Bollywood star helps tackle Maharashtra drought

Many drought-prone areas of western India are now seeing vast improvements in water supply. This has been made possible by Bollywood actor Aamir Khan's Paani Foundation.

Many areas of Maharashtra, a state in western India, that has been drought-prone for over a decade are now seeing vast improvements in water supply. 

“In this season at the peak of summer, my two-acre (0.8-hectare) farm is pretty green with crops, including ground nuts, maize and fodder for animals,” said Swati Waghmode, a resident of a village 250 kilometers from Mumbai. “Since I came to this village after my marriage in 2002, every summer would begin with waiting for water tankers for daily use. Farming in summer was not an option.”

This has been made possible by the efforts of Bollywood actor Aamir Khan’s Paani Foundation. Khan has been deeply involved in many kinds of philanthropic work over the years and the Paani Foundation, established in 2016, is his latest initiative. He was looking for a meaningful cause when he decided to “work on water, something very fundamental to all of us, and in Maharashtra, because it’s the state we live in, and every year there’s a drought,” the actor said. 


Bollywood actor Aamir Khan

Khan has been to many villages across Maharashtra that have been hit. In these villages he learns about the local people’s problems. Then he works with them to come up with a solution. Villages must pass a collective resolution saying they want to participate, and send five people to centers established by the foundation for short training stints. They learn about water conservation principles and watershed management structures like contour trenches, earthen dams and soak pits, then go back to their villages and lead the work with the residents. 

This is what the foundation calls “shramdaan” volunteer work. They must execute their plans in the months before the monsoon, with their success measured after the rains. Khan and the foundation were convinced that decentralized watershed management, in practical terms, was a people’s movement necessary to solve such a big problem. 

The success is visible. 

“There are villages completely tanker-free now, that have three harvests a year, that until the previous year were tanker-fed,” Khan said. 

Vishwas Gujar is a villager who works in Mumbai. He has taken 45 days leave to do volunteer work with the foundation. He says 700 people have migrated to Mumbai from his village. 

“Once my village is drought-proofed, I think most migrants will return. They earn around Rs 200-300 per day (about US$3 to US$5) working 10-12 hours a day and living in abysmal conditions. If they can peacefully cultivate their fields, why would they migrate?”

The team of Aamir Khan’s popular TV show, “Satyamev Jayate” (The Truth Always Wins), which ran from 2012 to 2014, researched the issue of water in 2015 and found that man, not nature, is largely responsible for droughts. While decentralized watershed management has proved to be the scientific solution to the problem, the greater problem to address is social infrastructure.

In 2016, the Water Cup began small, testing the idea in around 116 villages. Due to the positive results, Paani Foundation held the competition on a larger scale in 2017, which saw 1,331 villages from 13 districts of three drought-affected regions participate. Overall, 82.6 billion liters of water capacity was created. This benefited over 2 million people directly or indirectly. 

“Nobody loses in this competition,” Khan said. “Even if you don’t win the prize, your water problem gets solved.”

Last year, the foundation decided to involve city dwellers too, with an event called Chala Gaavi (Let’s go to the villages). At seeing the success of that initiative, this year, the foundation launched Jalmitra (Water Friends), a volunteering initiative on May 1, Maharashtra Day and Labor Day. And there was a Maha Shramdhaan (Massive Volunteer Work), in which more than 1.3 Lakh people volunteered, including Bollywood stars like Alia Bhatt.

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