INTERVIEW WITH DR. SNEHAL DONDE

     


Dr. Snehal can you share about how you grew up, where in India and what were your greatest influences?

I grew up the daughter of an army officer, with strict discipline and high values to serve the country with serenity and without prejudice towards caste, creed and religion. Army personnel are transferred every three years within India, so I have grown up seeing several different places and I did my higher education at Mumbai University. My parent’s social nature and care for people in distress probably influenced me to be community oriented. Also, as I am passionate about education and did two PhDs (Zoology & Management Studies) and two Master’s degrees and am now pursuing a third PhD in Philosophy with my thesis title ‘Hinduism and Ecology’. I have a craving for learning to understand nature from all dimensions. In 2006 I conducted a detailed study on the Bhatsa river. It supplies water to the entire Mumbai city but was being polluted.

When the Bhatsa dam was first constructed on the river I went to explore if repositories were created, and the extent to which the dam construction and pollution had affected the quality, quantity and variety of local fish. I also became aware of the issues of rehabilitation and livelihood affecting the people due to the dam construction. I realized that the greatest drawback of our civic system is that we do not look from holistic perspectives or integrated approaches to find solutions for anything. We work in isolation and thus developmental work is badly affecting mother nature. My inquisitive nature has drawn me towards rivers and to search solutions for Ganga Maa (Goddess of the river Ganges in Hindu religion). In the Indian tradition we worship rivers as goddesses. I have been honored for this by the government as a ‘Jalnayak’ (Water Hero).

When did you begin working with and protecting water?

During my school days I joined the Scouts Guide and in college I was in the National Service Scheme as a volunteer. From this period the genesis of community oriented social activities began to emerge. In 1993, I joined as a Lecturer in Zoology at a Mumbai University Affiliated college and initiated nature club activities. Also, I organized several Nature trails in collaboration with WWF, where I consecutively won the World Wide Fund for Nature Best Nature Club awards.

Between 1996 and 2009 I took on various responsibilities and positions that involved education and awareness building around water issues.

In 2009 I carried out a detailed study on the Bhatsa river flowing through Khadavli village in Kalyan Taluka, Maharashtra State, India. During the field visit I noticed a lack of care for rivers by both the local people as well as the authorities. After that I decided to conduct a systematic study of rivers, along with creating awareness and water literacy among the people.

I started campaigning to protect water on a larger scale in 2014 after I joined a private college in rural Maharashtra. We formed a human chain to raise awareness and mobilize the youth to protect the local water bodies. I promoted efficient use of water in housing societies and effective implementation of rain water harvesting policies as an alternative water source.

Since I attended the World Water Council in 2017 and 2018, and became a member, I have strong convictions and a deep commitment to work for the protection of water. A rampant corporatization of water and the purchasing of aquifers is happening on the global level.

You work under the banner ‘SKECT Women Water Warriors’ – what does that mean to you?

Women are born managers and multitaskers. At the same time, they are the ones who are deprived and have to face the maximum hardship and challenges during scarcity of water. The flip side is that they are the ones who can take bold steps, as well as collectively bring solutions to any problem. Hence, young girls in college are motivated and inspired to join this forum, conduct surveys and identify the issues of women in rural areas with regards to water. For example, girls are not able to attend school as they have to do the housework while the mother has to walk long distances to fetch water.

Formally this group is enabling women in rural areas to become independent, with self-governance practices for water efficiency. As a facilitator I hold meetings with Gram Sevak, Kisan Sevak, Sarpanch and offer training for integrated development in rural areas with water conservation and forest conservation through MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) schemes. We ensure its effective implementation so that women can get jobs and are able to support their livelihood.

What is the water situation like in India?

There are almost 275 water stressed districts in India where groundwater is overused. In Chennai a ‘zero day’ was witnessed recently like the Cape town situation.  In Maharashtra cases of farmers committing suicide are increasing every year due to droughts. The construction of dams is happening without any thought for saving biodiversity. Due to unwarranted construction in the name of development, droughts and floods are becoming a common feature. Uncertainties over monsoons and increased frequencies of extreme weather are a regular feature. Only 8% of rain water is saved despite the scarcity of water. Rain water harvesting policies are ignored although we have ample rainfall in the monsoon season. Recycling and reuse of water practices are negligible. River and water management mechanisms and strategies are inadequate. Privatization of water in some rural regions is obstructing the rural development, due to the exorbitant water tax charges.

Some of the measures that need to be practiced effectively are; water conservation with coordinated and collaborative action for roof top rain water harvesting infrastructure, checking dams for slowing water runoff and groundwater recharge, trenches, ponds, watershed structures, crop patterns with rain patterns and water conservation programs tied to sanitation and sewage programs.

Rajendra Singh, the waterman of India, walked each year with Walking Water – do you work together?

Since 2014 we have been working together and he is my mentor. He has a simple technical and spiritual solution to offer to the world, hence I have tried to become his voice and lead in a few states in India to spread his message and strategies.

We conducted a detailed social mapping and scientific diagnosis of the Ganga river in the Malda-Murshidabad region of West Bengal as it is severely affected by siltation and erosion. He pioneered a Water Literacy Program in Maharashtra that is being replicated by all states in India. The Water literacy Maharashtra model is training a group of volunteers to create a trained workforce to save Jal (Water), Jangle (forest) and Jamin (land). I was trained by Rajendra during the first year of the program.

Dr Rajendra Singh and Mr. Arun Gandhi (Great Grandson of Mahatma Gandhi) honored me this year with the “Environment Saviour” award as a member of the National Core team at Jal Biradari and for participating proactively in water conservation systems & river rejuvenation programs across many Indian states and settling conflicts over the river water.

Can you share about the River Ganga – its condition now, its spirit and meaning?

In Indian culture and tradition the Ganga is very special. In the Indian Hindu culture of sacred rivers, the Ganges is personified and personalized as the Goddess Ganga. Hindu religious followers believe that bathing in this holy river will help to wash off all the wrongdoings and sins, and support a healthy and prosperous life ahead. People also consider that the mere touch of this river will help to overcome negative consequences and, as a result, will facilitate MOKSHA [Salvation or release from the cycle of life and death]. This is the reason why the ashes of the dead are immersed in this sacred river.

The Ganga river basin is the largest river basin in India in terms of catchment area, constituting 26% of the country’s land mass and supporting about 43% of its population. The Ganga is one of the major rivers of the Indian subcontinent, flowing east through the Gangetic plain of northern India into Bangladesh. It is an inter-state river of Bihar and West Bengal and a trans-boundary river of India and Bangladesh. It has been given the status of living entity by the Honorable Supreme Court of India.

The Ganga is a national river and its free flow is an environmental issue. It originates at Gomukh in Uttarakhand and travels through Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal and finally meets in the Bay of Bengal after entering Bangladesh. It is the longest river of India and is the second greatest river in the world measured by water discharge. The river Ganga rises 2,525 Km in the western Himalayas in the Indian State of Uttarakhand & enters West Bengal near Rajmahal and then flows in a south-easterly direction.

The Ganga is polluted due to the callous approach of the government who systematically channels domestic sewage into the Ganga, and industries who are directly releasing effluents from the riverbank and through encroachments. I recently conducted a study that revealed the diminishing of the river along with the diminishing of divine and religious sentiments due to pollution and siltation. Hence we have initiated the “Aviral (continuous flow)-Nirmal (pollution free flow)” Ganga Campaign through Save Ganga mission.

There is the belief that we protect what we love. Can you share about the water literacy programs you run and how you feel people can fall in love with water again?

We have conducted the water literacy program for many students, faculties, government officers, and rural bodies. This is for the purpose of mobilizing and raising awareness of communities for a sustainable future.

We have organized pilgrimages along the rivers as part of community service studies by colleges and schools, and for the public. The purpose is to inspire community relationships with rivers, to nurture their potential for social action towards rejuvenation and conservation. During the visit the emerging river issues are shown, for awareness raising and to involve stakeholders in the process of river revitalization with the River Basin Approach. The concept of ‘Jal Sadhak’ (Water Seeker) with ‘Jal Sanskar’ (Water Sacrament) is also taught. Students are taught guardianship along with water wisdom.

You have written about how water has become a commodity. What do you feel is needed in water management, both locally and globally, to move beyond a system that treats water as a commodity?

Companies like Nestle and Coca-Cola have started purchasing the underground aquifers and we can see different varieties of water being sold everywhere. If groundwater is treated as a commodity, there will not be enough for future generations. Water is a natural resource and it should be freely available, except for charges for home supply. However, we have to buy water as we cannot drink tap or river water directly due to pollution. It is vital to resurrect rivers for a better future. 70% of India’s surface water (river and lakes) and groundwater is polluted and that is almost the same world-wide.

The important thing is to focus on water management to resolve the issues, and to stop selling water. A common local and global solution is to advocate for the Right to Water Act, on the lines of Human rights, and ensure availability of safe drinking water. The Right to Water (Conservation, Safety, Security & Sustainable Use) Act draft is prepared and our team of Jalbiradari is pursuing and sharing it with State Governments.

This Act is essential to ensure that the water resources are protected, conserved, regulated and managed, and sustainable. The draft policy must be formulated to a) Ensure the provision of Water for Life in compliance with the basic right to life of all living beings; b) Meet food security, livelihoods, basic human needs, and the needs of all living beings; c) Ensure the connected use of water; d) Ensure that climate change mitigation and adaptation is an integral part of all water-related issues and initiatives e) Reduce, prevent and eliminate pollution and degradation of water; f) Protect and restore ecosystems and their biological integrity, and recognize the rights of the environment, and rivers in particular; g) Promote sustainable water use in the public interest, based on long-term protection of available resources; h) Ensure the implementation of local level decision making and acting; i) Ensure protection against all forms of discrimination in access to water; j) Ensure that present and future generations have access to adequate quantity and quality of water for life through a people’s movement led by communities and society at large.

The entire economy grows around water. Hence, if the proposed act is adopted, much more can be achieved.

Can you share a story of when you fell in love with water?

After my marriage in 1992 I frequently visited my in-laws. After reaching Khadavli railway station in Kalyan Taluka in Maharashtra, I had to cross the Bhatsa river on a dilapidated bridge built on the river. While crossing the river I used to see the beautiful sight of a peaceful flowing river and Cormorant birds taking a dip to catch fish. The water was so clean that it was attracting people from far away to enjoy it as a holiday spot. However, after a few years I saw the worsening condition of the river, as illegal encroachments mushroomed on both sides of the river, eateries created in the middle of the river, vehicles and clothes being washed. As further development began in the area, I observed that the structures built on the bank of the river, and the whole village’s drainage went into the river. Therefore, as a measure of social action I first conducted a nature awareness program for the Ashram Shala’s (Primary Schools) and secondary schools in the vicinity, in collaboration with the water conservation department and an NGO in the area, and created a team of volunteers to protect the river. Later I also conducted research projects (flora and faunal biodiversity with emphasis on aquatic organisms) to draw the attention of authorities to protect the river. I am happy that now positive developments are being seen in the area.

Do you have anything else to share?

Water is one of the most basic needs but it is being depleted many times faster than nature can replenish it. Yet we take it for granted and waste it needlessly and don’t realize that clean water is a very limited resource. 1 billion people don’t have access to safe and clean water, 4 million people die every year due to unsafe water, and most of them are children. 2.5 billion people do not have adequate sanitation facilities. According to the World Bank, 88% of all the diseases are caused by unsafe drinking water, inadequate sanitation and poor hygiene. We have lost a sense of respect for the rivers. The rivers and lakes have served many generations, but now they are being destroyed by human beings. In our Vedic literature Srimad Bhagvatam 2.2.3 it states “The materialistic advancement of civilization is called the civilization of the demons, which ultimately ends in wars and scarcity”. Water, like religion, has the power to move millions of people. Self-realization and internalization is required to save the water.

Water scarcity has become a global crisis and source of international conflict, leading to forced migrations for those living in areas with no access to potable drinking water. Globally, urgent restoration is needed to restore our water aquifers, for which desilting of rivers and water bodies is required. A deeper understanding of “the special features of Ma Ganga” and the importance of mobilizing youth in mitigating ecological issues we face internationally, is a must.

If we are educated spiritually, we can overcome these problems such as greed and ecological irresponsibility by working towards environmental service opportunities at the local level. Water wisdom and water trusteeship is essential for river rejuvenation and the protection of water.

Dr Snehal Donde is a principal of Mumbai University affiliated college and is recognized as Jalnayak (Water Warrior) by Water Resource Department, and Yeshada (Yashwantrao Chavan Academy of Development Administration) of the Maharashtra State Government.

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