Water Philanthropy in India: A Conversation with Rohini Nilekani

Feb 09, 2018


Rohini Nilekani in conversation with Dr. Ravina Aggarwal, Director, Columbia Global Centers | Mumbai

This is an edited version of Rohini Nilekani’s conversation with Dr. Ravina Aggarwal, Director, Columbia Global Centres in Mumbai. Their discussed the state of the water crisis in India and how philanthropists can help address this issue.

Although I had started Arghyam in 2001, when I was still learning the ropes of philanthropy, it was really in 2004 that I came into a really sizeable amount of money through the sale of our Infosys shares. I didn’t need that kind of money personally, so I decided to give it to the foundation. However, it’s actually not easy to give money strategically and effectively, unless you have a real grasp on the issues at hand and how to come at them. I hired Sunita Nadhamuni as my CEO and we both got to work researching what issue directly affects the life of every single citizen in this country. We were thinking about working in the field of healthcare at the time, but I remember being in the shower one day and stopping to realise, “Wait, it’s water that you should work on.” That’s when it clicked for me.

So we started looking into the state of the water sector, whether philanthropic money was being invested there and whether it was having any impact. This is when we realised there’s no single Indian philanthropic foundation devoted to water, at a time when we were only just beginning to understand the magnitude of the water crisis in this country.
It was a shocking wake-up call and we decided that we had to try and improve the situation in some way. In our 12 years working in the sector, it’s been a sharp learning curve for us, because we didn’t know very much going in, so we were experimenting, trying, failing, and learning from our mistakes. We have grown from smaller projects and campaigns, to programmes and partnerships that enable us to affect change on a much larger scale.

Of course, there’s a lot to learn from other countries that have managed their water better. However, it’s also true that no country’s faced the kind of challenges that India
has, at a time of a global crisis, when we can no longer dump our waste somewhere else, and when climate change is already upon us. How do we re-think water management in that context? We have to become an innovation lab ourselves, and be able to experiment and create solutions for water management that are decentralized, flexible, and resilient structures.

Many corporations are now also investing in water, because it is such an obvious crisis today. We also have the India Philanthropy Initiative where a lot of the wealthy citizens who want to engage in discussions on philanthropy come together, and identify opportunities for investing philanthropy within different sectors. There is also collaboration and learning happening between CSR teams and philanthropists, so people are building networks of trust and figuring out strategies that are successful for them. We’ve been able to pull in a lot of CSR and other philanthropy funding in our projects by taking those initial risks, and being the first in that space, so that other people can easily follow.

As a foundation, however, Arghyam would not have been able to have the reach it does without our partners. We are a funding organisation, but we also come with a passion and commitment, and we try to help all our partners strategize and be more effective. Since I put up the 150 crores from my personal wealth into Arghyam over 12 years ago, we have been able to disperse 145 crores into 145 projects, across 22 states and directly affecting 50 lakh people. Through our journey, we’ve also come to focus much more on groundwater specifically.

The Invisible Issue

It’s estimated that the government has spent 400,000 crores over the last several decades on surface water, however India is also losing an alarming amount of its groundwater. Through working with our partner across the drier regions of this country, we realised how dire this situation really is. While most government concerns centre around the rivers and setting up irrigation infrastructure for surface water, there are 35 million bore wells spread across the country that people are drawing water from. But because it is invisible, or less visible than the issue of surface water, there’s no method to use it sustainably or equitably, and that is where the problem lies. India is drawing more groundwater than either America or China, and when seen from satellite maps, the depleted groundwater levels are truly shocking. One aim of Arghyam is to use science, data, and innovation to make this invisible problem visible, and to enable us to manage our groundwater better. Otherwise Cape Town’s Day Zero declaration will pale in comparison to the crisis that India will face, in terms of the sheer number of people that will be affected.

According to a 2016 estimate, 300 million people in our country live in drought affected conditions and 80% of our water is contaminated due to untreated sewage. This reality is starting to affect people across economic classes as well, so complacency will not be an option soon. I remember when my family first moved to Bangalore, the tanker would come and women and children would come running out with buckets, fighting to get the day’s water. Today, the situation hasn’t changed for a lot of people. The issue of groundwater depletion also brings to the forefront the struggle between the urban and the rural. People living in urban centres like Mumbai or Delhi have access to water, but are also part of the cycle of depletion, whether they are aware of it or not.

The consumption of water also means waste being added to it, and we don’t have any effective means of examining the repercussions of this. Initiatives to build more toilets will not make a difference if they don’t also address where those waste streams go or how to treat them, and that actually causes a larger health issue than the lack of toilets. In areas where so-called sustainable open defecation used to happen, communities used to have social protocols that dictated where to go, so that contamination was somewhat avoided. However, our research shows that now toilet waste streams are going back into the groundwater tables, directly contaminating the groundwater that people then pull up to drink. Through our work, we’ve seen places where hundreds of toilets have been set up next to wells, so nitrate contamination is also a huge issue in those areas.

Educating Ourselves, Encouraging Research

One of the ways in which Arghyam wanted to address this was through spreading knowledge and awareness. When the National Knowledge Commission was setting up portals for the whole country, meant to serve as knowledge resources in different sectors, Arghyam offered to start and fund the India Water Portal. It’s been 10 years since we set it up, and it’s been a great resource for the research community, taking up many ideological battles around water and reaching out to citizens. However, it was born in an era when digital technologies hadn’t yet converged as they have done today, so it’s not the kind of one-stop shop where citizens can easily learn how to manage water. If the India Water Portal was born today, it would have a very different sort of imagination. So we are trying to see in Arghyam a version for how we can make that a little more exciting and accessible to use. As it exists today, it continues to serve its purpose as an open knowledge platform that can be used to help the government serve communities better.

Through our partners, we’ve also been able to develop a platform called the Participatory Groundwater Management Program. I think this idea of local participation is critical to solving this problem because water distribution is always going to be a local, political issue. If you don’t have participation from the community itself, you’re immediately going to get into issues of water not being distributed equally, and a lack of regulation. India is one of the most poorly regulated groundwater regimes in the world, because of a British law from 1882 called the Easement Act, which essentially grants people ownership of any water on their land. So technically, I can dig a hole and suck up a whole aquifer and sell it – legally there is no framework to stop me from doing this. But since groundwater is a common resource, you have to create participatory mechanisms to manage it sustainably. Since we don’t have effective regulation, or institutional structures to manage groundwater, there is no other alternative.

In the absence of effective policy and regulation, we have to involve the local community and create a de facto, if not de jour model way of managing groundwater.

Participation was a very key part of our philosophy, so we named this platform the Participatory Groundwater Management Programme. Through this initiative, we have sent our hydrogeological experts to around 500 communities facing these problems. Using data practices and science, these experts help locals understand and budget for the groundwater. They learn methods for crop rotation or better crop management, and bore wells are segregated for lifeline water. After two years, communities realise that by sharing the finite resource under their feet, they can see their incomes increasing, because they are being scientific about what crops they are harvesting and how to use the water effectively. We are really encouraged by the feedback we’ve gotten, and are now trying to affect change at the policy level as well. The Atal Bhujal Yojana, where millions of dollars will be going into groundwater management, was mentioned in the budget, so I hope some of these principles that our partners have been working on for eight years will get embedded and scaled.

Participatory Governance and Indigenous Knowledge

There’s no getting around the fact that we are a deeply hierarchical society, so it takes a lot of work to create real, participatory processes. To include women’s voices, Dalit voices, and the voices of other marginalised communities in the discussion around water equity will require active work on our part. Sometimes, when NGOs leave a community, they fall back to those old power structures that are so deeply ingrained in how we govern ourselves. That is the reason why participatory processes are such a powerful idea. We have seen that people do try to keep them going because they see the results in equitable access for everyone.

Spring water in India was another issue that we tried to tackle at Arghyam. No one has accurate data on the number of springs in India, but they’re critical to many people’s livelihoods. Due to land use change, pipe water supply, and other factors, they have been neglected, but in the mountain regions many communities depend on spring water. However, springs weren’t considered as groundwater by the government until only recently. It took a lot of effort of us and our partners to actually educate people about the fact that springs are groundwater that is simply located within discharge zones. We decided to take up this neglected issue of reviving springs, and through working with our partners in about 12 states, we have so far been able to rejuvenate 7,000 springs. Six states are now working with us to map and revive all their streams, in the Northeast and Western regions of India, and hopefully we can keep going and scale this program.

Another issue with local communities is being able to respect and value their indigenous knowledge and belief systems surrounding water sources. With our presence in these areas, we do see those practices getting a little disrupted, especially because there is not enough continuity of model leadership. So the challenge we’re facing now is how to re-imagine this sacredness. How do you value water in 2018? How do you create a new grammar of sacredness for water? This is the learning curve for some of our partners.

The Need for Good Data and Research

With Arghyam, I think we see ourselves as long-term players in this sector – we are not going away anytime soon. To be able to provide research, we need to have projects and campaigns happening on the ground. On the other hand, if we’re not able to connect the dots, our physical projects aren’t going to be successful. In a long term study, you need good data, you need academicians to come in and stay the course to build real, usable knowledge. So through the foundation, we have been supporting research in various ways. We tend to have bias towards action-based research, so a lot of our work centres around collecting knowledge from fieldwork and try out different strategies. It’s an ethos of enacting action, think through the results, and finally produce the data.

With the kind of progress we’ve seen over these 12 years, I think if we continue like this, we will do incremental things, achieve success, and impact real people’s lives in a positive way. But when you look at the bigger picture, and the sheer scale at which we need to think about solutions, our work just feels like a drop in the ocean. It’s not simply a question of how much philanthropic capital we can put in, we also need to create the pipelines for which this money can be used in the water sector in a smart and sufficient way. Right now we are hoping to scale up in how we operate, moving from partnerships to platforms. The aim is to design a digital platform, a shareable infrastructure for lots of actors to be able to utilize it in a way that is effective for them. We hope that with this platform, we can scale on a larger level, rather than for Arghyam to try and go to new locations physically.

This idea was born out of my experiences working with Pratham Books, where we created an open-source platform for people to write, read, publish, print, share, and illustrate literature. Through this platform, we’ve been able to reach millions of kids. The initial idea was to create something that is designed for scale, that is open, shareable, and that allows for creation and collaboration on top of it. Nandan and I also utilised this idea in EkStep, a digital learning platform for young children that we started two and a half years ago. Our goal is to reach 200 million children in the next five years. We wanted to provide access to learning opportunities, for which this framework is incredibly effective. We decided to call this idea Societal Platforms, and we are hoping to build that out in Arghyam as well, during the next two years.

The requests we heard a lot from our partners was the need for better data and research. They need to be able to train people quickly and efficiently, and to make scare training resources easily available. So how do you design for that? This is where Arghyam wants to take on the responsibility and bring in technology, to build a platform that’s useful for data and research, for capacity building and training, and for providing deployment tools. Rather than researchers and academics working in isolation at universities, their knowledge can be pooled and accessible to others – aggregating knowledge for the public as well as for others to build off of.

Creating Solutions Together

Nowadays, it’s getting difficult for the super-wealthy to be complacent and not give back to society. You can’t have a Ferrari without owning a foundation. With the CSR law, a lot of businesses are also getting involved in the philanthropy sector. But I think, with all this influx of capital, people are also realising the challenges inherent in giving. The first thing you learn as a philanthropist is that you have to have trust. The markets operate in a very different way from the samaaj sector, so trust becomes a very important thing. You need to trust that the people who you’re giving money to have the same goal as you, and that they will do the work required.

The second thing to keep in mind is that this kind of work is not often quantifiable. The work our partners have done is to enable communities to say, “We are part of the solution, not part of the problem.” But how do you measure that? How do you measure the self-esteem that people feel from examining a problem deeply and trying to find solutions for themselves? Of course, we can collect data on wells, on how much water people get, etc. but it is that kind of unquantifiable feedback that gives us some sense of success.

At Arghyam, we are invested in our partners and try to work with them on creating solutions, rather than dictating orders. That relationship is crucial, because these are people who are working at the grassroots level and who understand the specific issues within an area or community. So we aim to work with them, keeping cooperation in mind for any kind of design. We value the feedback they bring to us as well, because it enables us to come together and innovate better solutions. So listening and cooperating with your partners is also incredibly important.



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