course the technology is important, of course all of this investment must go in but it must become a people’s movement. Without that it’s not gonna happen.” Unfortunately, that advise of course, went unheeded, as it has gone for the last more than 30 years since the Ganga program has started. So, I think the same point that we’ve been making since the morning, we need to view water in a multi-disciplinary manner, in a cross disciplinary manner and with multiple stakeholders all coming together, sitting across the table with mutual respect for each other. I think that has not happened. And because of which program like Namami Gange are not going to succeed.

38:08 Speaker 8: Yeah. My name is Prema D’Souza. I’m a lecturer for BBA Departments at St. Edmund’s College. My question is in a crew-ship, we have water management as they have a separate machine where even a smallest waste goes into that machine and you have a rigorous filtration. So, waste water also gets converted into mineral water. So, that none of the waste water is let into the oceans. Do we have such a technological development in India, and if not what is your opinion regarding adopting certain… This type of technology?

38:40 DS: I think the technology is always there…

38:41 RN: All the technologies exist.

38:42 DS: Technology is not the problem, the problem is exactly what we are saying. It’s a paradigm shift in the way we think about solutions that we have to do. I mean the crew-ship is a very nice metaphorical situation that we’re facing.

38:56 RN: It’s a closed-loop.

38:57 DS: Yeah. But in a way we have to think that situation is as critical as in that where we can’t afford anything but what they’re doing. I think we should also feel that…

39:07 RN: Circular economy.

39:09 DS: Yeah.

39:09 RN: In water. We obviously need to head towards that, yeah. The technologies exist. How is the governance structure going to allow for those technologies to be used properly? I think that’s where we all failing. I want to leave you all again with the imagination of Bangalore where two rivers flowing, with brimming clean lakes and all of you participating in activities around that. So thank you very much.

39:39 S1: Thank you Rohini.

Making invisible water visible

Making invisible water visible

August 10, 2018 | Governance

“The capricious nature of groundwater has resulted in so much exploitation and overuse that we now have a consistent crisis. Presenting a roadmap for groundwater governance and information transparency using technology.”

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The people’s struggle to find solutions to water challenges

The people’s struggle to find solutions to water challenges

March 22, 2018 | Water

With the summer looming, water comes more easily to the urban mind. Even for those who had been reasonably secure all year long, it is an uncertain time. Maybe it is time to build a sump, to invest in a rainwater harvesting system, or to try, again, to dig a private borewell.

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Water Philanthropy in India: A Conversation with Rohini Nilekani

Water Philanthropy in India: A Conversation with Rohini Nilekani

February 9, 2018 | Water

Rohini Nilekani in conversation with Dr. Ravina Aggarwal, Director, Columbia Global Centers | Mumbai

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This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s conversation with Dr. Ravina Aggarwal, Director, Columbia Global Centres in Mumbai. Their discussed the state of the water crisis in India and how philanthropists can help address this issue.

Although I had started Arghyam in 2001, when I was still learning the ropes of philanthropy, it was really in 2004 that I came into a really sizeable amount of money through the sale of our Infosys shares. I didn’t need that kind of money personally, so I decided to give it to the foundation. However, it’s actually not easy to give money strategically and effectively, unless you have a real grasp on the issues at hand and how to come at them. I hired Sunita Nadhamuni as my CEO and we both got to work researching what issue directly affects the life of every single citizen in this country. We were thinking about working in the field of healthcare at the time, but I remember being in the shower one day and stopping to realise, “Wait, it’s water that you should work on.” That’s when it clicked for me.

So we started looking into the state of the water sector, whether philanthropic money was being invested there and whether it was having any impact. This is when we realised there’s no single Indian philanthropic foundation devoted to water, at a time when we were only just beginning to understand the magnitude of the water crisis in this country.
It was a shocking wake-up call and we decided that we had to try and improve the situation in some way. In our 12 years working in the sector, it’s been a sharp learning curve for us, because we didn’t know very much going in, so we were experimenting, trying, failing, and learning from our mistakes. We have grown from smaller projects and campaigns, to programmes and partnerships that enable us to affect change on a much larger scale.

Of course, there’s a lot to learn from other countries that have managed their water better. However, it’s also true that no country’s faced the kind of challenges that India
has, at a time of a global crisis, when we can no longer dump our waste somewhere else, and when climate change is already upon us. How do we re-think water management in that context? We have to become an innovation lab ourselves, and be able to experiment and create solutions for water management that are decentralized, flexible, and resilient structures.

Many corporations are now also investing in water, because it is such an obvious crisis today. We also have the India Philanthropy Initiative where a lot of the wealthy citizens who want to engage in discussions on philanthropy come together, and identify opportunities for investing philanthropy within different sectors. There is also collaboration and learning happening between CSR teams and philanthropists, so people are building networks of trust and figuring out strategies that are successful for them. We’ve been able to pull in a lot of CSR and other philanthropy funding in our projects by taking those initial risks, and being the first in that space, so that other people can easily follow.

As a foundation, however, Arghyam would not have been able to have the reach it does without our partners. We are a funding organisation, but we also come with a passion and commitment, and we try to help all our partners strategize and be more effective. Since I put up the 150 crores from my personal wealth into Arghyam over 12 years ago, we have been able to disperse 145 crores into 145 projects, across 22 states and directly affecting 50 lakh people. Through our journey, we’ve also come to focus much more on groundwater specifically.

The Invisible Issue

It’s estimated that the government has spent 400,000 crores over the last several decades on surface water, however India is also losing an alarming amount of its groundwater. Through working with our partner across the drier regions of this country, we realised how dire this situation really is. While most government concerns centre around the rivers and setting up irrigation infrastructure for surface water, there are 35 million bore wells spread across the country that people are drawing water from. But because it is invisible, or less visible than the issue of surface water, there’s no method to use it sustainably or equitably, and that is where the problem lies. India is drawing more groundwater than either America or China, and when seen from satellite maps, the depleted groundwater levels are truly shocking. One aim of Arghyam is to use science, data, and innovation to make this invisible problem visible, and to enable us to manage our groundwater better. Otherwise Cape Town’s Day Zero declaration will pale in comparison to the crisis that India will face, in terms of the sheer number of people that will be affected.

According to a 2016 estimate, 300 million people in our country live in drought affected conditions and 80% of our water is contaminated due to untreated sewage. This reality is starting to affect people across economic classes as well, so complacency will not be an option soon. I remember when my family first moved to Bangalore, the tanker would come and women and children would come running out with buckets, fighting to get the day’s water. Today, the situation hasn’t changed for a lot of people. The issue of groundwater depletion also brings to the forefront the struggle between the urban and the rural. People living in urban centres like Mumbai or Delhi have access to water, but are also part of the cycle of depletion, whether they are aware of it or not.

The consumption of water also means waste being added to it, and we don’t have any effective means of examining the repercussions of this. Initiatives to build more toilets will not make a difference if they don’t also address where those waste streams go or how to treat them, and that actually causes a larger health issue than the lack of toilets. In areas where so-called sustainable open defecation used to happen, communities used to have social protocols that dictated where to go, so that contamination was somewhat avoided. However, our research shows that now toilet waste streams are going back into the groundwater tables, directly contaminating the groundwater that people then pull up to drink. Through our work, we’ve seen places where hundreds of toilets have been set up next to wells, so nitrate contamination is also a huge issue in those areas.

Educating Ourselves, Encouraging Research

One of the ways in which Arghyam wanted to address this was through spreading knowledge and awareness. When the National Knowledge Commission was setting up portals for the whole country, meant to serve as knowledge resources in different sectors, Arghyam offered to start and fund the India Water Portal. It’s been 10 years since we set it up, and it’s been a great resource for the research community, taking up many ideological battles around water and reaching out to citizens. However, it was born in an era when digital technologies hadn’t yet converged as they have done today, so it’s not the kind of one-stop shop where citizens can easily learn how to manage water. If the India Water Portal was born today, it would have a very different sort of imagination. So we are trying to see in Arghyam a version for how we can make that a little more exciting and accessible to use. As it exists today, it continues to serve its purpose as an open knowledge platform that can be used to help the government serve communities better.

Through our partners, we’ve also been able to develop a platform called the Participatory Groundwater Management Program. I think this idea of local participation is critical to solving this problem because water distribution is always going to be a local, political issue. If you don’t have participation from the community itself, you’re immediately going to get into issues of water not being distributed equally, and a lack of regulation. India is one of the most poorly regulated groundwater regimes in the world, because of a British law from 1882 called the Easement Act, which essentially grants people ownership of any water on their land. So technically, I can dig a hole and suck up a whole aquifer and sell it – legally there is no framework to stop me from doing this. But since groundwater is a common resource, you have to create participatory mechanisms to manage it sustainably. Since we don’t have effective regulation, or institutional structures to manage groundwater, there is no other alternative.

In the absence of effective policy and regulation, we have to involve the local community and create a de facto, if not de jour model way of managing groundwater.

Participation was a very key part of our philosophy, so we named this platform the Participatory Groundwater Management Programme. Through this initiative, we have sent our hydrogeological experts to around 500 communities facing these problems. Using data practices and science, these experts help locals understand and budget for the groundwater. They learn methods for crop rotation or better crop management, and bore wells are segregated for lifeline water. After two years, communities realise that by sharing the finite resource under their feet, they can see their incomes increasing, because they are being scientific about what crops they are harvesting and how to use the water effectively. We are really encouraged by the feedback we’ve gotten, and are now trying to affect change at the policy level as well. The Atal Bhujal Yojana, where millions of dollars will be going into groundwater management, was mentioned in the budget, so I hope some of these principles that our partners have been working on for eight years will get embedded and scaled.

Participatory Governance and Indigenous Knowledge

There’s no getting around the fact that we are a deeply hierarchical society, so it takes a lot of work to create real, participatory processes. To include women’s voices, Dalit voices, and the voices of other marginalised communities in the discussion around water equity will require active work on our part. Sometimes, when NGOs leave a community, they fall back to those old power structures that are so deeply ingrained in how we govern ourselves. That is the reason why participatory processes are such a powerful idea. We have seen that people do try to keep them going because they see the results in equitable access for everyone.

Spring water in India was another issue that we tried to tackle at Arghyam. No one has accurate data on the number of springs in India, but they’re critical to many people’s livelihoods. Due to land use change, pipe water supply, and other factors, they have been neglected, but in the mountain regions many communities depend on spring water. However, springs weren’t considered as groundwater by the government until only recently. It took a lot of effort of us and our partners to actually educate people about the fact that springs are groundwater that is simply located within discharge zones. We decided to take up this neglected issue of reviving springs, and through working with our partners in about 12 states, we have so far been able to rejuvenate 7,000 springs. Six states are now working with us to map and revive all their streams, in the Northeast and Western regions of India, and hopefully we can keep going and scale this program.

Another issue with local communities is being able to respect and value their indigenous knowledge and belief systems surrounding water sources. With our presence in these areas, we do see those practices getting a little disrupted, especially because there is not enough continuity of model leadership. So the challenge we’re facing now is how to re-imagine this sacredness. How do you value water in 2018? How do you create a new grammar of sacredness for water? This is the learning curve for some of our partners.

The Need for Good Data and Research

With Arghyam, I think we see ourselves as long-term players in this sector – we are not going away anytime soon. To be able to provide research, we need to have projects and campaigns happening on the ground. On the other hand, if we’re not able to connect the dots, our physical projects aren’t going to be successful. In a long term study, you need good data, you need academicians to come in and stay the course to build real, usable knowledge. So through the foundation, we have been supporting research in various ways. We tend to have bias towards action-based research, so a lot of our work centres around collecting knowledge from fieldwork and try out different strategies. It’s an ethos of enacting action, think through the results, and finally produce the data.

With the kind of progress we’ve seen over these 12 years, I think if we continue like this, we will do incremental things, achieve success, and impact real people’s lives in a positive way. But when you look at the bigger picture, and the sheer scale at which we need to think about solutions, our work just feels like a drop in the ocean. It’s not simply a question of how much philanthropic capital we can put in, we also need to create the pipelines for which this money can be used in the water sector in a smart and sufficient way. Right now we are hoping to scale up in how we operate, moving from partnerships to platforms. The aim is to design a digital platform, a shareable infrastructure for lots of actors to be able to utilize it in a way that is effective for them. We hope that with this platform, we can scale on a larger level, rather than for Arghyam to try and go to new locations physically.

This idea was born out of my experiences working with Pratham Books, where we created an open-source platform for people to write, read, publish, print, share, and illustrate literature. Through this platform, we’ve been able to reach millions of kids. The initial idea was to create something that is designed for scale, that is open, shareable, and that allows for creation and collaboration on top of it. Nandan and I also utilised this idea in EkStep, a digital learning platform for young children that we started two and a half years ago. Our goal is to reach 200 million children in the next five years. We wanted to provide access to learning opportunities, for which this framework is incredibly effective. We decided to call this idea Societal Platforms, and we are hoping to build that out in Arghyam as well, during the next two years.

The requests we heard a lot from our partners was the need for better data and research. They need to be able to train people quickly and efficiently, and to make scare training resources easily available. So how do you design for that? This is where Arghyam wants to take on the responsibility and bring in technology, to build a platform that’s useful for data and research, for capacity building and training, and for providing deployment tools. Rather than researchers and academics working in isolation at universities, their knowledge can be pooled and accessible to others – aggregating knowledge for the public as well as for others to build off of.

Creating Solutions Together

Nowadays, it’s getting difficult for the super-wealthy to be complacent and not give back to society. You can’t have a Ferrari without owning a foundation. With the CSR law, a lot of businesses are also getting involved in the philanthropy sector. But I think, with all this influx of capital, people are also realising the challenges inherent in giving. The first thing you learn as a philanthropist is that you have to have trust. The markets operate in a very different way from the samaaj sector, so trust becomes a very important thing. You need to trust that the people who you’re giving money to have the same goal as you, and that they will do the work required.

The second thing to keep in mind is that this kind of work is not often quantifiable. The work our partners have done is to enable communities to say, “We are part of the solution, not part of the problem.” But how do you measure that? How do you measure the self-esteem that people feel from examining a problem deeply and trying to find solutions for themselves? Of course, we can collect data on wells, on how much water people get, etc. but it is that kind of unquantifiable feedback that gives us some sense of success.

At Arghyam, we are invested in our partners and try to work with them on creating solutions, rather than dictating orders. That relationship is crucial, because these are people who are working at the grassroots level and who understand the specific issues within an area or community. So we aim to work with them, keeping cooperation in mind for any kind of design. We value the feedback they bring to us as well, because it enables us to come together and innovate better solutions. So listening and cooperating with your partners is also incredibly important.

INKtalks: Rohini Nilekani: From starting Infosys to saving water

INKtalks: Rohini Nilekani: From starting Infosys to saving water

January 4, 2017 | Water

Philanthropist Rohini Nilekani talks to Lakshmi Pratury about setting up Infosys in the early 90’s, her attempt to encourage children to read more books and about her Foundation Arghyam, which works with water and sanitation issues.

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