Paani Foundation and its Satyamev Jayate Water Cup have been the catalysts in sparking and sustaining a people’s movement that goes against the flow

The cast has tens of thousands of heroes. The setting is some of the most arid regions of Maharashtra. The theme is water and the storyline is about everyday folk putting body and soul into securing the elixir. And, not least, there’s an alchemist firing up the plot and the protagonists.

Those are the essential ingredients that have gone into the making of the Satyamev Jayate Water Cup, an annual competition — and a celebration as well — where hundreds of villages and tens of thousands of villagers from across Maharashtra contribute with voluntary labour to create infrastructure for rainwater harvesting and watershed management. As for the alchemist, that would be Aamir Khan, a rare blend of superstar and artist, celebrity and socially conscious citizen.

A brainchild of Paani Foundation, founded by Mr Khan and his wife, Kiran Rao, the water cup has grown spectacularly since its launch in the summer of 2016. The first edition of the cup had 116 participating villages from three districts. The just-completed 2018 contest attracted 4,025 villages from 24 districts.

What began as an experimental initiative to capture and conserve water has become a mass movement that has earned kudos and support from the state government, donors and a raft of civil society organisations. More importantly, it has fostered kinship and goodwill among villagers previously divided along political, caste and religious lines. All in the quest for a precious resource, water, the lack of which has blighted countless lives in the parched heartlands of rural Maharashtra.

The water cup pits villages against one another in a competition where there are no losers. Villages from a bunch of selected sub-districts are encouraged to take part in the contest, which runs for six weeks ahead of the monsoon season. The best performers are selected after the rains have gone.

The participating villages have to send a team of at least five people, including two women, from their community for a comprehensive training programme conducted by Paani Foundation in partnership with the Watershed Organisation Trust, a fellow-nonprofit. On the learning menu are watershed management and its technicalities, leadership skills, the contest’s rules and 100-point marking system, and, less explicitly, what camaraderie and the power of the collective can deliver.

Prize money jump

An assured and secure source of water is the obvious reward for participants. And there’s money on offer to sweeten the victory. The water cup kicked off with 10 million in prizes, 5 million going to the best-performing village, 3 million to the second and 2 million to the third. The prize money has jumped to nearly 100 million now, with the top three villages set to get 7.5 million, 5 million and 4 million, respectively, in 2018. Additionally, the standout village from each sub-district will receive 1 million.

Shramdaan, or voluntary physical labour, is the centrepiece of the water cup. Building water management structures is hard work and the villagers toil together. Besides constructing water-conservation structures, they raise money for machines, test and treat soil, budget for water usage and employ water-saving technologies.

Reality TV

Paani Foundation and the water cup grew out of the Satyamev Jayate television show helmed by Mr Khan. With its offbeat agenda of social issues and a compelling presentation style, the show was singular. It aired on a mainstream entertainment channel and pulled in viewers accustomed to gorging on game shows and serials. The big reason for that was Mr Khan, an off-beat performer with his finger on the popular pulse.

Water was one of the subjects tackled by Satyamev Jayate and it struck a chord with the team doing the show. “We wanted to leverage the show to change things on the ground,” says Satyajit Bhatkal, chief executive of Paani Foundation and the brain behind Satyamev Jayate. “What we discovered was very curious: there is no problem in India that has not already been solved. Our problem is that we are unable to take social solutions to scale.”

In the team’s thinking, water was a straightforward fit. “Water sits at the intersection of every social issue we face,” explains Mr Bhatkal. “Be it livelihoods, gender justice, health, poverty reduction or improving farming outcomes, solving the problem of water is a necessary condition.”

The answer is traditional

The size of the canvas made the water idea stronger still for the team, and they did not have to hunt for answers. “Decentralised watershed management has been with us for ever; it is part of India’s ancient wisdom,” says Mr Bhatkal. “We wanted people to own the problem.”

The challenge was getting villagers motivated. “We seeded the motivation and we invested heavily in our training module,” adds Mr Bhatkal, who gave up his law practice when the lure of showbiz proved irresistible. “Coming from film and television, we took a different approach to it: experiential and emotional, activity-based and rooted in peer-to-peer learning.”

Stuck in the middle

The composite water management index released by NITI Aayog, the Indian government’s policy think tank, terms Maharashtra a ‘medium performer’ on water resource management. The index tracked progress on groundwater management, restoration of water bodies, irrigation, farm practices, drinking water, policy and governance.

The people at Paani Foundation see themselves, first and foremost, as communicators. “We wanted to marry the creativity of film and television with what is otherwise a dry subject, but we didn’t know whether it would be enough to just motivate and train,” says Mr Bhatkal.

What they were certain about was that the villagers would own the initiative, and that there would be no handing out of funds. “Paani Foundation does not give any money to any village; this is written in stone,” says Mr Bhatkal. “We don’t adopt any villages; it’s the villagers who adopt the Foundation and its philosophy.”

Mr Bhatkal is disinclined to call the villagers beneficiaries. “The paradigm has changed. Villagers participating in the water cup are not beneficiaries; they are water heroes. We give them nothing but training. The heart of the work we do lies in bringing human beings together.”

Outsiders pitching in with assistance has become a feature of the water cup. A multitude of civil society organisations are lending a hand, as is the state government in ever greater measure. Add to that people from cities, among them students and professionals, who were roped in through an initiative called ‘Jal Mitra’, which enables volunteers to contribute with manual labour in the villages.

The water cup has even more going for it. The competition and the Foundation’s wider water initiative have, since March 2018, got a boost through a show called Toofan Aalaya (the storm has come), which airs on seven Marathi channels. “We discovered something beautiful: a people’s movement that works with sincerity and gets a lot of help from society,” says Mr Bhatkal.

The Aamir Khan dynamic is impossible to ignore while describing what the water cup has accomplished. “Aamir has been critical in two ways,” says Mr Bhatkal. “Without him spearheading this effort, I don’t think we would have got this kind of backing. The other factor is the depth of his involvement in the project; he brings so much value to the Foundation, as a thinker, an organiser and as a communicator.”

Satyajit Bhatkal (centre), the chief executive of Paani Foundation, with associates Ganesh Mandekar and Ashok Burungule in Konambe (Nashik district), one of the villages that participated in the Satyamev Jayate Water Cup

Considering the quality and scale of what it has pulled off, it would be logical to expect Paani Foundation to go further from here on. Perish the thought. “Our dream for the Foundation is that it dies as soon as possible,” says Mr Bhatkal. “We are ambitious about the cause, not the organisation. Our mandate was making Maharashtra free of water tankers in five years. We are 30 months down that road and on track to meet our goal. We would be quite happy to wind up after that.”