The world celebrated World Water Day on March 22. The mission to save every drop and create a respectful relationship with water continues. Mridula Ramesh, founder of the Sundaram Climate Institute, active angel investor, and author of the fascinating, deeply researched book, Watershed, tells Archana Pai Kulkarni, why it is urgent for every Indian citizen to do what it takes to secure our shared future, and how pragmatic, scalable solutions can work for both India’s temperamental water and its democratic exigencies.
India is facing the worst water crisis ever. Yet, our dysfunctional relationship with water does not seem to be of as much concern as it should be. Why is this so, and how can we intensify the immediacy to acknowledge this and act?
What lies at the heart of a dysfunctional relationship? A lack of understanding for the other party, and a lack of respect. We don’t understand our water in India – else why we would we grow a crop (paddy) that needs more than 1240 mm of water in a place that gets between 400 to 600 mm of water (Punjab/Haryana)? The groundwater that bridges this water gap is free – such undervalued groundwater is used with abandon and depleting fast. Another example is that why would we chop down the forests on slopes that receive metres of rainfall in a few months – after all, without the stabilising influence of forests, those slopes can and do slide down during the torrential rains. Our relationship is dysfunctional because water has become invisible – we have forgotten that we each have a role to play; instead we believe that it is the role of the government alone to provide us with water. Therein lies the problem.
Your own journey into understanding water management began when you found yourself in a Day Zero situation when the taps in your home and the borewell ran dry. What made you embark on this arduous journey?
We started paying a lot for tank water. That made water visible. Second, the realisation that if we wanted water resilience, we had to act. It was arduous but empowering.
What was the impact of your findings? Has your immediate neighbourhood replicated the model of your zero-waste home that is a symbol of possibilities? I ask because replication indicates the impact and readiness to bring about a change.
No. But I have invested in companies that have helped bring about change in thousands of homes across the country. Which goes again to prove that incentives rather than conscience are the sustainer of real change.
Tackling the water crisis involves so much—a change in attitude, lifestyle, food habits, choices, the questions we ask, and also an engagement that has to be constant and collective—that the task seems onerous. Where does a layperson begin?
The easiest way would be a carbon or water price, so that market optimises choices. Indeed, like the example of Bengaluru shows, even a great policy of treating sewage is evenly implemented only in those communities which pay a meaningful price. However, pricing water appears to be politically unpalatable, doesn’t it?
One of your students once mentioned that she did not want to be yet another person holding a placard to highlight climate change. How was it, as you say, a moment of learning for you?
This happened in the class I taught in 2014. I suggested that the children hold a rally on climate change, when this student said she would take action rather than participate in a rally. Many of us believe that a like, a share or protesting in a rally is sufficient action. It is a start, but it’s not enough. So many people who protest are unwilling to pay Rs 6 more for a T shirt that has been produced responsibly. The heroes I have written about in the first and second book are those who bring about changes within their own communities. They bring me hope. They bring in change.
Conscience, you emphasise, is not the most reliable ally when you want to sustain a behaviour change. In a country where emotions run high and it is believed that water should be free, what would you replace conscience with?
Fear. In the last chapter, in an earlier avatar of the book, I had a two-by-two matrix. One axis was how dire the need was. In India, when the need is not intense, one cannot bring about water management. In that sense, act in the immediate aftermath of a crisis, to bring in the necessary regulation at the local scale.
Considering the temperamental nature of India’s water, the capricious behaviour of rainfall, and the diverse geographical challenges, a one-size global policy is unlikely to be effective. How then can policy be a potent force for change?
Throughout the book, I have advocated for a decentralised policy – because one size does NOT fit all for India’s water. So, a policy for sewage treatment by bulk generators in dry regions, a policy to spur tank tourism in a place with a cascading system, a policy to price water at the village level customized to the needs of that village, with the villagers hand held and persuaded with show and tell, like the Malkapur example maybe what works.
It is important to have granular information to drive intervention, but water does not figure either in the income statements or the balance sheets of most industries, as you’ve gathered. Are things changing?
Very slowly. We’ve been able to save millions of litres of water with really quite reasonable spends because we measure our water and manage it in our factories. However, few would want to measure what is seen as free.
You speak with great passion about the rejuvenation of tanks, not just for better water management but also as an economy to be tapped. Can you elaborate?
Tanks are systems of cascading lakes that dotted India. Before the British, they were the primary mechanism of irrigation. Today, in cities, the dry tank bed is more valuable as land rather than the water resilience provided by the lake. We’ve been seduced by the siren song of the borewell and piped water into forgetting how critical tanks are for water resilience. Earlier, they were held in great respect by the community – because they provided status and cash flow via the fishing and livestock they sustained. Today, as garbage-and-sewage receptacles, they have become inconvenient and therefore vulnerable. To bring them back into the centre of the community, they need to provide economic value, and one way we in Sundaram Climate Institute found was to reimagine them as centres of local tourism.
By providing minimal infrastructure – a cycling or walking track, a small performance space for local artistes, food stalls, a selfie spot, and wifi hotspots – these lakes can become a very pleasant place to hang out in the evenings. Providing and maintaining this infrastructure will bring in jobs. One rejuvenated lake we studied created 100 jobs.
You have great faith in farmer-to-farmer persuasion, which can usher in a beneficial change in what India grows. With ground reserves in some states being overdrawn twice over, how optimistic are you that this show-and-tell will turn the tide?
Not very. As long as farmers find it profitable to continue status quo, they will continue. Show-and-tell works when it is supported by other incentives – throughout the book – whether it is Gujarat or the Ram Ganga Basin or Punjab – show and tell works to shift farmers into a more sustainable and economically better equilibrium.
Your research for this book has taken you from Israel to Singapore to the remotest parts of India, and into the annals of history. What was your process? How long did it take for you to write this book? What was the most difficult part?
There is a combination – there was travel – like clambering over a landfill to visit the oldest baoli in Delhi; there were extensive interviews – with climate experts like Dr J Srinivasan, and water gurus like Rajendra Singh. There was the investment process – like the many start-ups featured in the book – in a sense that is putting the money where the mouth is. Then there was good old fashioned research – reading and piecing together the 1877 famine from various sources like a PhD thesis on the health toll, the IMD data on rainfall, books written on the subject from various points of view, etc.
Do you believe that we can become a water-secure nation? What gives you that hope?
If you the reader believe that you are part of the solution, like many have written back to me to say they have, that gives me hope.