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OSOP: Puducherry's Jal Swaraj model to revive ponds with community participation

By Proshakha Maitra, Megha Gupta*, Mansee Bal Bhargava**

The earth has almost 70% water of which only 2.5% is fresh on which most living beings on land depend upon. The freshwater sources in and around human habitations are mainly from ponds, lakes, wetlands and rivers. The tropical Indian landscape dots these water systems extensively across the length and breadth of the country. 
The ponds are predominantly the one that are small human-constructed rainwater harvesting structures and closely integrated to social-ecological evolution of human settlements and life. All villages, towns, cities are in abundance of ponds despite losing nearly half of them in the past one century in the process of urbanisation in India.
Despite the wide availability of freshwater resources across the country, it is concerning to accept that sources of water are increasingly becoming scarce. Water is a crucial resource for the environment and many other uses besides being source of life’s fundamental sustenance and for our daily lives. This living planet may end if water is not made available in the necessary quantity and quality. Unfortunately, we are succumbing to a situation where absolute basic resource is at stake.
It has been estimated that more than 4 billion people, which is almost two-thirds of the total population of the world, struggle with extreme water shortage for at least one month a year. As most communities lack access to the proper water resources for their needs, water scarcity is becoming a worldwide issue. India, with 4% of the world’s total water resources to support about 18% of the total world population, is among the most water-stressed countries in the world. 
Amidst this scenario, there are efforts across the country to revitalise and restore the precious village ponds and streams. For example, the WaterRich Puducherry, the One School One Pond (OSOP) by the people of the region. The essay is on learning and understanding those initiatives for its upscaling possibilities.

The Session

The Wednesdays.for.Water session organised by WforW Foundation and live at Shri Aurobindo Society Puducherry focussed on, ‘Jal Swaraj – One School One Pond (OSOP)’, invited Probir Banerjee and Dr. Raghunath TP as speakers and Anupama Bothireddy as Discussant. Dr. Mansee Bal Bhargava moderated the session.
Probir is a civil engineer, a Rotarian and a Freemason. He engages extensively in promoting environmental conservation, art, culture, and health through workshops and camps. Dr. Rahugath is Director of Shri Aurobindo Society which works extensively with schoolchildren and rural citizens on sustainability related to water and ecology. 
Probir, Raghunath and others from the region co-founded the Puducherry Citizens’ Action Network (PondyCAN) that takes up important social-ecological issues to the stakeholders for public engagement initiatives such as, OneSchoolOnePond, All for Water for All, Water Fest for water and biodiversity, etc. Anupama Bothireddy is a landscape architect and consultant practicing from Chennai.
The discussion on Jal Swaraj-OSOP is to understand the modalities of pond rejuvenation by bringing schools onboard into the process. As the OSOP initiative is endorsed by the Government of Puducherry for the state as a program for community engagement in waterbodies conservation and management.

One School One Pond and Jal Swaraj

The genesis of the OSOP model is inspired by the Seeds of Change initiative of PondyCAN under the umbrella of All for Water for All (A4W4A) that works with school and college youths to help them develop their environmental awareness and civic consciousness. A4W4A is a collective consisting of individuals and organisations aiming of fostering collaboration between government and the civil society towards protection and restoration of waterbodies in the Bioregion identified as area covering, Puducherry, Villupuram, Auroville, and Cuddalore, in order to attain sustainable water future which they call as, #WaterRich Puducherry.
The struggle for independence gave rise to the idea of ‘Swaraj’ which signified an inclination for self-rule or governance besides, inculcating a sense of responsibility among the community. The idea of Jal Swaraj is also inspired by this self-rule and stands for the governance of water resources collectively by the individuals and institutions. 
As water is a universal resource that is used by everyone thus, its problems must concern everyone and should be managed through everyone’s efforts. Jal Swaraj is about collaboration with all the involved stakeholders, believing that collaboration will lead to better/sustained efforts towards conservation and management of waterbodies and thus sustainable development.
Jal Swaraj also emphasises on an integrated approach that focuses on every social-ecological aspect to enable better and informed collective decisions and actions. Since otherwise most conservation efforts are seen as more project-centric. The involved are then concerned more with the execution of projects as and when funds are available and then with the end of the funds, the motivation and execution ends, and therefore lack long-term planning. 
Jal Swaraj attaches greater importance to planning by incorporating suggestions from the community members and every other stakeholder, integrating the various ecological aspects of the water systems with the social life of the people, and increasing actions on the ground level for long term engagements.

Bioregional planning

To collectively collaborate for both economic prospects and sustainable use of resources, a Bioregional Planning is considered a holistic approach to development. Since, the planning must not be bound by the political boundaries and must expand to the larger landscape of the resources thus, considering the watershed as the regional boundary. It will provide a wider scope to address region-wide environmental, social and economic issues.
After several meetings between the PondyCAN and other stakeholders, it was decided to form PVAC (Puducherry-Villupuram–Auroville–Cuddalore) Bioregion based on the watershed area to effectively manage the waterbodies. The PVAC Bioregion covers around 25000 sq. kms. of area and shares most of its waterbodies with some neighbouring districts of Tamil Nadu. The bioregion is interconnected through natural resources, climate, historical and cultural linkages, besides tourism, trade and transportation and the common coast.
PVAC bioregion
Bioregion planning comprises of several aspects that determine its integrated nature. It is based on a spatial foundation which includes the natural features of the region in terms of both surface and underground water, soil, minerals deposits, flora and fauna species found in the region as well as the prevailing climatic conditions. It also has a structure that includes rural and urban infrastructures. 
The structure also encompasses the physical infrastructure requirements of the area such as, drainage facilities, sewage treatment mechanisms, power and transportation development, etc. It lays a superstructure connected with economic and non-economic activities in the region.The PVAC Bioregional Planning began in the year 2008 with the first meeting taking place in Auroville. Since then, there have been a series of meetings and workshops that led to the development of four main components for planning - information, consultation process, ground-level action and policy. To gather information for informed decisions and to include every stakeholder’s perspective, extensive studies were conducted for about one and half years which included several discussions with the local farmers and fishermen in the villages and towns of the region. 
The discussions brought out the strengths and weaknesses of the bioregion which became a useful devise to prepare a roadmap towards sustainable development. The consultation processes with planners and political leaders highlighted the need for the bioregion planning. During the several meetings and workshops, discussions and decisions were also made on how to coordinate actions between the subregions and what kind of information is needed and how to facilitate the sharing of such information. 
The then Chief Minister also agreed, in the meeting held in 2018, to take this up with the central government as ground actions can become more effective if they are successfully backed up by policy measures.

Water initiatives in Puducherry

Puducherry, with a demand of about 145 litres of water per person in a day, has one of the highest per capita consumption of water in India. Over the years, Puducherry, like many other places in India, has faced over-extraction and wastage of water. Even though water is the primary requirement for survival, it is we the people who pose the major threats to water. 
Thus, the primary focus of water initiatives in Puducherry is to involve the local people as their actions are crucial in the maintenance of the waterbodies. For example, there are several initiatives in the region since as early as the 1980s that aimed to reduce water pollution and encourage sustainable use.
Also, the eastern coast of India does not have a well-defined monsoon season and the entire rainfall might occur in 10 days of the year. With the climate change impacts now, the monsoon patterns are more erratic than before. Thus, it becomes crucial to tap and store the water received from rainfall.
Puducherry was blessed with 87 tanks which are semi-circular waterbodies built in the historical past to catch the rainwater. Now, 84 tanks are exisiting. Puducherry was also blessed with an excellent water system comprising about 160 kms long canals connecting these tanks as overflow systems. Apart from water storage, they also ease the distribution of water throughout the region for irrigation.
So, water management systems have been present in Puducherry for a long time. A very evident example of this practice is, Kudimaramathu. It is an ancient engineering system and directly involves the local community members in the management of the water bodies. From carrying out desilting work to strengthening the bunds and planting trees, everything is executed by the communities under this system. 
When the French came and took over the area, the Kudimaramathu system was institutionalised and named ‘Syndicate Agricole’ and ‘Caise Commune’ for the tanks/ponds. A budget was prepared and all the work was carried out by the local communities. This system collapsed after the independence when tanks became the property of the government. The management and maintenance were taken over by the government distancing the local community from their use and maintenance. 
Contractors, instead of community members, were assigned the work which also led to fund mismanagement and conflicts. Mismanagement have led to the loss of water resources in the region. In addition, saltwater intrusion began in the region with increase in groundwater extraction. Saltwater intrusion was recorded even up to 6 kms. in the 1990s.
Water festival ritual of collecting and exchanging pond water 
This situation pushed the civil society organizations and the government to work together towards Tank Rehabilitation Project of Puducherry from 1999 to 2008. A rigorous survey was conducted and all the 84 tanks were successfully identified and restored. Since then, several initiatives have been taken up in the region. 
As part of that a Water Fest was conducted in 2016 which proved to be a success among the local community. The month-long annual Water Fest is now a regular ritual/event jointly organised by the community, government, and other stakeholders.

Rejuvenation of ponds

A pond has a role of water storage besides being a storehouse of biodiversity. Ponds affect the food chain and help in maintaining ecological balance besides influencing the local climate. With this in mind, Puducherry has been taking up several measures to restore and rejuvenate numerous ponds across the region. For example, Vannan Kulam which is among the biggest urban ponds which had turned into a garbage dumping site. 
With participation of the local people and cooperation of the local politicians and district collector, the pond was restored. Vannan Kulam now holds about 50 litres lakh litres of water and is included in the Smart City Project. Another example is Abhishekapakkam which had completely dried and was lying barren. With efforts from the team and local people, the pond was restored into a tank with a water holding capacity of 25 million litres.
It is a common practice across the country to give away pond lands for the construction of government offices. But now that is discouraged in the region. They are relooked for alternate uses and restored. For example, a pond inside the Marapalam EB Substation was taken up and transformed from a land filled with junk to a brimming body of water, with the support of the local people, government officials and local politicians. 
Another example is a pond in Kamban Nagar which was filled up by the Public Works Department to build overhead tanks. The pond was restored. One association is formed by nine neighbourhood associations to maintain it as they all contributed collectively towards its restoration and development.
An important outcome of the tanks/ponds restoration is the placemaking after they are replenished with water. The bunds of the waterbodies become everyday public spaces and thus the perceived social value of the waterbodies is increased. As the tanks/ponds are adopted by the local schools and/or local residential associations besides local governments to use and maintain, this ensures their upkeep on regular basis while they enjoy the public realm.

#WaterRich Puducherry

WaterRichPuducherry has been a people’s movement in Puducherry which was executed under the initiative of Lt Governor Dr. Kiran Bedi. It involved long walks along the water channels followed by rigorous desilting work with the help of CSR funds. Most of the areas along these canals were successfully covered as a part of this movement and 86 kms of canals were cleaned up and restored.
Apart from rejuvenating old tanks/ponds, reviving the canals, Puducherry is also proactive in forming new tanks. The creation of the 85th tank, Mullodai Eri, showed that after years of creating land out of waterbodies, Puducherry has taken up a great step towards creating water out of the land. The waterworks continue to quench the thirst of the rising population and counter the climate change impacts in Puducherry.

Discussion

To upscale the OSOP model to more regions across the country, there are some key takeaways. From the social perspective, how to approach the schools for tank/pond adoption and how to design the operation and maintenance of the model, are pertinent questions.
While the public consultation processes are crucial, it is also important to arrange events to celebrate water like the Water Fest which is now a regular annual event. For example Water Fest Feb-Mar2021 launched interesting programs of which the OSOP was one. The OSOP was conceived in partnership with the Puducherry Education Department. The idea of OSOP is to set up Eco-Lab in every school just other educational labs of physics/chemistry. 
This will help in inculcating in the young minds that environmental conservation is equally important as their other curriculum. A school will adopt one pond and the students (between the age group 10 – 17 years) will be involved in all the rejuvenation activities such as planting trees, releasing fish, cleaning water edges, monitoring fish, birds, clean and green, etc. This will serve the community purposes besides helping develop the social skills and critical thinking abilities among the students.
A lot of filling up goes on the edge of tank/pond to reach the maximum flood level or full tank level and those also require government approvals. When the surrounding land is filled up, the natural flow of water is blocked. Thus, there is a need for optimum solution by creating alternative spaces where the water can flow. Topographic surveys are useful in this situation to identify the low-lying areas where the water can be channelised. Canals have to be seen with different light as water carriers and bioswales to house biodviersity. This will also increase the developmental value due to the waterbody/wetland attached to it. The water can also be channelised into borewells for groundwater recharge. For this, attention is required for filtering the water before it is released into the groundwater to avoid contamination of the precious groundwater.
In the digital era, now role of technology in waterbody rejuvenation is crucial and needs exploration.
As part of OSOP program, a digital app is developed in which people (here students as part of lab work) can enter details such as, Ph level, BOD level, COD level, biodiversity, etc. about the tank/pond. The curriculum is in discussion to be finalised after which the app can be developed and put to use. 
Such interface will create rich database for researchers and help access various information about the tank/pond besdies making people associated with both social-ecological components of the built environment. Since the initiative is done with the Puducherry Education Department, the data will be considered reliable and suitable for education and even municipal use.

Way forward

The citizens aften have questions on how to contribute towards the conservation of the environment and what things they can do to protect tanks/ponds. Jal Swaraj through OSOP is an example that shows what people can do collectively in terms of social and ecological management processes. 
People are at the core of solving the problems that they have created themselves. They are the drivers of any environmental change, good or bad. So, Jal Swaraj can be attained only when people become aware and communicate to express intent first, of the existing problem, then collectively decide to work on it, then comply with the collective agreement they make, and then collectively commit to the efforts required. 
When collective action happens by the people, for the people and of the people, then only people can regulate the government to direct it towards working for the benefit of society. This is what in essence is water governance which is laid on the fundamentals of Swaraj.
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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, Monica Tewari, Garbhit Naik, and Monami Bhattacharya (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 scholars and fellows at Eco Development and Research Cell, ED(R)C Ahmedabad and WforW Foundation. **Entrepreneur, Researcher, Educator, Speaker and Mentor. Environmental Design Consultants Ahmedabad and WforW Foundation. www.mansee.in www.wforw.in

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