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.
Indian film celebrity Aamir Khan is shepherding a very revolutionary campaign – making Maharashtra drought-free in five years. The movie star started the initiative with hopes of 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. Aamir’s social revolution is set to surpass the feats of legendary rural reformers like Anna Hazare in Ralegaon Siddhi and Popatrao Pawar in Hiware Village, both in Ahmednagar District
Satyamev Jayate, Khan’s TV show that started in 2012, focused on issues that required social change. The response to the show was phenomenal as people from various walks of showed keenness to make a difference. Aamir’s team believed that if they worked in a specific area on a specific issue, they could be part of a massive social transformation. They zeroed in on the issue of water scarcity and decided to work in Maharashtra, thereby starting their non-profit, Paani Foundation, which aimed to spread knowledge about water management and groundwater
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.
Khan has adopted a unique approach to getting the public interested in his work, with the help of the Satyameva Jayate Water Cup, which has infused a competitive spirit in the participants. The movement started in 2016 with 16 villages and has now spread to 4000 villages across 24 of state’s 36 districts.
The competition is put together by three non-profits—Paani Foundation, Watershed Organisation Trust and Sparsh-Centre for Participatory Learning. Villages are assessed on watershed management and water conservation works for the competition.
Prizes for the Cup include cash prizes of Rs 50 lakh, Rs 30 lakh and Rs 20 lakh for the top three villages. Dr Avinash Pol, known as the ‘paanyache (water) doctor’, is the inspiration for the foundation and has said that 80% of the villages that participated in the competition last year created enough capacity to “bid goodbye to the water tankers they had been dependent on for years.”
The Paani Foundation has worked out a very careful strategy to enthuse half-abandoned villages into battling drought. The secret is Aamir‘s unique charisma that serves as the glue to enthuse and bind the people.
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.
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 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. The four-day training includes technical trainingas well as environmental inputs.
Upon returning to their villages the representatives help prepare an extensive watershed development plan. They are also expected to mobilise people by organizing gram sabhas(village assemblies) to explain the competition and why everyone must get involved. The Paani Foundation arms the representatives with solid technical resources. Apart from learning to read contour maps, villagers are trained to construct various water harvesting structures, such as earthen dams, loose boulder structures and continuous contour trenches amongst others.
Over 5000 villagers have been trained on watershed works. Dr Pol attends gram sabha meetings and interacts with thousands of villagers via satellite. During each episode a film or theatre personality joins the doctor. A caravan from village to village facilitates this online gram sabha. Aamir and Kiran take keen interest and visit villages from time to time
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 with three technical trainers stationed in each taluka.
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 taluka.
The annual shramdaan extends over 45 days which is however not adequate for the entire exercise. Invariably, earth diggers have to be hired to dig deep continuous contour trenches (CCT), ponds and other water reservoirs.
The foundation’s strategy focuses on community-based approach by empowering stakeholders 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.”
Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis has also expressed his support for Khan’s endeavour. Khan’s enterprise and initiative has helped transform the “Paani adva, Paani jive” water conversation slogan of Maharashtra into a people’s movement.
[Moin Qazi is the author of Village Diary of a Heretic Banker. He has spent more than three decades in the development sector.]
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