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Leading the way

GOUTAM GHOSH writes about a fishing village in Tamil Nadu, which may be one of the first to implement rainwater harvesting.

KOVALAMKUPPAM, tucked away from the East Coast Road that connects Chennai to Pondicherry, is likely to become one of the first villages in post-Independence India to implement rainwater harvesting in the whole village. It adjoins a five-star hotel by the Bay of Bengal. Kovalamkuppam throbs with life and is dominated by families of fishermen and fish traders whose livelihood depends on the whims of the Bay.

There is only one arterial road but its width would not qualify as a service lane in a city. It is asphalted and the gradient runs south to north up to the village temple, except near the village pond where a culvert has raised the road surface, upsetting the natural gradient. The road north of the temple slopes gently from north to south. From where the two meet, there is a cemented lane that runs east towards the Bay. There are at least four such lanes between clusters of houses and huts.

A majority of villagers overruled the sane voice of a few to stop asphalting the surface that would hasten the surface run-off instead of trapping the heavenly bounty.

It has been years since Raju Narayanan, founder of Coastal and Rural Development Trust (CRDT), showed an active interest in rainwater harvesting (RWH) but never got the support from agencies specialised in managing water resource. But for lorry loads of water everyday from a hotel nearby, the residents of Kovalamkuppam would have been as worse off (in terms of availability of potable water) as those in other hamlets along the roughly 1000 km coastline of Tamil Nadu. The recent notification by the State Government finally woke up the villagers. They are now willing to listen to Narayanan.

Pipes, pipe clamps, glue, elbow joints and T-joints were carted in and the RWH work began late. Masons and plumbers were unfamiliar with RWH techniques and Sekhar Raghavan, director, Rain Centre, Chennai, explained how the pipes were to be used. Daily wage earners who had come to complete the community well took their own time to lay the first brick, and progress thereafter was agonisingly slow. The plumber scurried to and fro almost aimlessly, and argued meaninglessly about the system to trap rainwater. By the time the first pipe was measured, cut and laid against the wall, it was well past noon, and by the end of the day only a part of a downlet pipe to catch the rooftop rain had been fixed to the building wall close to the well. The work lost momentum also because the house owner was afraid that the filtration pit would encroach her land. The argument was loud - a waste of energy, especially when the owner did not have to pay for the installation. The fear was unfounded.

The first step was to tap the rooftop rainwater from two houses built close to the well — one of five, of which at least one was built with donations from an NRI. "We will begin by building RWH structures on two houses and the temple. Thereafter we will cover the entire fishermen's village. I can only vouch for fishermen's support. There are other people too in our village but they prefer to take their own decisions. It is unlikely that they will listen to us. I wonder if they will install RWH structures after we do so in every hut, every tiled house and every pucca house in our section of the village," said Narayanan.

For another temple area in the village, it was decided to tap rainwater from adjacent buildings and allow it to flow on the sandy ground. Later the village elders decided to extend the pipes up to the well, said Narayanan. Sivanandam, the elderly president of Kovalam Fishermen Society, agreed with Raghavan that the road surface run-off could be tapped before it mixed with grey water let out of almost every home in the village. The problem is, the surface run-off that races down the lanes and heads for the Bay will inevitably mix with grey water, given that household septic tanks are small and there are no sewers in Kovalam. The surface run-off will be trapped in filtration pits before directing the rainwater to the ground below.

Two days after the RWH installation work began in Kovalam — funded by the CRDT as families are hesitant to spend on RWH — the two 440 sq. ft. buildings next to the newly-built well had pipes connecting the terrace to the filtration pit. "The pit will be built after the well is cured for a few days," said some of the elders.

Despite the narrow roads, shoulder-to-shoulder small buildings, a single room primary school, and wells with floating trash; and despite the villagers not being as sophisticated as city dwellers, Kovalam stands as one — at least among a section of the fishermen.

Where village welfare is concerned, these fishermen sink their differences and work together for the overall good of everyone.

The village has done a lot. Long before the State Government launched its scheme of rotating loans from a corpus fund to be managed by women, Kovalam had its own scheme going. The returns have been encouraging, if CRDT schemes are any indication.

The village stopped using disposable plastic bags though urban areas, including Chennai, refuse to shun the practice. CRDT has employed teachers to substitute for Government teachers who play truant but sign the attendance register for all the days.

Given the rate of progress, and given that familiarity with a technique hastens its installation, it may not be long before Kovalam becomes one of the first villages in modern India to tap rainwater (with perfect RWH structures) for the good of its people.

Reality hits hard

RAGHAVAN NAICKER'S house, identified by Mambakkam villagers, is a landmark. It is the only one with satellite dishes on the terrace, drawing a visitor's attention to how a remote village in Kancheepuram district has kept in step with the times.

Mambakkam village has 245 residential units, 47 with reinforced concrete roofs, 60 tiled and the rest huts. A number of pucca houses, including an industry-funded school building, have installed rainwater-harvesting (RWH) structures. Some like Kumar Subramaniam, a branch postmaster, are installing RWH structures in their houses to beat the deadline. At another house the high-density polyethylene (HDPE) pipe warped by heat was attached to the downlet pipe jutting from the terrace.

A rough bulb of cement held the HDPE pipe and the cement pipe together. It is doubtful if rooftop rainwater can flow smoothly down the warped, kinked pipe. Though a lot of the expenses could have been avoided, it is certain that the installed structures on an average will direct rainwater to the ground water table below.

Naicker's house is an exception again. The pipe connected the roof to the filter bed that didn't look like a recharge pit. It had steps but the sand layer was in place. When asked, the owner as well as the Government servants said it was a recharge pit. When the sand top was partly removed, the rubbish below was exposed. The pit - a garbage dump - was cleverly masked to convince a visiting inspection team that it was a recharge pit meant for RWH.

The Government officials quickly threatened the owner of punitive action if he failed to implement a proper RWH system. The same officials had vouched that every RWH structure fulfilled the Government guidelines.

Had the sandy layer not been checked, the cover-up would not have been exposed. One may wonder if the officials and local people were aware of the cover-up by the obviously resourceful Naicker of Mambakkam village.

In Kaduvancheri, there were pits in clayey soil without a filtration bed. The pit size fulfilled the stipulated design but they were useless. They would overflow after a spell of rain because water seeps slowly through a clayey layer. There should have been a pipe all the way down to a porous stratum that could feed the ground water table.

In Molisur, the area around Devadas' house had been completely paved, just as houses are in metropolises like Chennai. Such constructions in a village violating all principles of ground water recharge dynamics seemed to show how city trends influenced village life.

R. Venkatesan, Kancheepuram Collector, discussed the targets more enthusiastically than the quality of work being done. Given the tight deadline, he cannot be faulted for his focus: "Out of 4797 Government buildings, we have installed RWH systems for 3635 buildings, and of 203004 private buildings, RWH has been done for 79950 in the urban areas of the district. In the rural areas, of the 271496 houses, RWH has been completed for 51325 units," said Venkatesan.

Impressive numbers but is it feasible to reach the target within the deadline? "It can be," insisted Venkatesan.

Sure it can be, you will agree, so long as the Government does not depute an incorruptible team of specialists (who really understand what RWH is and how designs depend on layout, gradient, soil profile, among other important factors) to inspect and approve every RWH structure in the State.

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