Introduce water literacy and community driven water management

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Waterman of India Rajendra Singh and Archana Verma, director, National Water Mission.

At the Vizag institute, one of the most impressive and outspoken sessions was one dedicated to the memory of the late RI presidential nominee Sushil Gupta, who put water conservation and preservation on the map of Rotary.

Making an impassioned plea to teach people to use water “with respect,” Magsaysay Award winner Rajendra Singh, popularly known as the ­waterman of India, who has worked with Rotary on water management projects, gave out some alarming statistics. “According to GoI figures, over 72 per cent of India’s ground aquifer is overdrawn. Rotary has done great work in eradication of polio from India and is still working to eradicate it from the rest of the world. But more dangerous and worrying problem is our overdrawn aquifer. Once your earth has no water, then RBI’s currency will have no value, because only the presence of water can allow our life to continue comfortably.”

Coming down heavily on “our modern education system which puts emphasis on extraction, pollution and encroachment,” Singh said earlier that morning when he had gone to Vizag’s most famous temple for darshan, “I found that the Muni Parvat opposite the temple had denuded badly. Now who cut that mountain? The Andhra Pradesh government. Our governments and communities think education should also teach us to destroy nature and its resources; and our technology and engineering teach us how in minimum time we can do maximum extraction from the soil. If such an engineer/extractor gets the biggest package, then our modern education system is flawed.”

Once your earth has no water, then RBI’s currency will have no value; only water can allow our life to continue comfortably.

Pointing to PRIP Shekhar Mehta in the audience, he said, “Shekhar is very excited and in the next 10 years he wants to build thousands of ponds, check dams, water bodies and our government is also very excited that in some time it will provide water to everybody. The popular slogan is har ghar me nal har ghar me jal (A tap and water for every house). But these are all empty words because your water bank has no water to realise such promises.”

It was here that Rotary’s role became very important; Rotarians would have to convince the government that “instead of education which concentrates on extraction, let us make it nature-friendly. Unless you change the education system, you won’t be able to stop pollution, extraction or encroachment. The biggest encroacher and exploiter today is the government. If this country needs to be water-rich, we have to think of the good of everybody, and only organisations like Rotary can bring our governments on board and make them see reason.”

Slogans such as har ghar me nal har ghar me jal, are all empty words because your water bank has no water to realise such promises.

Singh’s crucial message to the senior Rotarians at the institute was simple: “Become the much-required bridge; when I talk, I always talk plain language but you can do the right kind of articulation, which I can’t because I’ve never learnt it!”

But Rotarians can explain to the government through proper articulation that whatever money we are spending on reaching water to all citizens, and the dream of jal in every ghar will “fructify only jab hum badal se nikli hui har boond ko apney pyar se pakadna seekh legey (when we learn to catch with love every drop of water coming from the clouds). Once we do that then we will know how to expend that water with respect.”

While talking to the government, organisations like Rotary could make it “understand that only when we implement efficient use of water, however many dams or water bodies we may build, water will never be sufficient.”

After making a plea for decentralised water management, Singh said another crucial requirement was a “water literacy movement. Without that, big water projects won’t succeed, because our cropping patterns are such that they take in huge amounts of water. Also, we are favouring industries that pollute our streams and destroy our water sources. Look at how the Godavari river has been polluted.”

From L: PDG Ranjan Dhingra, Rajendra Singh and RI Director Mahesh Kotbagi.
From L: PDG Ranjan Dhingra, Rajendra Singh and RI Director Mahesh Kotbagi.

Urging Mehta and Rotary to start a water literacy movement, he said most of the water work will have to be done through small streams. Keep this movement simple and without high sounding words. If this institute can trigger decentralised water conservation and skilful, efficient and thoughtful use of water, “I promise you that as the recently appointed chairman of the World Drought and Flood Commission, for a 10-year term, I will ensure that this world commission will support you.”

As he ended his speech, PRIP Mehta assured him on the spot that “we are planning to do 10,000 watershed and water rejuvenation programmes and commit to you that all the work will be done only through community participation.”

Addressing the water session, Archana Verma, director of National Water Mission, highlighted the need to conserve water for a sustainable ecosystem. Chucking away her prepared speech, she went extempore and said that when the subject is water, the words have to “come from the heart.”

Jab hum badal se nikli hui har boond ko apney pyar se pakadna seekh legey (when we learn to catch with love every drop coming from the clouds), we’ll know how to expend that water with respect.

Urging all citizens to use water judiciously, she said that as water is a natural product, “it cannot be conceived or thought of in silos. My only mission is to break the silos in water. To me there is no surface water, groundwater, drinking water. Water is water, but for purposes of policy implementation, we have broken it into silos, and that is where I feel the problem lies because water like human beings cannot exist in silos.”

Her vision as the water mission’s director, was to “break the verticality in the silos” and for that purpose, on Jan 5 and 6, the first-ever meeting of state ministers for water resources will be organised in Bhopal. Here there will be discussion on themes such as water governance, infrastructure, conservation, community participation, etc, which were the main objectives of the Water Mission. They will also discuss the need to integrate water data which could be easily accessed by the public.

Another of their vision was water conservation and “that is where you come in as citizens. We are in the final stages of signing an MoU with the Rotary India Water Conservation Trust headed by PDG Ranjan Dhingra.”

Governments will listen only when strong and influential organisations like Rotary put pressure on it. This is the time for your Rotarians to speak up; India’s depleting underground aquifers demand that you speak up.

Addressing the session PDG ­Dhingra paid a tribute to the late RIPN Gupta, and recalled his passion for all issues connected with water conservation and the international conference he had organised in Delhi which was attended by the then President of India APJ Abdul Kalam. “Gupta put water on RI agenda and set up the Rotary India Water Conservation Trust, which has since then put up over 500 check dams and other watershed structures for the social and economic uplift of villagers in UP, Haryana Maharashtra, Rajasthan and some other states. He was responsible for the comprehensive and holistic programme for water awareness, conservation, efficient use and rainwater harvesting, which is now under the leadership of PRIP Mehta.”

Now even bigger and bolder targets in the conservation and rejuvenation of water bodies were on the anvil to carry forward the legacy of Gupta. “So devoted was he to the cause of water that even during the last days of his life he asked me to make a presentation on what work we are doing and what we are planning to do in the future,” added Dhingra.

Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat

Integrate our crop and rain patterns

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A major problem related to the increasing water scarcity that India faces, ‘waterman of India’ Rajendra Singh said, was the abundant use of water in India for agriculture. “When 80 per cent water is being used in agriculture, when your agriculture becomes your business, then you will spend huge amounts of water only on your farming.”

He added that for the last 15 years “I have been telling our government that India is divided into several geo-ecological climatic zones, so our hydrological diversity should be respected, and our crop pattern should be integrated to our rain pattern. The day India integrates its agri pattern to our rain pattern, we will be able to save 40 per cent of the water that we are now using in agriculture,” he said.

Striking a note of scepticism, he wondered who would do this work. “No one, because in this work, there is no money, there are no contracts; aur bina paise ka kaam sarkarey nahi karti (governments don’t take up work where huge money isn’t involved!). Governments will listen only when strong and influential organisations like Rotary put pressure on it.”

Urging Rotarians to speak up to do good in the country, Singh said: “This is the time to speak up; India’s depleting underground aquifers demand that you
speak up.”

He said that in the last eight years he had been to 127 countries and seen how people have been displaced due to various reasons associated with water. There is so much distress in the world today and big displacement of people due to floods and droughts. “People are forced to move to other countries which are not welcoming them. When Africans go to Europe thanks to such displacement, the Europeans call them climatic refugees.”

Hence tensions rise; the two earlier world wars were vertical ones, but the third world war, warned the Magsaysay awardee, which will be fought due to water, will not be vertical, but a horizontal one and will be fought everywhere; nobody will be spared by this third world war.”


Speak up Rotary

Water activist Rajendra Singh left the audience with some difficult questions. “How will a country whose underground water aquifers have been overdrawn by 72 per cent survive? And how can you give the people of such a country false slogans such as har ghar me nal, har ghar me jal? If you want water to flow into every tap, then first give your ponds some water.”

Once again addressing PRIP Mehta he said: “Agar aap ko kaam karna hei Shekhar bhai toh phir bolna padega.. sirf pyar se kaam nahi chalenga. If Rotary wants to do meaningful work, then Rotarians will have to speak up, start a dialogue with the government and convince it about the absolute need for community driven, decentralised water management, which will work only when water projects are freed from contractors.”

Giving a successful example of such water management that was free from contractors, Singh said that when Devendra Fadnavis became CM of Maharashtra (which faces huge water shortage), “he called me and said ‘now that I’ve become the CM, tell me what should I do about Maharashtra’s water problems.’ So I told him, ‘first of all, stop constructing big dams/water bodies and put up jal yukta shivars.’ He asked me to lay down the guidelines and ground rules. I said I would do that on the condition that this time the work wouldn’t be done by the contractors but the community.”

His objection to contractors is because “when they do water projects, their only motive is profit, but when the community gets involved, they worry about all the people getting water. Of course, the community also has corrupt people but by and large they think about common good while doing
such work.”

Fadnavis followed his advice and allocated ₹300 crore in the first year to the jal yukti shivars, and ₹700 crore the next year. But then suddenly a decision was taken that all work above ₹3 lakh will be done by a contractor, and then corruption came in and the work closed, he said.

But, added Singh, he was aware “that when Rotary undertakes water conservation or augmentation work, it involves the local community. I know what (PDG) Ranjan Dhingra did in ­Shikar in Rajasthan and when Sushil Gupta was alive, he used to get all water-related work done by the community. When the community takes ownership of such work, corruption takes a back seat.”

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