Field Notes Society

Drought and the superstar

Aamir Khan and Kiran Rao during a promotional tour to a village.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“We play a game,” Aamir Khan says, eyes gleaming. “Each team has a grandparent, parent, child. There’s a tub with water. The team’s job is to suck the water out with a straw and fill it into bottles. The grandparents go first, the sons and grandchildren cheering them on. Then the fathers. By the time it’s the grandchildren’s turn, there’s no water in the tub. They say, ‘Put some water in; there’s nothing for us to suck out.’ We don’t answer. Slowly it sinks in: we’re pulling water out of the ground with borewells and all that, and there’s going to be no water left for our grandchildren. See, there are a lot of divisions in our society: political, caste, etcetera. The one thing people are still emotional about is their children. If there is going to be no water for my children, then I get worried.”

We are sitting in a vanity van in a studio parking lot. The film star and his wife Kiran Rao have just been shooting. Not a Bollywood blockbuster, but a promotion for their Paani Foundation. This is a late lunch break, and we made small talk while they ate, but now both are all focus and facts. And fun stories. This one was about the training the Foundation does with representatives of villages participating in its Satyamev Jayate Water Cup.

Stepping back, the idea for the contest followed from the television show it is named after, which ran from 2012 to 2014. “It had a deep impact,” Khan says, “We saw a lot of people taking up things on ground.” They looked for a meaningful cause they could stay with for a number of years. “Satya (Satyajit Bhatkal, the show’s director) and I decided, let’s work on water, something very fundamental to all of us, and in Maharashtra, because it’s the State we live in, and every year there’s a drought.”

They invested a year in research, understanding the problem and possible solutions. When they were ready, Khan, Rao, Bhatkal, and others from the Satyamev Jayate crew started a non-profit, Paani Foundation, which would spread knowledge of watershed management and groundwater replenishment. The Water Cup is what Khan describes as an excuse to get people interested. Rao adds, “And to make them execute their learning.”

The team designed a syllabus and training methods, mostly experiential learning and games like the one with the straws — “We didn’t want lectures to bore people,” Khan says — and then trained trainers. Villages invited must pass a Gram Sabha resolution saying they want to participate, and send five people to centres in their talukas for short training stints. “We ask them to send at least two women,” Rao says. They learn about water conservation principles and watershed management structures like contour trenches, earthen dams, and soak pits, then go back to their villages and lead the work, which must involve all the villagers pitching in, what the team calls shramdaan, volunteer work. They must execute their plans in the months before the monsoon, with their success measured after the rains.

Roughly 150 of Maharashtra’s 358 talukas are in drought areas. In 2016, the Cup began small, testing the idea in three talukas, with around 116 villages. In 2017, they scaled up to 30 talukas and a little over 1,300 villages. This year, it’s 75 talukas and over 4,000 villages.

Aamir Khan joins villagers at work.

Aamir Khan joins villagers at work.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The team, around 25 people, expanded to about 450 during the competition. At ground level, taluka coordinators go from village to village, advising, helping and encouraging. Each taluka has a technical trainer and a social trainer. Over them are district heads, reporting to zonal heads, who report in to the head office.

Last year, the Foundation decided to involve city dwellers too, with an event called Chala Gaavi (‘Let’s go to the villages’). “We had huge response,” Rao says. “Almost 25,000 people came, from Mumbai, Pune, Nashik, Aurangabad, even Nagpur.” Some came the previous night, slept in the fields to be able to start work before the heat set in. “It was quite magical. Some came in groups: students, office-goers, a group of doctors from Satara…” Khan breaks in: “They made arrangements for naashtha (breakfast), had music playing. It became like a festival!”

“We realised there was potential, and a great amount of enthusiasm,” Rao says. This year, the Foundation launched Jalmitra (water friends), a volunteering initiative: on May 1, Maharashtra Day and Labour Day, there will be a ‘Maha Shramdhaan’, which they have been promoting via their television show. Registrations closed on April 25, with 1.3 lakh people volunteering.

Too big to tackle

Khan is pleased at how the initiative has grown. They knew from the start that decentralised watershed management — in practical terms, a people’s movement — was the answer, he says, because the problem is too big for any government or organisation to tackle. The success is visible. “There are villages completely tanker-free now, that have three harvests in a year, that until the previous year were tanker-fed.” Those villages, seeing the success and knowing that they own the credit, have been their strongest evangelists. “A lot of the trainers in our second year came from villages that had done the work in the first year and saw the results,” he says. “They started travelling to other villages, like brand ambassadors, on their own; we did not ask them to.”

Has his celebrity status contributed to this success? He agrees that it helps at the start. He tells a story that demonstrates what star power can do. “Last year, I called all the heads of channels and said, I know you fight for TRPs, but for water, you all should come together. And every Saturday at 9.30 p.m., if you were a Marathi viewer, every Marathi channel, GEC and news, was showing our show.” Rao laughs: “It was a roadblock. Dadagiri.” Khan chuckles: “It was a request.” They both agree: “That was the channels’ shramdaan.”

It helps that Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis agrees with their decentralised approach (he has spearheaded a scheme called Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan), and that bureaucrats down the line have been uniformly supportive. Being able to call funders like Tata Trust and Reliance Foundation didn’t hurt either. But, Khan insists, it has only worked because the idea is good and there is detailed planning and painstaking execution, for all of which he credits Bhatkal, CEO of the Foundation.

The best bit? “Nobody loses in this competition,” Khan says. “Even if you don’t win the prize, your water problem gets solved.”

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Printable version | Oct 18, 2021 11:07:08 PM |

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