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An approach to lake/pond restoration by Ramveer Tanvar, Pond Man of India

By Monami Bhattacharya*, Mansee Bal Bhargava** 

Lakes/ ponds are often referred to as an elixir of life, a living ecosystem that adds incremental value to the larger biota. Across the tropical landscape of the country lakes/ ponds are a common sight. Lakes/ponds have always shaped the life and livelihood of those dwelling in and around it. The dependence of the local population on these natural resources of water is noticeable since time immemorial. However, they are fading fast in both rural and urbanscapes from the popular parlance with the advance of humanity. It has been a popular notion to value land more than the waterscape and hence these nurturers of life are under stress in several areas. In many instances, these once beautiful waterscapes referred as the ‘Eye of the Earth’ are mostly now only dilapidated garbage dump yards emitting foul smell with no sign of a healthy ecosystem.
In a century, we have lost half the lakes in the country, those remaining half are almost reduced to half the area and those reduced lakes/ponds are in poor health. This has been a great concern for many water warriors in the country. There have emerged many water warriors, especially in the present day, who are relentlessly striving towards effective lake/pond conservation/restoration drives. At Wednesdays.for.Water (of WforW Foundation) we were eager to understand from the water warriors what approaches are undertaken for conservation/restoration of the lakes/ ponds, what are the challenges and opportunities, and how those initiatives can be upscaled if possible.
The Wednesdays.for.Water has started a dedicated Lake/Pond Series from February 2023. The inaugural session of the Lake/Pond Series titled, ‘Leadership in PPP model of Pond Rejuvenation’ invited Ramveer Tanvar, popularly known as the Pond Man of India, as keynote speaker. The video of the session is available at YouTube. Dr. Mansee Bal Bhargava moderated the session by seeking response from Ramveer on how the pond conservation projects are undertaken by him, and what approaches he uses to bring people together to achieve the goal of lake/pond conservation.

Pond Man of India

Ramveer Tanvar grew up in the little village of Dadha in Uttar Pradesh, India. He spent his childhood helping his farmer dad and playing by lakes and ponds with his friends. While studying at a local technical university, he noticed that his favorite childhood hangouts were starting to disappear. While clean water levels are declining throughout India, the crisis is especially bad in the remote regions like where Tanvar is from. A lot of wetlands were polluted and became dumping grounds instead. He soon realized that the hazard wasn’t chemical waste but simply garbage that people threw out without thinking of the consequences. So, he decided to change this and educate people about the importance of clean water. Ramveer Tanvar is now based in Greater Noida where he started his campaign called ‘Jal Chaupal’ in Gautam Budhha Nagar. He urged people to conserve water and to save natural resources like ponds, lakes & Wetlands. He got trained by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEFCC), and Government of India. He later found an NGO namely, Say Earth.
Ramveer and his team’s lake/pond restoration is widely acclaimed and achieved many accolades from many including the honorable Prime Minister mention in the Mann ki Baat program and felicitation by Honorable Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. He is declared as Brand Ambassador of Swachh Bharat Mission, Ghaziabad and appointed district coordinator of the ‘BhuJal-Sena, Noida (Groundwater Force)’ by Government of Uttar Pradesh. He is popularly known as, ‘Pond Man of India’.

Connecting with the Youth

Ramveer begins by stating, “I speak of ponds, work for them, clean them and try to reclaim dead ponds.” The young generation of today is profoundly concerned about only their lifestyle in general, where talks of the latest gadget they own, the latest movies they watch are common topics of discussion. But these future pillars of the nation seldom talk about the natural resources and the fast-paced degradation. In this context, ponds as a subject of discussion is quite a mundane topic. Ramveer puts in efforts to make it an important topic of discussion amongst the youth. He picked example of TEDx speaking.
Many of the youth he interacts seldom fantasize about being a TEDx speaker. He argues that one can be a TEDx speaker not by reading hefty books but by explicitly being connected to the ground. One must visit and be part of the ground realities to holistically assess the real-world scenarios. One must strive to do their little for the environment at the grass root level that will benefit all. Several courses are being taught today, which theoretically talks of sustainable development but the practical application of the same on the ground is somewhat missing which even great PhD scholars fail to acknowledge. Book knowledge is important, but it does not prepare one or sensitizes one about these problems which ground level experiences do. For example, his expertise to that of a scooter repairer outside of an IIT, who has not earned the technical degree but possess the required knowledge to repair scooter. He says he is not to be an expert in the field but is someone who possesses experiential knowledge and is connected deeply to the people and the planet matters.

Degradation of lakes/ponds and the need for restoration

The degrading narrative of the lakes/ponds of India, is a dreaded reality that we are all living through. At the time of independence, it is said there were 25 lakh historical lakes/ponds existing in the country, which in the course of time have slowly diminished to quite a meagre number as the urbanization alias developed became dominant. The 2017 data shows that there are only 5 lakh such historical lakes/ponds remaining in the country. This effectively points out that we have lost 20 lakh lakes/ponds. Simple, a lake lost is a land gained. These waterbodies have been reclaimed to build schools, hospitals, multiplexes, parks, and all kinds of building construction.
Ironically, several universities campuses which are built on such lakes/ponds have introduced courses on sustainable development in the curriculum.
The lakes/ponds today present a very sad sight where it is less of a waterbody and more of a landfill site. There are a few interlinked problems existing such as,
  • dumping domestic garbage into the waterbodies.
  • sewage dumping.
  • increasing water hyacinth in the waterbodies.
  • unlawful encroachment into these waterbodies.
  • imbalance in the catchment area of the waterbodies.
Owing to the above, the water during the rains do not drain into the waterbodies. The phenomenon of bring water to the waterbodies now require mechanical approach. In order to address the aforementioned problems of lakes/ponds Ramveer, through his organization and local teams, relentlessly works toward organizing clean up drives, restoration works, filtration and water quality management works, afforestation drives, environmental awareness campaigns, and promoting sustainable practices like organic farming, aqua farming etc. The collaboration with the local people of the place increases the effectivity of such drives undertaken.
Stating the example of villages which are also fast developing, Ramveer points out how in a village, garbage cannot be dumped in the public property areas like that of a temple, school, hospital etc. Therefore, the waterbodies are becoming the easiest targets as dumping ground which over the time gets up to the brim of the depression land. Unfortunately, it is a popular practice to instruct even children to dump the waste into the lakes/ponds expecting them to vanish and hence our abode remain beautified. In reality, the heavier particles sink down and the lighter material float above. When the reclamation of such lakes/ponds are undertaken it is observed how thick layers of garbage consisting of plastic and rubber waste is dredged out from the bed of the waterbody.
People mostly believe that once a lake/pond reaches such a garbage-filled state it cannot be revived, and hence it should be converted to building sites or playgrounds etc. Ramveer’s (and other water warriors like, Anand Malligavad, Dr. Nimal Raghavan, Piyush Manush, Madhulika Chaudhary, etc.) works have shown that even such garbage-filled lakes/ponds can undergo restoration. This requires dedication and determination at all costs. This shows that water warriors are fighting silent battles every day to save the dying lakes/ponds.

Restoration approach

The first lake/pond restoration efforts were undertaken by Ramveer, and his team was in 2015. Over time, they have successfully restored over 100 lakes/ponds amongst which some are even aimed to be self-sustainable. According to him, restoring a lake/pond is not any rocket science but to make it sustainable is a rigorous task which requires more attention. Lake/pond restoration is undertaken following a chronological method, beginning from identifying the waterbody to be restored, followed by visits with the various stakeholders, gathering the ‘no objection’ (NOC) from the government, building proposals for sponsorship, a lot of deliberation with the local people on dos and donots, and arriving at a consensus. This is followed by conducting water quality analyses and the ground level assessment. Ultimately, clean up and restoration activities are undertaken, alongside landscaping of the surrounding environ.
The lake/pond restoration are aimed be self-sustainable so that the maintenance need not be undertaken on a year-on-year basis. As stated in The Print, “Once a muddy morass with carcasses of dogs, cats, buffalos and Nilgais, Nyphal pond today is where birds flock to, and ducks reside in” (Narang, 2023).
Ramveer lays stress on the community interactions as the key to establishing the need for restoration of the dying lakes/ponds. The community meetings organized during the lake/pond restoration process are now formally recognised by the district authorities as the ‘Jal Chaupal’. The Jal Chaupal is an initiative to sensitise people about the importance of water and various factors related to water scarcity in society. In the Jal Chaupal, discussions happen on topics like groundwater extraction, water pollution, rainwater harvesting, water budgeting, etc. The Jal Chaupal is recognized as one of the crucial support tools to motivate people to involve in lake/pond restoration works (Jain, 2022).

Interactions and way forward

Through the interactions between Ramveer and the session participants, it is clear that community mobilization plays a crucial role in any restoration drive. Saniya Wadiya, a participant, shared the efforts undertaken by their organization to conserve the Ognaj Lake in Ahmedabad Lake which is under critical threat of illegal encroachment, and the subsequent challenges of community mobilization against such detrimental actions. Ramveer emphasizes that once a community is sensitized and made to realize the ill impacts of a dying lake/pond and the need for restoration, a significant battle is won in the process of their restoration. It is evident that not all the community members will immediately relate to the cause and actively participate in the process as the topic of discussion is not a popular one in our society. The process takes time, there will be hurdles but community mobilization can be effectively achieved with due deliberation and transparent communications and actions.
In nutshell, it is well understood that lakes/ponds in India are dying a slow death and are rapidly being converted to building sites in the name of sustainable development. The common citizen seldom realizes the impact of such draconian development measures. The efforts towards youth sensitization and community mobilization need to be undertaken more effectively. The idea that a dying lake/pond can be and should be restored is what the youth needs to be made aware of, in order to conserve the environment and lead a future of a truly sustainable development.
Mansee in her Water Governance talks and theories is stressing upon the fact that ‘water management is people management’ and youth have an instrumental role to play. Besides, water management is one part and other part is the management of the knowledge of water management. To do the former efficiently and effectively, we need to invest in the latter more enthusiastically, which is not the case at this moment. So, mobilizing and sensitizing is integral part of knowledge development and dissemination which requires to be respected even by those on the ground.
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Wednesdays.for.Water is an initiative of the WforW Foundation, a think tank, built as a Citizens Collective. The idea of Wednesdays.for.Water is to connect the water worries and wisdom with the water warriors through dialogues/discussions/debates. The objective is to get in conversations with policy makers, practitioners, researchers, academicians besides the youth towards water conservation and management. The other team members of Wednesdays.for.Water are, Megha Gupta, Monica Tewari, Garbhit Naik, and Proshakha Maitra (ED(R)C-Ahmd), Dr. Fawzia Tarannum (Climate Reality India), Ganesh Shankar and Vasantha Subbiah (FluxGen-Blr), Prof. Bibhu P Nayak (TISS-Hyd), and counting. The Wednesdays.for.Water is reachable at wednesdays.for.water@gmail.com and WforW Foundation is reachable at hellowforw@gmail.com and hello@wforw.in. The WforW Foundation social media are reachable at Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn.

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*Independent Scholar and Fellow at ED(R)C Ahmedabad and WforW Foundation. **Entrepreneur, Researcher, Educator, Speaker and Mentor. Environmental Design Consultants Ahmedabad, WforW Foundation. www.mansee.in. www.wforw.in

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