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This is the first story in a series of articles launched by Astral Pipes and Nature inFocus to create awareness about the ongoing water crisis and to encourage necessary action to address it.

When S. Vishwanath stuck two random words together to create a unique Gmail ID for himself, never would he have thought that it would become the moniker he would come to be known by. Zenrainman; Zen, as in the Buddhist school of thought, of which he is a voracious reader and Rainman, alluding to one of his favourite Dustin Hoffman movies.

In 1994, when Vishwanath and his wife Chitra started building their home in North Bangalore, they were forced to buy water for the construction, which was ironic considering that it was raining all the time. On devising a rainwater harvesting system in their home, Vishwanath was quick to see the potential and was left amazed as to why in cities and villages, people never collected all the rain that fell. 

After he talked to a few communities, it was clear that rooftop rainwater harvesting was a very foreign idea in south India. They executed their first few projects with very small storage tanks, and women from the villages would call upon the landline to say, “Sir, neeru challi hogta-ide, namma thotti inda, santosha aagta-ide! (Water is overflowing from our tanks, we are so happy!)” The kind of immediate response that came with freshwater arriving at one’s doorstep, Vishwanath found it quite overwhelming and invigorating, at the same time.

In 1995, when he founded the Rainwater Club, a virtual site where one could hang out and have conversations about rainwater harvesting and the like – it used to be called a club then because they were not yet registered as a trust or society – they would get calls asking “Bar idiya, swimming pool idiya? (Is there a bar? Is there a swimming pool?)” But over the years, the site has played host to both local and global audiences; though the core audience remains the same, Rainwater Club has since taken on new identities, in the form of a YouTube channel with over 2 million views and a Facebook page.

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"We are faced with massive urbanisation and massive population growth, but we also are the beneficiaries of very good community spirit and action in this city." Photograph: Isabella Porras

Now, if you ask him why he left behind a steady government job to pursue a life dedicated to tackling the water problems in his city, he will simply brush it off by saying, “One can weave a major story around it saying as to what happened, but it is all serendipity.”

As is his nature, Vishwanath thinks that it was quite natural for one to think about how people and communities can get involved in solving the water crisis, considering that the pace of the solution was simply not catching up with the pace of the problem. He considers himself lucky to have travelled to so many villages and towns during his years with the Housing and Urban Development Corporation (HUDCO), and to have seen in person, the water crisis that the country was facing, even back in the 80s and 90s.

In the living room of his rustic home, Sans Souci, which translates to 'without concerns', I sat opposite the venerable S. Vishwanath, sipping freshly brewed tea. Drenched in a pool of sunlight pouring in through the skylight, in the company of a barky but friendly Bella, I felt my larger concerns give way as we chatted about India's water crisis.

Here is an edited transcript of my interview with the Zenrainman.

The recent NITI Aayog report suggests that most of India's metro cities will run out of groundwater in the next year. But, there have been questions asked about the data presented. What is the reality on the ground?

Here's the thing, the NITI Aayog Report has been challenged on data, and the granularity of data, especially for groundwater, is very suspect. We have lousy granularity of data and understanding of complex systems of hydrogeology; we are not yet evolved, which is a huge challenge.

But what NITI Aayog said is that we are going to run out of groundwater. Bangalore, for example, has already run out of groundwater in the periphery. But in the city centre, the groundwater table is rising. It is a conundrum, a paradox. Bangalore's dependency on groundwater is not very high, it is just 30-40%. So, it is not Bangalore that is going to run out of water, but Bangalore may run out of groundwater in certain pockets.

X       a  e  d     a country of wells - Decoding India’s Water Crisis, With The Zenrainman | Nature inFocus
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The culture of open wells is over 5000-years-old in India. Photograph: S. Vishwanath

The problem with the NITI Aayog report is that it puts in a scare scenario. And, the state's immediate response is to get water from Linganamakki, which is 380km away. Panic is not a good state of mind for sensible, sustainable decisions and the political economy loves panic because then it can put in large infrastructure projects. So, that is one bone you would want to pick with the NITI Aayog report, though it is also a wake-up call at the same time.

We are running out of groundwater then. What does that mean?

India is hugely dependent on its groundwater. We are the world's largest consumer of groundwater. As per the new numbers Mihir Shah put out, we have something like 40 million borewells and open wells. We are drawing out 250–260 cubic-km of groundwater every year which is more than the USA and China combined, who are number 2 and 3 respectively on the list. 65% of our total water requirement comes from groundwater – agriculture, urban, rural and domestic demand. 90% of our drinking water dependence is on groundwater. 

This calamitous over-exploitation of groundwater is partially driven by technology, which has armed us with the power to drill to 2000ft and extract more and more water, causing quality issues because there is geogenic contamination – naturally occurring contamination of fluoride and arsenic in many parts. 60 million Indians could be exposed to arsenic and fluoride contaminated water. And, an overall catastrophe, in terms of groundwater depletion, causing rivers, streams and lakes to dry up, in turn, causing the great drying of our lands. This needs to be understood and addressed at a pan-India level. Unless we regenerate our forests, our aquifers, we are in big trouble.

Why are we so dependent on groundwater?

We haven't invested enough. We have built a lot of dams – we had 300–400 dams during independence and we are at 5800 dams now – but these surface water sources which we imagined would provide us with water are geographically constrained and haven't delivered on their promise. The irrigation command area itself was completely unmanageable, uncontrollable. Farmers grew crops which are not meant to be grown there, head rises of the canals would consume all the water, down rises wouldn't have any at all.

The Mannu Vaddars, traditional well diggers, work closely with S. Vishwanath in the Million Wells for Bangalore project. Video by Mahesh Kumar

Then suddenly we discovered the borewell digging rig which came in the 60s, we started making them ourselves in Tiruchengode, and we started to unleash the borewell revolution. First for drinking water, now for agricultural purposes. It became democratised, decentralised, away from the tyranny of state control. Farmers could dig their own borewells and be dependant on it, and the farming lobby became so tough that they could get electricity and energy, broadly free, which increased the volume of water that we started to consume, and pretty soon we were at 30 million borewells. 

Now, we try to manage it and cope with it, and we are unable to frame a law to do this. Tushar Shah and others who have been working on this say that this is now uncontrollable, it can only be regulated.

The Million Wells project shows us what we can learn from our past. Could you tell us more about the initiative?

The idea with the Million Wells project in Bangalore was to get the recharge volumes [of groundwater] from the 3–8% which is now posited and push it to 50–60%. And, can we do this through the social lens of jobs – not a big infrastructure project, but a livelihoods project. The project provided the well-diggers from the Mannu Vaddar community employment for 5–6 years and their children a chance at an education.

How are recharge wells different from regular wells? Listen to the Zenrainman to find out.

We started digging recharge wells across the city, of course, the mindset of the well-diggers had to shift from digging wells to recharging them – it took a bit of conversation, but they picked it up and are doing it now. Luckily, I was in the policymaking and bylaw making committee for Bangalore at the time. We made a law that every owner who proposes to construct a building on a site area of 1200 square feet and above has to have rainwater harvesting, of which storage is one option, but recharge wells are the other option.

Overall, we are at about 100,000 recharge wells, from what the well-diggers tell me. Still, they are underemployed, they call me every day and say ''Sir, kelasa illa! (Sir, we have no work!)" Though they dig more now than what they previously did, as recharge wells, their potential is under-utilised. One wishes that they have more employment opportunities because the city will get its water security.

An old well being cleaned and revived by mannu vaddars traditional well diggers under the million wells for bengaluru project - Decoding India’s Water Crisis, With The Zenrainman | Nature inFocus
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"The Mannu Vaddar Community, though they dig more wells than what they previously used to, their potential is under-utilised." Photograph: S. Vishwanath

A million is an imaginative goal. We believe that with a million, it will be decentralised enough that most of Bangalore's rainwater will be pushed into the aquifer. We believe that with a million wells and enough recharge, Bangalore will get about 1450MLD (Millions of Liters Per Day) from groundwater which is what we are getting from the Cauvery right now. We believe that with the groundwater tables coming up, lakes would have a better chance of getting filtered water, and we believe that if we do it well enough, then urban flooding can also be addressed.

Jakkur Lake is a fine example of how change can happen. You headed that project. Could you take us through the process?

I did not head the project. Again, the whole idea with both the Million Wells movement and with the Jakkur Lake and many other lake projects is that one is a catalyst and a facilitator, not the leader. What one is doing is bringing together a set of actors whose positive contribution could lead to an end goal that would be beneficial for that waterbody and society. We are in an era where we all want to take credit and dominate, it is not false modesty, you have to step back and say that unless 50 people get together, who have the smarts, the ideas, the thinking and who can bring together 10 institutions, things will not take place. This business of credit-taking only detonates projects.

Jakkur lake award - Decoding India’s Water Crisis, With The Zenrainman | Nature inFocus
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"Community involvment ensures identification of right solutions, creates ownership and stakeholders who will ensure the long-term working of the whole system." 

At Jakkur Lake, there was a wastewater treatment plant set up by the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) at 10MLD capacity. It was functioning at around 1.5–2MLD, was not even working throughout the day, and the untreated wastewater was coming into the lake. Because I had contacts within the BWSSB and they were all friends of mine, we figured out with the then Managing Director that there was a problem with the network and with the plant. The plant operator himself was kind enough to step forward, and pretty soon we had about 8.5MLD of wastewater being treated 24*7 and being fed into the lake through the wetland. Then we saw that there were other challenges such as garbage dumping and construction debris dumping in the lake. 

There was this fabulous group called Jalposhan, with Dr Annapurna Kamath, who came to the lead; then the community started patrolling the lake and making sure that the dumping stopped. We interacted with the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) and they were kind enough to put in place systems of solid waste management; the MLA was also fabulous in support, making sure that all the institutions geared up to their act. The Fisherman Cooperative, which was taking care of the lake, had great champions who cleared up the lake from all plastic, saying that the lake is like their home and that they will keep it clean.

'Wetland' is a term that is often heard  in the conservation space. But what is a wetland, and how can it help resolve the water crisis? Listen to the Zenrainman to find out.

We are still struggling because there is untreated wastewater coming in even now. And yet, we will overcome this problem through bureaucratic and institutional help. Now, we also have people making sure that there is money available. It is a constant battle between a degenerating system and getting it to fit into the overall framework.

So, are we doing enough? Is there a future for this city, for this country?

If you look at Bangalore, since the 1880s, we have been crying that there is water shortage. The 1880s, when we had a population of just 1.5 lakh people. We pushed for the first water supply project in Hesaraghatta in 1894, completed it in 1896, designed for 55 litres per capita per day for 2.5 lakh people. Pretty soon that project also was not worth it and we had run out of water. It is a bell curve which constantly goes up and down.

We are faced with massive urbanisation and massive population growth, but we also are the beneficiaries of very good community spirit and action in this city. Bangalore is a pioneer, it is a can-do city; of course, there are other cities also doing fabulous work.

Jakkur lake - Decoding India’s Water Crisis, With The Zenrainman | Nature inFocus
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"Be water literate, but also be willing to join in community efforts to preserve lakes, rivers, and streams. Don't look at it as a personal engagement, but try to see and understand it from a community's perspective." Photograph: S. Vishwanath

Even on a pan-India level, if we get our problem identification right, the solutions are easy. But, till we realise the value of our forests, till we realise that the interlinking of rivers and crazy large dam projects are ecologically destructive and are not going to bring benefits, till we realise that it is actually going to be watershed management and community involvement with groundwater that is going to be key, and growing the right crops, and figuring out how demand has to be controlled, until then we will have a problem. 

Many towns and villages have shown that it can be done. But this hubris of engineering, lock-in of our political economy, the ignorance of the environment massively, how is that to be overcome in the capitalist mode of economy and development is the puzzle. For which we need many narratives and stories which talk about alternatives and keep pushing the alternatives so that hopefully we see the big picture and realise what we need to do.

What are some of the misconceptions people have about water?

One of the biggest misconceptions is that water is free and that it should be treated as a free code of nature. I think water is priceless, so while we capture the human right to water in which everybody has access to some basic minimum quantity and quality of water, we must get our act right in terms of pricing it, so that we recover the money to invest in cleaning it up and making sure that it is not overused.

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"The well diggers are the frontline warriors of water security for the city, especially groundwater security." Photograph courtesy S. Vishwanath

I have this vision for Bangalore. Say if Bangalore pays ₹110/KL for 1000 litres of water, and if this money is invested wisely by the BWSSB, we will be able to return the same quantity and quality of water that we took from river Cauvery back into it. We have the technology, we have the knowledge system, if we draw 100L from the Cauvery at Thorekadanahalli, 100km away, pump it up into the city, consume it in our homes, leave it as wastewater, we can pick up the wastewater, treat it to potable standards and return it to the river at the same place where we drew it, without impeding the river flow. We would have then a completely sustainable system, and for me, it is a question of pricing and it is a question of institutional capability and goal-setting. 

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A recharge well being set up in an apartment complex in Bangalore, by the Mannu Vaddar community. Photograph courtesy S. Vishwanath

To make it clear, I'm saying universal connections – every household in Bangalore should have, as a human right, a water connection and a sanitation connection. And, the first 50L of water per person should be free, but from the 51st litre, you should pay money so that the system collects the money and it is invested in managing the infrastructure and that alone. And, it should be so that it does not pollute at all and that it reduces demand because there is enough for everyone's need.

What can the common man do, at the individual level? How can they help solve this seemingly massive crisis?

Here are a few things that everybody can do:

  • At all times, be water literate and ecologically literate. What does that mean? It means that you at least try to be aware of where your water comes from, how scarce is it and what kind of impact it has.
  • Try to harvest rainwater and reduce your demand as much as possible. 
  • Look at other things you do that can impact water, for eg., your consumption pattern, your solid waste management, your biowaste management. 
  • Make sure that you eat the right food, and overall push the thinking of water and working of water as far as possible, in a sensible fashion.
  • Try to push our smartness rather than our material wealth. When houses become the demonstration of wealth that has been accumulated instead of intelligence, then it is setting the wrong precedent. If our houses and our lifestyle demonstrate how ecologically intelligent we are, and that becomes something everybody ascribes to then we have arrived as a society.
  • Be water literate, but also be willing to join in community efforts to preserve lakes, rivers, and streams. Don't look at it as a personal engagement, but try to see and understand it from a community's perspective.
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Unlike a conventional well which yields water, a recharge well takes water, essentially rainwater from rooftops, and recharges the groundwater table.