Restore Promise of Water: Reconnecting with Ancient India to Create Magic
Updated: Jul 26
By Mr. Nandan Maluste & Mr. Joe Fernandes, Founding Members of the Restore Promise of Water program
With 7.5 billion people and climate change threatening, our world faces many challenges. But one of the most immediate has to be the scarcity of non-saline water – to drink, to clean, to irrigate, for life. While this piece focuses on India, it could be valuable in other geographies as well.
South Asia has long been one of the most populous and most bio-diverse parts of the globe, largely because the climate and topography are so conducive – varying from the tropical rain forests of the Western Ghats (abutting the warm Arabian Sea); through the sandy deserts of what are now called Gujarat, Sindh and Rajasthan; to the riverine Indo Gangetic plain that housed one of the world’s earliest civilisations (Harappa) to the Alpine meadows of Kashmir and the wind and snow bound crags of the Himalayas, the tallest mountains of the earth. The average annual rainfall of India is a seemly generous 120 cm. Yet, of the 748 administrative districts of India, half are now officially declared drought prone.
What was not perhaps obvious to the Europeans who brought their technologies to India over the last four centuries, is that the water cycle that underlies the lives of (now) 1.8 billion people is quite different from that of Western Europe. Mumbai, for example, averages over 240 cm of rain per year compared to London’s 62 cm. But whereas London gets showers every month through the year, Mumbai’s downpour is concentrated to a hundred days between June and September. Obviously, the two cities require completely different water demand and supply systems.
Since Harappan times, water demand was calibrated, as supply was erratic. Supply centred upon dense forests (vastly degraded in recent centuries) and innocuous “tank systems” - open and interconnected waterbodies - that slowed and held the rain and ice melts washing to the seas. Both served to recharge the ground water aquifers that even today hold water captured millennia ago. Both also provided hummus as fertiliser to enrich the agriculture that flourished in clearings near them.
This blog focuses on the tank or “waterbody” ecosystem. Interconnected waterbodies (ranging from less than 1 acre to up to a few hundred acres at the surface) were crucial to life. The surface and ground water were drunk by man and beast. Fish kept the surface water clean (including of mosquito larvae) and added valuable protein to diets. Periodically (depending on the build-up), before the rainy season, the community restored the capacity of their tanks by removing the composted hummus and sediment accumulated at their base. This alluvium (commonly called silt), rich in organic nutrient, was spread on fields, enriching their productivity.
Unfortunately, over the last century, this community connect to these ecosystems was lost, including their symbiotic maintenance via silt removal. Governments supplied water, often piped from rivers or large reservoirs distant from the community. Groundwater was mined with modern pumps, lowering dependency on surface water from the tanks. Fertilizers produced instantaneous results lowering perceived value of the silt. The tanks were no longer as essential as in the past. Neglect over decades resulted in drastically reduced water capture due to decadal accumulation of silt and loss of inter-connectivity between waterbodies.
Alumni from the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITians) were mobilized towards developing innovative solutions to India’s greatest challenges, including drought. The Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT) were created, on the model of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, after Independence in 1947. Their success may be gauged by the alumni who are now, or have been, in high places across India and the world, with leading roles in academia, government, industry, finance and even the arts. For example, the current CEOs of Google, IBM, and Twitter are IIT alumni. Kartik Kilachand and Joe Fernandes, graduates respectively of IIT Bombay and IIT Kharagpur, established IIT-IIT (IITians for Influencing India’s Transformation) in the 2010s to engage IIT alumni to scale programmes addressing some of India’s most pressing challenges. Some 130 IITians from across India and the world signed on as Founding Members. Dozens of programmes were scanned for importance and scalability.
In water, IIT-IIT was inspired by Caring Friends (CF) and ATE Chandra Foundation (ATECF). Their Rejuvenation of Water Bodies (RWB) programme revived thousands of waterbodies across drought prone parts of Maharashtra, economically India’s largest state. The programme, led by farmer community demand, had by 2018 scaled across all of Maharashtra, adding close to 60 billion litres of water capacity, and attracting the moral, administrative, and financial support of the state government.
IIT-IIT recognised the potential of RWB to become a foundational program to Restore Promise of Water or RPOW for India. In 2019, working in collaboration, CF, ATECF and IIT-IIT developed a plan to scale this across India. The farmer-centric program now has presence in 9 States where it is delivered via community-based NGO partners. In 2022, the program has Union government endorsement and backing to scale rapidly. It has also figured out means to integrate and collaborate with other water schemes (watershed, spring, river, piped water, potable water) given the value of tank-based water capture to these schemes.
Delivering at scale has required the development/upgradation of technology systems. This includes:
A visual understanding of the tank systems (above and below ground) and their current health and potential;
Delivering a governance based operating model via decentralized NGOs;
Compliance with government norms and mandates;
Enabling seamless collaboration with other water security programs;
Engaging at scale with a demand led farmer community model.
In parallel to scaling the program, collaborations are being pursued to develop these technologies (satellite, GIS, community, collaboration, etc.) and the results are very promising. IIT-IIT is now engaged with a large number of knowledge partners, and is able to involve them with mutual benefit, given the razor-sharp focus of the program and its relevance to other water security programs. Accordingly, we believe that the encouraging results achieved thus far by Restore Promise of Water carry lessons which can be extended to rest of the world. Namely, that a harmony between modern technologies and traditional techniques can integrate into improving the livelihoods of the most vulnerable. Further, that there is power in convening alumna from institutions, such as IIT, which can be leveraged towards the greater good.
As the pieces come together and multiply, we’re convinced of not just the ability to Restore Promise of Water, but also of a deeper understanding - of how to develop collaborative solutions that can harness a collective voice of aligned stakeholders to create magic.
About the Authors
Mr. Nandan Maluste, MBA, as a Founder-Member of IIT-IIT and Executive Director of NBAW Association, is engaged in national scaling of Rejuvenation of Water Bodies. He has long been active in Mumbai First and is an independent director of LIC Mutual Fund Asset Management Limited and Kotak Investment Debt Fund Limited and directs Ikure Techsoft Private Limited (a healthcare startup) and various other entities. He advises Adhyayan Quality Education Foundation and MX Player, now India’s largest OTT, a joint venture of Times Internet. Over five decades in India, the United Kingdom and the Gulf, Nandan has been a public accountant, management consultant, journalist, advertising executive, entrepreneur, angel investor, board member of companies, trusts and societies, researcher and consultant in government, investment and private banker, launching several successful companies. He has a Master’s degree in Business Administration from the Manchester Business School, England, and is an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay and the Cathedral & John Connon School.
Mr. Joe Fernandes, MBA, Co-Founder & President of iit-iit.org, has played a leading in role in scaling busineses and offering strategic insights to modernize with the advances of the 21st century. After a successful career as a strategic consultant with McKinsey and Company, start-up investor with Indian Angel Network and technology consultant with his own firm, Mukti Lifestyle, Joe, in 2018 co-founded IITians for Influencing India’s Transformation (IIT-IIT.org) to scale social impact. Shaped by his experiences, Joe has a deep understanding of how businesses can take advantage of e-commerce, outsourcing, digitisation and automation, to scale successfully. Joe brings this critical thinking to the mission of IIT-IIT “Harness the collective voice of IITians to enable national scaling of social impact programs.” Joe completed his MBA in Strategic Planning and Marketing from IIM, Calcutta and his Bachelors in Mechanical Engineering from IIT, Kharagpur.
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