In Indian mythology, there was a Saint called Bhagirata who through tireless effort persuaded River Ganges to flow from Kailash Mountains of Himalayas to the plain lands of India. In modern India, Rajasthan is a dry state which is predominantly a desert area. Drought and women folks traveling miles together to fetch a pot of water is a common scenario in this region. Dr. Bhagwati Agarwal, a U.S based Indian veteran has donned the role of ‘Bhagirata’ by bringing drinking water to six villages of Rajasthan through his unique project called Akasha-Ganga — A rooftop water supply system based on rain water harvesting. When the entire nation is reeling under the problem of depleting underwater resource and tube well, Dr. Bhagwati Agarwal’s rain water harvesting and supply mechanism have played a marvelous role in lives of villagers of Rajasthan.
This Kalam Fan Club post is dedicated to a veteran who has the spirit of Usain Bolt in his 70s to accomplish the mission he has initiated.
Childhood & Education
Bhagwati Agarwal was born in a modest agricultural family in the village of Chhapoli in Rajasthan. Meeting the needs of two meals a day was difficult proposition for his family.
He remembers high school days where he used to note down every word spoken by a teacher in science class as he couldn’t afford to buy a science text book. The teacher had noticed the effort this boy was exerting and gave him all the books he needed based on a single condition that he should secure a place in amongst top 10 students.
Bhagwati kept up to the expectations of his teacher by securing meritorious position.
His academic excellence at graduate classes earned him a doctoral fellowship in engineering at the University of South Florida. He completed his doctoral program in the year 1974.
Career as Technocrat
His high-achieving performance in college and graduate work in India earned him a doctoral fellowship in engineering at the University of South Florida, which he completed in 1974. Agarwal subsequently worked with technology companies including General Dynamics, ITT, and GTE. Starting out in the lab, he built a name for himself in voice processing for telecommunication. Having won accolades for taking products that he designed from the lab to the market. He took a significant risk, launching the first of two companies in 1988. With dot-com bubble burst in the year 2001, his second company went bankrupt. Further his discussion with various friends and well wishers in the US prompted him to venture into solving societal problems back in his motherland India. He proudly says that he was bitten by social venture bug and thus jumped into the cause of society.
Inspiration is drawn from Mother and Villagers
As a boy, Bhagwati used to accompany his mother to fetch water from distant wells. During one such occasion, elderly women requested Bhagwati to help her draw water from a well. Bhagwati pretended as if he didn’t listen to her words. His mother had noticed this behavior told him these words “Do you know the difference between an animal and a human being? Every animal fills his or her stomach. It’s a human being who fulfills someone else’s needs.” These words resonate in Bhagwati’s mind even today, and it can be considered as the first and foremost inspiration for Bhagwati to take up a social cause.
The second important incidence was when Bhagwati visited his native place after returning from the USA. He witnessed a scene where the children and elders were excited to see a water tanker arriving at their place! Bhagwati questioned a lady—“Is water such a rare commodity here?” The lady replied wittingly “Why do you ask me? Can’t you count the number of bachelors in the crowd?” Bhagwati was puzzled by this answer; He quizzed her again to explain what she meant? The lady replied—“No girls” father or brother is ready to get their daughter or sister married to boys of this village reason being their entire life will have to be spent fetching water from the wells.”
Mission ‘Akasha Ganga’ in Nutshell
Akasha Ganga—“Water From sky” is not a project which provides mere rain water harvesting techniques. The emphasis is on the need to distribute water to all the villagers; the project involves collecting rain water from roof top gutters and pipes in overhead tanks. One portion of this water is solely for the house owners. The other portion is stored in community reservoir and supplied to houses with thatched roofs as they cannot store water in their premises. Some part of their land is used to grow crops and the profit obtained by selling crops is used to maintain the system. This brain child of Bhagwati Agarwal is envisioned through his no profit Sustainable Innovations. It has sufficed the drinking water needs of 10000 villagers in six villages of Rajasthan.
Strong Community Angle in ‘Akasha Ganga’
Bhagwati Agarwal believes no social project clicks without community involvement. So he encourages villagers to perform ‘Jalwa pooja’ (a ritual carried out at community well premises by the family of the newly born baby) at community reservoirs so that the importance of water tanks in the community is realized. Further, the marketing of the community tanks is achieved. Similarly, one more interesting ‘social-bonding’ scheme is encouraged. Here the mason who builds the community reservoirs/tanks is allowed to engrave their forefathers or parents names on the tanks which bring in the sense of satisfaction and ownership in the project and even they oblige to charge fewer fees for their labor.
The Business Model
Each village donates a land of 2.5 acres to construct community reservoir that can hold 4,00,000 liters of water. The household tanks pay 15 to 20 percent of the cost to store nearly 25,000 liters of water in their yards. The system in total has a capacity to provide 10 liters of water a day to per person at the cost of 140Rs. per person.
The entire project is realized by using services of a nonprofit organization and profit-oriented institutes. The non-profit divisions install the systems using funds raised from govt bodies, foundations and social investors. The profit-based divisions play the role of maintaining the systems in proper working conditions. These organizations recover investment by carrying out horticulture activities on the land provided by the communities.
Tradition is not hindrance but is cultural capital
Most of us feel that Tradition is a hindrance for development activity. But Dr. Bhagwati Agarwal has envisioned his ‘Akasha Ganga’ project based on 600-year old rain water harvesting technology of India. According to him, Tradition should be viewed as Cultural capital and no hindrance to development.
According to Dr. Agarwal, the mitigation of drinking water scarcity in six villages has benefitted the villagers in various ways. Women involve themselves in more productive activity without having to trek miles together to fetch water. Children and girls, in particular, attend schools regularly. The rampant spread of epidemics is reduced through the availability of healthier drinking water. The Animal husbandry is a profitable business with dairy cows producing more milk.
Rewards & Recognitions
Various awards and recognitions galore:
- The year 2015: Dr. Agrawal won accolades as CNN Hero for his efforts to provide drinking water to rural communities
- In 2011, Akasha Ganga project was provided with a seed money of $150,000 by the Indian government
- In 2010, The Akasha Ganga project fetched leadership award to Dr. Agarwal from Lemelson-Massachusetts Institute of Technology for Sustainability
- Philanthropy Rajasthan Association of North America has provided funding for the project
- World Bank has recognized the social cause of Dr. Agarwal and has funded his projects
Dr. Agrawal says his second stage in life as a social entrepreneur reflects his belief in the Vedic philosophy of Brahmacharya (student), Grihastha (householder), Vanaprastha (retired) and Sannyasa (renunciation). After his first innings as a researcher and innovator at fortune 500 companies, now he is playing the role of giving back to society in the renunciation stage of his life. He sums up that at the age of seventy he is like sprinter Usain Bolt trying his level best to accomplish the mission started by him in 2003-2004 at lightning speed. He quickly adds that providing safe drinking water for children is like providing a bright future, as a healthy mind and body can expand opportunities significantly.