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In Conversation With A Crusader Who’s Been Solving Water Crises All Over India

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“Water is the driving force of all nature.”– Leonardo Da Vinci

Issues of water conflict aren’t new in Maharashtra. Earlier, Maharashtra used to be fortunate enough to receive four months of steady rainfall which would be beneficial for the crops. This was mainly because the rains would be evenly distributed over a large period of time and would be available for all the crucial stages of the crop’s growth.

In recent times, however, the state has received heavy but intermittent showers of rainfall. This has resulted in the death of many crops because they haven’t received much-needed water during all of the important stages of their growth. There have also been instances where women have had to wake up long before sunrise to walk a few kilometres to reach a well and fetch water. There’s also been a scarcity of livelihood opportunities in these villages which has forced people to migrate to the cities to earn a living by doing odd jobs from time to time. Therefore, the lack of adequate attention to such ‘environmental conflicts’ has led this issue to spike up by a great extent.

Co- founded by Sujata Khandekar, CORO India has evolved into a grassroots-owned organisation over the past 25 years. It strives to work towards a society based on equality and justice. Initially, it was formed with the aim of propagating adult literacy in the slums of Mumbai. Gradually, it has also become a focal point for a huge network of grassroots projects and initiatives. With a view to increase its social, economic and geographic reach, and to strengthen its capacity to serve the changing needs in a complex society, CORO is now entering into a new phase of development – in the course of which its ability to stimulate collective knowledge-creation processes and making them more explicit has become the agenda for the growth of the organisation.

Recently, I spoke to Mr Suryakant, who has been working with CORO since 2004. He was associated with one of CORO’s programmes called “Yaari Dosti”, the agenda which included shattering socially-constructed gender stereotypes and reforming the meaning of masculinity.

The programme, which initially started with 300 children, included a variety of activities. Mr Suryakant also has notable contributions in ensuring basic amenities and resolving major water conflicts in the slum areas. He has also conducted a few courses on geology and hydrology.

In 2011, he felt the need to expand his work into the rural areas. He spoke to Sujata Khandekar, Mr Mahendra and also Mr Bilas who introduced him to a fellowship programme in western Maharashtra called the “Centre For Leadership”, which was later transformed into the “Quest Grassroot Leadership Programme”. As he became involved in speaking with the people and inspecting the area, he sensed the magnitude of concerns regarding water in the area.

Previously, he had worked in Bhalauri village, Uttarakhand, on water issues. The work there required him to construct four dams – including some in other villages. For this, the government there had laid down the basic structure for setting up those dams.

However, the main problems here revolved around the availability of drinking water. There was also the issue of scarcity of water for agricultural purposes in the districts of Satara, Solapur and Sangli. At this point, CORO chose to address this issue.

Normally, the people active in the blocks of these three districts used to discuss how to ensure a water supply in the drought-prone areas through canals. Mr Suryakant conducted his research and found out that this widely-accepted solution used in these areas was of much use during the monsoons. But there was no such arrangement to store water in those areas. Even if dams were built, the water collected in the monsoons but eventually flow away. Additionally, there was no programme in those areas which would impart people with the necessary knowledge to store rainwater for longer periods of time.

Mr Suryakant from CORO India (Image source: CORO India)

Therefore, he was prompted to study the facts thoroughly and gain relevant information on how to sustain an adequate water supply in the area. Generally, when there is a huge water crisis, water is stored by building dams and water tanks. However, rocks also play a major role in storing water – and this knowledge was largely lacking in the people of the areas where he was working.

During his stint in Bhalauri, Mr Suryakant had organised and set up meetings with the local people and water experts to address the prevalent lack of knowledge among the people. In these meetings, the water experts had pointed out four appropriate ways in which it was possible to store water and sustain water supply. This, in their opinion, would at least resolve the issue of the lack of drinking water.

Since the appeal to set up a dam would generally not be heard by the government, they proposed involving the Gram Sabha for passing a resolution to restructure the dam in the areas decided by the water experts. In the meantime, Mr Suryakant brought to the forefront the egoistic and casual attitude of the government when it comes to working for social issues. In his opinion, they feel that they are the only ones fit to work on these issues – and therefore, they do not accept ‘interference’ from other sources, even in situations where they ought to be more meticulous.

Similarly, he also narrated his experiences of another village called Hinjawadi in Pune, Maharashtra – where, apart from the problem of water scarcity, the people also didn’t even have a single source of livelihood. So, the people in the area used to travel to nearby cities to earn their living. Here, he spoke of a government scheme, the MGNREGA-Rojgar Humi Yojana, which he thought would be best implemented in the area. Not only did it resolve the issue of unemployment here, this experience also added to his knowledge significantly.

At that time, a gender sensitisation programme was being conducted in another village, the people of which were equally interested to resolve their water issues. Mr Suryakant took the initiative to deal with the situation and called upon water experts to identify the problem areas there.

The village had a well and if efforts were made to fill up the well with water, it would end their water woes. However, at that time, CORO did not have the funds to construct a mechanism to ensure the filling up of the well. Moreover, according to their estimates, the cost of setting up such a mechanism would be around ₹6 lakhs. CORO promised to arrange 50% of the amount – but even after their contribution, the required funds were still short by ₹3,11,000.

The people in that village initially refused to contribute to the project, citing poverty as a pretext. However, Mr Suryakant soon noticed a well built temple nearby. When he probed deeper into the matter, he came to know that the villagers contributed around ₹25 lakhs for the construction of the Shiva temple. It was a jaw-dropping moment! Furthermore, Mr Suryakant wondered if the people could donate such a huge amount for building a temple that would be of no use to solving the water crisis, then what was stopping them from eradicating their own problem, that too, when help was readily available to them? After all, they only had to arrange the funds.

Mr Suryakant then started explained to them the necessity of water for their development and health. After sustained efforts, they managed to arrange ₹3,050,00, which was more than the required amount. They also managed to collect the materials necessary for the mechanism. Above all, they wanted the whole setup to be ‘people-centric’. They wanted to arrange things in such a fashion that even after their task was completed, the village’s development would continue.

To that end, they put forward a democratic strategy of ‘Gramkosh Sankalpana’- the formation of a committee at the gram panchayat level, whose role was to make both men and women active participants, and also make it a platform for inclusive decision-making processes. Mr Suryakant also succeeded in passing a resolution which stated that CORO’s involvement with the village would continue for the next three years. The resolution also attempted to make sure that each and every individual of the village was actively involved in the overall development of the village.

The committee consisted of 11 people with one person representing CORO. The committee would have elections for choosing the president and the joint secretary. Furthermore, since the development of the village involved lot of administrative tasks, CORO decided to appoint one of their members as the secretary of the committee.

The committee would also take into account the construction company they would be involved with, after taking everyone’s considerations. After this, one person would be in charge of writing the cheque for the amount allocated and get the signatures of the president and the secretary. There would be another person who would be in charge of taking the cheque and the copy of the resolution to the vendor. A separate individual would receive the notification for the amount deducted from the account. Also, the deposition of funds in the bank for development purposes was kept under the purview of another individual. One more person was in charge of getting the passbook entries from the bank.

This committee would also ensure the equal and active participation of all the people in the village to make it corruption free. Through the HSBC Bank, a programme for five villages was implemented for the next three years.

After analysing his experiences in resolving water conflicts, Mr Suryakant is of the opinion that in such cases, the study of geology and hydrology should be mandatory. He also opined that in most of the villages, the state of the dams largely indicated the lack of these studies. Merely setting up a dam can not completely eliminate the concerns. To go into the roots of water crisis, it is necessary to identify the layers of confined and unconfined aquifers. To authenticate the work of water storage, it is of utmost importance to work on maintaining groundwater levels at the very beginning.

Mr Suryakant’s strategies have been greatly applauded by all the villages he has worked in till today. To this end and seeing the success of his strategies, he has even been advised to expand his work to the villages which have been left out. The strategy he had previously employed in Maharashtra mainly consisted of conducting baseline surveys of six villages consisting of 2,325 families to gather necessary information – like the measuring the areas, and identifying the places where cultivation can be done (and those where it can’t) to achieve desirable results.

Signing off, he emphasised on the need to understand what a rock is, how fractures occur in rocks and how moisture is built up to create a dam. Mr Suryakant also emphasised the need to understand the struggles people have to face due to water crises, and the adverse effects it has on people. According to him, most government officials do not thoroughly investigate any issue before the commencement of their work, which, in turn, leads to the disruption of their work. If one has to work for the people, they must toil every hour to take into account even that particular and small bit of information which can be a boon to the people. That is when real development will take place.

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Featured image source: CORO India
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