Dr. Eshwer Kale, email@example.com,Visiting Faculty at Karve Institute of Social Service and associated with Institute of Interdisciplinary Research and Development, Pune
In Maharashtra, ‘Water Cup’ competition led by film star Aamir Khan and his team since 2016 has compelled all stakeholders and actors working in the water sector to take serious note of it. The Paani Foundation, emerging from Khan’s popular television show Satymev Jayate, was set up with the aim of making Maharashtra drought-free through launching the Water Cup competition. The competition has resulted in creating a real storm (in words of its promoters, Tufaan aalaya!) in rural pockets which brought people and different stakeholders together for the common cause of fighting a battle against drought. While the government, NGO and corporate actors have been putting in intense and committed efforts for soil and water conservation since decades in mode of typically four to five year projects in villages, the Water Cup competition-somewhat similar to ‘IPL 20-20 matches’- has become so popular where state government and important corporate bodies (such as Tata Trusts, Reliance Foundation, H T Parekh Foundation, Bharatiy Jain Sanghatana, Piramal Foundation, Jankidevi Bajaj Gram Vikas Sanstha) and popular media have come together to sponsor and celebrate the annual event of the Water Cup. While fully acknowledging and appreciating this initiative for its important contribution, this article critically comments on the misleading framework of drought eradication adopted in this initiative and discusses other important shortcomings of the overall process. While doing so, as this initiative has set benchmarks in ways of effectively sensitizing and mobilizing communities, this article also point out important lessons NGO and corporate sectors can take from this pioneering approach.
First let’s discuss the big success achieved till now by this initiative since the past couple of years.
A) Important Contribution and Success
1) Apart from how many thousand cubic meters (TCM) of water is harvested through this initiative, the level and scale of success the initiative has achieved in mobilizing and uniting villagers and people for this common cause is commendable. This initiative succeed in transforming huge number of village folk and even urban dwellers to offer their time and labour for Shramdaan (offering voluntary labour) during the 45 days of competition which reaches a peak on 1st May (Maharashtra day) when special events are planned as ‘Mahashramdaan’ and thousands of people offer Shramdaan. Even, as media highlights, there are few persons in villages participating in the competition who take activities of soil and water conservation through Shramdaan as a ‘life mission’. This vibration in rural communities is important wherein most villages are fractured with socio-political divide and the environment of disappointment and no hope. This also stands out where government, NGOs and civil society organizations are struggling to bring together villages as a whole in development initiatives. It becomes even more significant where villagers in the disappointing atmosphere of drought, water scarcity, and slowdown of economic activities come together, resulting in an atmosphere of hope and dreams. The approach and methodology applied by the Paani Foundation in Water Cup competition needs to be seen as ground-breaking effort.
2) Throughout the overall process of the Water Cup competition, the cadre of village level volunteers and trainers created in Maharashtra and particularly in rural pockets is another important contribution made by this initiative. As the figures mentioned on Paani Foundation’s website: during the 1st Water Cup in 2016 a total 2800 people were trained where this number rose to 6000 in 2017 and now 20000 during 2018. Even to train these thousands of people, teams comprising of hundreds of trainers on water issues is in addition to this. These are massive numbers where people have gone through trainings on water related issues in Maharashtra where they became water literate and make efforts of applying the knowledge gained at village level.
3) Although there is no dearth of literature and audio-video material (such as short videos, films, documentaries, etc.) on the soil and water harvesting subject in the state, but the way Paani Foundation has developed films and books in simple, attractive and powerful manner during the different Water Cup Competitions needs to be well appreciated. The material developed in local language has been put on online on social forums and the Foundation’s website as open access is commendable.
4) Creating water storage capacity is at the centre of this initiative and one of the main criteria for winning the Water Cup in this competition. Hence, the increase of water harvesting potential by repairs of soil and water harvesting structures and constructing new ones through manual work and machineries is the key strategy. During the first Water Cup competition in 2016 which was held in 116 villages, a total of 1368 crore litres of water storage capacity was built; whereas in 2017 the number of villages increased to 1321 with building structures for harvesting and repairing existing one 8261 crore litres of water. In 2018 the competition has covered 4025 villages in 24 districts. Here along with the increase in water harvesting potential, the growth in scale in covering the number of villages is also important. The initiative started with 116 villages in 3 blocks two years ago, has now reached to more than 4000 villages in 75 blocks of the state.
5) Bringing diverse stakeholders together and their active engagement as a collective is certainly a methodological contribution of this initiative. Paani Foundation succeeded in mobilizing the required support from government and administration for the competition; it even succeeded in making big corporates and film celebrities stand behind this initiative. Along with mobilizing the village population, the initiative also linked urban dwellers, civil society organizations, and people across professions. The way media (mostly electronic) has been handled and contributes in this initiative is commendable. This approach highlights that the chances of success increases greatly when diverse stakeholders come together with their willingness to make positive change.
B) The Fallacy of Drought Eradication
Despite the above success, the theorisation of drought eradication adopted and promoted in this initiative is deceptive. The Paani Foundation’s overall Water Cup competition claims to make Maharashtra drought free. ‘Fight against drought to make Maharashtra drought free’ is the mantra of the team which they repeatedly talk on social and electronic media and is even quoted in documents available on the Foundation’s website. This slogan became very popular with the media and people because of the emotional touch of ‘eradicating drought’ attached to it; it appealed village folks to be associated with campaign of eradicating drought. The overall approach of drought eradication adopted in this initiative is not based on scientific and a rationale understanding of drought occurrence and its management. Hence, more than a scientific understanding of drought, it is based on emotional appeal. It appears that the premise behind this approach is ‘the increased water harvested in 45 days of the competition through soil and water conservation methods by Shramdaan and machineries will eradicate drought in these villages.’ This is precisely a wrong theorisation of drought proofing. There are numerous determinants of drought, ranging from natural and climatic phenomena to human interventions (Nagarajan R, 2009). The overall drought conditions have been categorised in four major types: 1) Meteorological drought – mostly occurs because of the dry period between rainfall days. 2) Agricultural drought – because of precipitation shortage for crops. 3) Hydrological drought – because of excess use of water, more than its recharge and storage, and 4) Socio-economic drought – getting exacerbated by human activities/interventions (Paolo P and Baldassarre G, 2015). It is not getting clear that, precisely which type of drought the Paani Foundation is claiming to eradicate through the competition. As the Water Cup approach primarily focuses on increasing the water harvesting potential by harvesting additional runoff, let’s assume the Foundation talks about addressing metrological and agriculture drought by making more water available for crops in the dry period. Unfortunately, the experiences of droughts in Maharashtra show that such strategy does not prove adequate to make villages drought proof. Maharashtra has the highest number of dams in the country (Government of India, 2007; Meena M and Uzramma, 2017) and has a glorious history of implementation of watershed development projects where in thousands of villages soil and water conservation measures are taken by government, corporates and NGOs in the state (Wani S et al, 2011; Kerr J et al, 2002). Apart from this, there are many government schemes under which water harvesting structures have been built in villages. The Jalyukt Shivar Scheme, the flagship program launched by state to make the state drought free in 2019, as per claims of the state government has resulted in creating huge amount of water harvesting potential during last few years in the state. Therefore, it is practically difficult to find a village in Maharashtra where no soil conservation treatment or water harvesting structure has been built; however the observations show that all these efforts have not resulted in making these villages completely free from drought (except few handful villages where villagers put self-regulations on water-use and cropping pattern). This is precisely because increasing water availability in the village is not the only criteria of making villages drought-proof. We need to realize that whatever amount of water we increase in villages in most cases is pumped out by a handful of irrigator farmers in the villages, whereas most of the land in drought prone regions is rain dependent (rainfed) and which do not receive any benefits of the increased water harvested. Importantly, on issue of increasing water availability and creating structures, most villagers come together as they don’t lose anything, whereas when it comes to reducing the existing water-use by individuals, particularly the better-off farmers, villagers do not follow any rules and exploit it as per their capacities. This is important to note here because, often water scarcity get exacerbated due to groundwater lifting practices of farmers, where the Water Cup competition gives very little emphasis to water management aspects, such as water budgeting and soil quality improvement. Not to mention, mobilizing and sensitizing villagers for adopting water management practices is more challenging than merely bringing them together for water harvesting. More recently, drought is observed to be increasingly the result of and getting exacerbated due to socio-economic, environmental and political decisions at different levels, where available water is being diverted to non-agriculture purposes and runoff in upper reaches is arrested in irrigation projects (reducing water availability to downstream regions/villages, which creates drought-like conditions). Hence to conclude, the Water Cup competition of 45 days will result in making villages drought free seems like utopia where there is little practicality and more emotional appeal. The approach applied in Water Cup competition to make Maharashtra drought free, thus is not based on a comprehensive understanding of drought and its complexity.
C) Shortfalls and Areas of Improvement
Apart from the success gained in reaching thousands of villages and engaging hundreds of thousands of people, the strategy and approach adopted in Water Cup Competition by Paani Foundation has a few, but important lacunae and shortfalls which needs to be well addressed before taking this initiative to the next level.
1) Inequitable access to water: Application of the equity principle in terms of access to the increased amount of water resulting from the interventions of the competition (i.e. through Shramdaan) is an important missing element in the strategy of this initiative. This is essential because there is an urgent need to make conscious efforts to sensitize people on the ‘common pool nature of water versus private property’. This value principle needs to be strategically operationalized. Bringing the equity principle in practice in water sector is no easy task where civil society groups are struggling since decades. But here the point of concern is whether at least in principle and in the strategy the Water Cup has included this? Because the resource poor (landless, small and marginal land owner and rainfed farmers) most of who are contributing their free labour- Shramdaan – have their aspirations regarding the increased water storage in villages, but they are not in position to claim and use the harvested water; whereas the fewer irrigator farmers, irrespective of their participation in the Shramdaan get easy benefits of it. Hence, it is widely observed that the key village leaders who are generally the resource rich (large and medium landholders with water resources) are very keen to implement soil and water conservation activities in the village; ultimately they are the main long term beneficiaries. Hence, as is rightly said, ‘there is many a slip between the cup and the lip’, unless conscious efforts are made for using the increased water judiciously, vulnerable sections of the villages that participate in the Water Cup Competition, will never automatically benefit from it.
2) Sustainability issues: The biggest challenge in the water sector is sustaining the benefits of soil and water conservation measures beyond the implementation period. To protect the water resources for the coming generations, it needs purposeful, systematic and periodic maintenance of the structures as also monitoring of the efficient ways of water-use. It seems that after 45 days of competition in harvesting water, apart from communication in award winning villages (under another competition called as Sustainability Cup) there is no follow up system or effective withdrawal strategy in the remaining over 90% of villages to ensure that people in these villages also make water-use in a sustainable way after the competition. In Maharashtra, there are many evidences where successful implementation of watershed development programs of 4 to 5 years resulted in increase in water levels and a marked increase in irrigated area as well as crop production in early years. However, years later, while water harvested is still high, due to the increased area under irrigation, the over-exploitation of groundwater because of the unregulated water-use by few farmers create water scarcity situations once more. Therefore, along with the amount of TCM water harvested in Water Cup Competition, it is equally important to include efforts to ensure that harvested water gets sustainably used. On this front, it seems that while in the Water Cup competition the water budgeting component is included; its application is given a little attention. Another important fact is that water budgeting processes are more relevant to get applied during the agriculture season (kharif and rabi) which does not fall within the 45 days period of the competition.
3) Less focus on demand side measures: Maharashtra is not poor in rainwater harvesting potential. Irrigation statistics shows that the state has the highest number of irrigation projects in the country (approximately 40%), and at the other side, soil and water conservations measures under watershed development programs have been extensively implemented in many villages by state, NGOs and corporates. Therefore, the need of hour is to shift our focus to demand side interventions. According recently announced composite water management index by NITI Aayog of India, Maharashtra is ranked at fifth position (NITI Aayog, 2018). In this background, we need to understand the value and importance of selection of appropriate crops and water saving irrigation practices (drip, sprinklers and mulching), as also soil health practices which ensure efficient use of water. For this, making communities water literate and putting systems (e.g. water budgeting tools) and processes in place, drought impacts can be reduced. As a simple mathematical calculation, cultivation of sugarcane on one hectare requires 2.37 crore litres of water. If farmers reduce only 1 hectare of sugarcane in a village (which consume 23,700,000 litres or 2370 tankers of water), the amount of water saved from this is sufficient to fulfil the water requirements of more than 1200 people with 50 litres per day for a whole year. Through such water guzzling crops, particularly from drought prone regions of the state, huge amount of water is being virtually exported. Therefore although challenging, efforts are much needed to motivate farmers to change their practices, otherwise the thousands of TCM of water conserved through the Water Cup Competition has little relevance unless appropriate demand side measures are promoted and put at high priority.
4) Groundwater recharge less prioritised: As amount of water harvested is considered one of the major criteria for winning the awards in Water Cup competition, groundwater recharge practices get less priority. Machine work and government support (for fuel of these machines) mainly contributed for deepening, widening, and strengthening of streams and rivers which by many water experts is observed as dangerous to ecosystem integrity and equity if not done scientifically. It would be very helpful, if in the next phase of the Water Cup, support of competent agencies like Groundwater Survey and Development Agency and other research organization is sought to identify recharge and discharge zones and prioritise conservation work in groundwater recharge zones as the state has very less water recharge potential due to basaltic rock formation in most regions.
5) Government and Governance is must: The Paani Foundation, as stated on their website, believes in “breaking the cycle of peoples’ dependence on government” through the process of Water Cup competition. Although at principle level this proposition sounds well, practically it has serious implications. It is appreciable that Water Cup process motivates villagers to take actions of harvesting water and offer Shramdaan, however the framework which assumes ‘villagers are self-dependent to manage their water affairs’ which implies that the state has less role in this is weak and deceitful. Managing water in villages (both supply and demand side) is long term process which needs continuous financial, technical, and capacity building support where the role of state and different water related departments is of vital importance. Hence, rather than promoting the principle of villagers’ autonomy, during the competition efforts of linking villagers with state programs and government officials for achieving convergence for better water management should be strengthened more. Even, with political economy perspective, to ensure the sustainability of such efforts, it is important that such initiatives get linked or adopted by state with having positive politics of these issues. Politicization of such initiative in healthy term is important to expand it at larger scale and ensure its sustainability. In the state, there are few important examples such as cooperative models of sugar factories and dairy cooperatives which became the centre of political and economic affairs in villages and overall state, but importantly, these processes ensured the sustainability and growth of these enterprises. Even, observations in two pioneering watershed villages in Maharashtra, Ralegan-Siddhi and Hivare-Bazar where Anna Hazare and his disciple Popat Rao Pavar transformed their villages primarily based on watershed development, substantiate that positive politics is an important means of transforming village economy.
6) Cost-benefits ratio: It get widely advocated by Paani Foundation that Shramdaan getting offered by villagers is the key strategy in the Water Cup competition and they don’t directly invest the financial capital in villages for harvesting purpose, rather their focus is motivating villagers for the same. This give the sense that the investment made in this initiative is very less which results in a good amount of water harvested, but it seems that this is not fully true. As Paani Foundation work in campaign mode for Water Cup competition with hiring hundreds of experts, motivators, trainers, facilitators and support staff, conduct trainings of thousands of villagers, manages media to get highlighted, and conducts mega events, to manage and conduct these activities require crores of rupees. Therefore, to assess the efficiency of fund utilizations (which government and NGOs periodically do in their projects) Paani Foundation should conduct cost benefit analysis of its initiative of Water Cup to know what is the actual cost incurred in creating the potential of water harvesting per each TCM.
D) Lessons for NGO and Corporate Sector
Whatever success achieved by Water Cup Competition and its wider legitimization (mostly to approach and methodology of Paani Foundation) is an alarming call for NGO sector in Maharashtra as well India whose mandate is natural resource development, particularly the water resource. Since decades, the NGOs and Corporates are dealing with different challenges in water issue and gaining active community support for it, however, despite sufficient backing of funds and grant, even after years of continuous efforts in project mode, hardy they succeeded in handful villages (where Paani Foundation claim to build such few villages in only 45 days of competition). No doubt, there are many constraints to NGOs in such type of work such as lack of committed and skillful professionals, less support of government officials, dearth of fund, no advantage of having celebrity associated, and lack of strong media support, the situation is that in case NGOs do not improve their approach, thinking, functioning, and strategies, there is a potentials threat to get they out-dated and losing their confidence in rural folks and their stakeholders. The ratio of amount getting spent on actual development interventions and put aside for management & administrative components of received funds and grants by NGOs is the another concern, along with shifting priorities of issues and concerns as per funding availability to them. In this context, it is really difficult to answer ‘who drives the development agenda’, NGOs committed for cause or funding or donor agencies, therefore even in such adverse conditions, NGOs need to adhere to their agendas of development in long run. Another important lesson from Paani Foundation to NGOs is to work with an approach and strategy of multi-stakeholder dialogue and cooperation. The role of bringing rural and urban folks together, with experts, media, government, NGOs, donors and professional from diverse background has important role in whatever success achieved by Paani Foundation under Water Cup Foundation. NGOs and Corporates need to be grown up enough and be prepared to adopt such cooperative strategy by leaving aside the perception of seeing each other as their competitor or rival.
In light of overall above discussion, there is a need of further detailed analyses of the Water Cup model of Paani Foundation with all its peculiarities and dimensions as it challenged the approach, strategies, and overall functioning of actors and stakeholders working on natural resources development and management in the state.
 These figures are taken from Paani Foundation’s website and available at https://www.paanifoundation.in/water-cup/about-the-water-cup/
 According information available on Foundation’s website, during competition in 2017 over 70,000 hours of machine work was donated by Bharatiya Jain Sangathana, this is a part of government issued special GRs to offer fuel charges for machine work during Water Cup in 2018 and 2019.
 These figure are taken from Paani Foundation’s website and available at https://www.paanifoundation.in/water-cup/about-the-water-cup/
 From Times of India, dated 6, March 2017, available at https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/aurangabad/5000-new-villages-identified-for-jalyukta-shivar-in-2017-18/articleshow/57483416.cms
 This figure is taken from Krishi Darshini-2017 of Mahatma Phule Krishi Vidyapith, Rahuri
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- Paolo P and Baldassarre G, 2015, Hydro-Meteorological Hazards, Risks, and Disasters, Elsevier Publication, Netherland
- Meena M and Uzramma, 2017, A Frayed History: The Journey of Cotton in India, Oxford University Press, New Delhi India
- Niti Aayog. (2018). Composite Water Management Index. Government of India, June 2018
- Government of India, 2007, Maharashtra, Development Report, by Planning Commission of the Government of India, Academic Foundation , New Delhi, India
- Kerr Jet al, 2002, Watershed Development Projects in India: An Evaluation, International Food Policy Research (IFRI), United States of America
- Wani S et al, 2011, Integrated Watershed Management in Rainfed Agriculture, CRC Press, Taylor & Francis Group, London, UK
Correspondence: Dr. Eshwer Kale, D-5/53, Tridalnagar Colony, Housing Board, Yerwada, Pune 411006,