Water is life. It is as simple and as basic as that.

In Hindi, the point can be driven home better with the force of alliteration – jal (water) is what sustains jan (people), jameen (land), jungle (forest), janwar (wildlife) and, cumulatively, jeevan (life).

Water sustains not only human life but also the life of fish in lakes, of migratory birds, of farmers’ crops and cattle, and of grass and sacred trees, under one of which the Buddha attained enlightenment.

The complex web of life of humans, animals, plants and trillions of micro-organisms cannot survive without water. Yet, ominously, large parts of the world are staring at a rapidly worsening water crisis.

In India, according to the Niti Aayog, 40% of the country’s population will have no access to drinking water by 2030. Sixty crore Indians are facing high-to-extreme water stress and nearly 2,00,000 die every year due to inadequate access to safe water. In many cities and towns, 24x7 water supply has become a luxury.

The lack of piped water supply and over dependence on wells and borewells has resulted in the over-exploitation of groundwater, which is the source of 48% of urban needs in India. Yet, in seven of India’s 10 most populous cities, groundwater levels have dropped dangerously. In rural India, weak monsoons and recurring droughts are starving humans, crops and animals of water.

Residents fill containers with drinking water from a municipal water tanker, at a slum in Kolkata, in this photograph from March 22. Credit: Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters

In the midst of this gloomy scene, the Union Jal Shakti ministry has announced an ambitious plan to provide piped water connections to every household in India by 2024. Laudable, yes. But doable?

Achieving this aim would demand a holistic, scientific, government-supported but people-driven mission, undertaken on a war footing, to conserve and manage every drop of water.

Traditional water bodies, both overground and underground, have to be recharged even as we harness new sources of water and new technologies to recycle and reuse it.

Rapid urbanisation is resulting in the indiscriminate felling of trees, which not only provide rains but are also nature’s own carbon sequesters. Hence, protecting forests and enlarging tree cover is critical for overcoming the water and climate crisis.

This calls for a mammoth national effort, or what Hindu mythology calls “Bhagirath Prayas”. It refers to King Bhagirath whose power of tapasya, or penance, blessed by Shiva, brings the river Ganga from the heavens to earth.

The parable tells us that sincere, dedicated and persistent efforts are bound to succeed, howsoever difficult the challenge may be. Every effort of this kind – big or small, global or local – needs to be studied, popularised, lauded and replicated.

This is the story of one such inspiring “Bhagirath Prayas” by a politician in Karnataka, of which not much is known nationally. During my visit in late December, I saw its remarkable accomplishments, which have lessons for the rest of India and beyond.

Bijapur then, now

It is a cool winter evening and I am sitting at the edge of Bhuthnal Lake on the outskirts of Bijapur, the historic city in north Karnataka that was renamed Vijayapura – city of victory – a few years ago. The lake, one of the largest in the state spread over 530 acres, is full. Egrets are flying languidly over its still waters. The sky is serene, lit by the light of a crimson setting sun.

At the other end of the lake is a 13.5-km-long aqueduct, one of Asia’s longest. It is part of a massive irrigation and drinking water initiative that provides water to over 6.5 lakh acres of farm land and fills 240 lakes and tanks in Vijayapura and neighbouring districts.

Behind me is a forest in the making. Once the trees planted four years ago on 540 acres of this once-barren land grow tall, it will be one of the largest urban forests in Asia. They are watered by solar-powered drip irrigation.

My eyes cannot believe what they see.

I am familiar with Vijayapura because my childhood was spent in this vicinity. My hometown Athani in neighbouring Belgaum district is just 70 km away. Vijayapura was then a perennially drought-prone district, the most backward in Karnataka, as dry as Jaisalmer in Rajasthan.

The city was known as much for its terrible water woes as for the Gol Gumbaz, the grandest of many monuments built by rulers of the Adil Shahi kingdom who had made the area their capital during their reign from 1489-1686.

The Gol Gumbaz in Bijapur in 2020. Credit: Murali K, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

In the summer, the supply of drinking water, never regular at the best of times, was restricted to just once a week for a couple of hours. Bhuthnal Lake, never full even in rainy months, would become a bed of parched mud. So would the city’s centuries-old fabled bawdis, or stepwells, built when the city prospered under one of the more progressive kingdoms in medieval India.

Anyone who could leave the city in the summer did so eagerly. Thousands of poor families migrated each year to far-off places in search of work. Those who stayed on would wait anxiously for the day of weekly water supply.

“Some of us would take half-day leave from work just to make sure we stored every drop of water that came in our taps,” an old resident told me.

“The situation was so bad that if someone in the family died on that day, people in the household would first collect their weekly quota of water and then attend to the funeral preparations.”

— An old resident of Vijayapura

Now, it is different.

Since 2016, Vijayapura city’s five lakh residents have been enjoying 24x7 water supply, even during summer – thanks to the Bhuthnal Lake that is filled with water from the reservoir of the Alamatti Dam across the river Krishna, 60 km away. Several of the city’s large bawdis – two famous among them being Chand Bawdi, built around 1570, and Taj Bawdi, 1620 – are full, cleaned up, and their architectural glory restored.

The Taj Bawdi in Bijapur, cleaned up and restored. It is one of the many 400-year-old wells that date back to the Adil Shahi kingdom. Credit: Koti Vruksh Abhiyan

In addition, the drinking water needs in almost all the villages in Vijayapura district and the neighbouring Bagalkot district – and some in my own Belgaum district along the border of Karnataka and Maharashtra – have also been met by providing safe surface water from the Alamatti and Narayanapur dam reservoirs.

This has been done by building nearly 2,000-km of canal networks and filling of lakes and traditional minor irrigation tanks between 2015 and 2021. This has recharged natural aquifers. As a result, the groundwater table has risen and farmers are delighted to see water in their wells throughout the year. Many of them now grow two crops a year. The distress migration of poor people has significantly reduced.

In my childhood, whenever I travelled from Athani to Vijayapura, I would only see arid land for kilometres on end. Now, my eyes feast on greenery everywhere. Today, the grape farms of Vijayapura and Bagalkot vie with the ones in California. At 25,000 acres, the land under grape cultivation has tripled in the past five years. Thanks to the area’s unique climatic conditions, excellent raisins are produced here.

The production of tur dal, red gram, has gone up significantly, a welcome development since India imports large quantities of pulses.

Power of political will

At the heart of the effort to bring water to Bijapur is MB Patil, a 54-year-old veteran Congress politician. It took a combination of common sense, strong political will and people’s participation to bring about this change.

A former member of parliament and a five-time Congress legislator, Patil became the state’s water resources minister in the government headed by Siddaramaiah from 2013-’18. The aim of liberating his district from water scarcity had been close to his heart ever since he joined politics in 1991.

Common sense dictated making full use of the four main rivers that flow through Vijayapura and Bagalkot districts – the Krishna and its tributaries: Bhima, Ghataprabha and Malaprabha. They are in spate in monsoon months due to the heavy rainfall in Mahabaleshwar in Maharashtra’s Western Ghats – where the Krishna originates – and drain into the Bay of Bengal.

“We used to witness this cruel paradox in the past – overflowing rivers in the rainy season and drought during most parts of the rest of the year,” Patil said. “I thought, why not stop this loss of water to solve our problems?”

During his five years in office, Patil implemented a series of massive projects that lifted water from these rivers and created a network of pipelines, pump houses, canals and aqueducts – wherever the topography was uneven – and filled lakes and tanks, constructed check dams and other minor irrigation facilities.

He also encouraged the installation of thousands of farm ponds, which are lined with polythene to prevent water from percolating into the ground, and promoted drip irrigation in a big way.

“I believe in the ‘more crop per drop’ philosophy of farming,” said Patil. “Every drop of water is valuable and must be conserved for increasing agricultural production and maintaining the health of soil.”

Congress legislator MB Patil. Credit: Koti Vruksh Abhiyan

The Ramthal-Marola project in Bagalkot district, which Patil helped conceptualise and execute, is one of the biggest community-based automated drip irrigation schemes in the world. The government of Karnataka invested Rs 7,500 crore in all these multifarious projects.

But there was one seemingly insurmountable problem in harnessing the abundant waters of the Krishna river. Patil’s dreams were hamstrung by the longstanding Krishna river water dispute involving Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

In 2010, the second Krishna Water Disputes Tribunal headed by Justice Brijesh Kumar, a retired Supreme Court judge, awarded 666 thousand million cubic feet of water to Maharashtra, 907 thousand million cubic feet to Karnataka and 1,001 thousand million cubic feet to Andhra Pradesh.

Specifically, it permitted Karnataka to raise the height of the Almatti Dam, a major multi-purpose reservoir project on the Krishna river from 519.60 metres to 524.25 metres, which would facilitate the storage of 303 thousand million cubic feet of water.

However, this award was challenged by Andhra Pradesh, which argued that its share was reduced after the state’s bifurcation and the creation of Telangana in 2014. The Tribunal eventually declined to reallocate the river water among the four states. Patil played a pivotal role in the crucial hearings before the Tribunal about all water issues related to Karnataka.

Armed with the Tribunal’s award, and with the backing of the chief minister, Patil started implementing water projects in mission mode. This was evident when I visited the site of the Rs 3,600-crore Tubachi-Babaleshwar lift irrigation project.

An aqueduct runs past the Bhuthanal Lake. Credit: Koti Vruksh Abhiyan

Most government schemes suffer inordinate delays and incur huge time and cost overruns. This one was completed in less than three years. It now provides irrigation to 1.30 lakh acres of land. A supervisory control and data acquisition software system centrally monitors the delivery of water right up to the tail end of the canal 80 km away.

Another mega lift irrigation project at Mulawad is Asia’s largest. It irrigates 5.3 lakh acres. The construction of the aqueduct, a part of which passes near Vijayapura, was completed in a record 155 days.

River water from these projects is transported to fill lakes and ponds twice a year – once during monsoon and later before the beginning of summer. This has revived several lakes that had almost become extinct.

For example, Kaatrala Lake, spread over 270 acres and constructed in 1979 in the wake of a severe famine, had been full only four times in its 38-year history. When a newly constructed 92-km-long canal released Krishna river water into this lake, there was a festive atmosphere in the nearby villages.

Similarly, the famous temple town of Badami Banashankari had been suffering from water scarcity. It sprang back to life when a 130-km-long canal filled the temple’s pushkarni, or sacred tank, with river water.

Patil also paid great attention to the problems of other water-deficit districts in the southern and eastern parts of Karnataka. He initiated measures to fill more than 3,500 tanks across the state. As much as Rs 44,500 crore was spent on irrigation in five years. Karnataka’s performance was appreciated by the Central Water Commission, and the state earned the “Certificate of Excellence” twice.

Biodiversity returns to life

A memorable experience awaited me when I visited Mamadapur Lake, about 30 km from Vijayapura. This water body is spread over 500 acres. Built in 1645 by Mohammed Adil Shah, its impressive stone embankment is still intact. Due to recurring drought, siltation and neglect, it had almost completely perished.

Now, cleaned up and brimming with water from the Krishna river, the lake is a treat to the eyes. On one side of the lake is government-owned land of 1,600 acres, which had been reserved as a forest area. But because there was no water, there was no forest. Now that the lake has come alive, so will the forest.

Domnal Hill in 2016 and 2020.

I was accompanied by VP Huggi and Muragesh Pattanashetti, who teach at the technology and management institutes in Bijapur, two of the over 80 educational institutions run by Patil’s Bijapur Lingayat District Educational Association. The two professors have been working closely with him, providing technical support for his projects.

Huggi, who served as a director of the Karnataka government’s irrigation corporation, said, “We have irrigated the entire district.” He said that in the past, most of the villages used to depend on water tankers in summer months but they have become water secure.

One crore trees

Pattanshetti said that they wanted to take me to Almatti dam, to see not just the spectacular reservoir but also one of the state’s best nurseries. Patil’s other pet mission is afforestation. In 2016, he launched the Koti Vruksh Abhiyan to plant one crore trees in Vijayapura district in five years. He successfully completed the programme in 2021.

The campaign needed saplings to be made available at an affordable cost to people on a large scale. His team, in collaboration with the forest department of the Karnataka government, encouraged farmers and non-governmental organisations to develop nurseries. The nursery at Almatti has so far produced over 10 lakh saplings.

“We want to make Bijapur [Vijayapura] and Bagalkot districts as green as Malenadu,” said Mahesh Patil, a range forest officer. Malenadu is famous for its thick forests in the Sahyadri mountain range near the coast of Karnataka.

PKM Prashanth, a young and committed district forest conservator, described to me the scale of afforestation in Bijapur in the past few years. Prashanth said there are 420 trees per person in the world. But the figure in India is 28 – and in Karnataka, it is seven. “In Bijapur, it was only 0.11 in 2016,” said Prashanth. “It has now gone up to about 0.28.”

“How could this impressive feat be achieved?” I asked him, as we took a walk around the lake and the forest near Bhuthnal Lake.

A view of rejuvenated Bhuthna Lake and the afforestation efforts in the area. Credit: Koti Vruksh Abhiyan

Prashanth replied: “This is because it has truly become a people’s movement. We encourage and support farmers and city people to ‘Plant, Donate, Adopt’ trees wherever they can.”

He added: “When you ensure adequate water, it does wonders to the rural environment. Water catalyses agriculture, social forestry, animal husbandry, dairy, poultry and fishery. Water has also brought about a change in the micro-climate of Bijapur [Vijayapura]. The city has become a little cooler. This lake and the forest behind us have begun to attract many new animals and migratory birds.”

Dhruv Patil, MB Patil’s 18-year-old younger son, concurred. A passionate animal lover and an accomplished wildlife photographer, he founded a non-governmental organisation called Society for the Protection of Plants and Animals when he was eight years old. “Earlier flamingos were unseen and unheard of in our district. Now flocks of flamingos have started coming to the newly revived lakes in the district,” he said.

Prashanth is an example of how dedicated government officers can make a big impact on the development of the place he serves, and how the place in turn can redouble their dedication.

He told me he hails from southern Karnataka and that when he took the posting in Bijapur his wife said, “Why are we going to this god-forsaken place?” “Today I thank God for giving me an opportunity to work with such good people here,” said Prashanth.

Transforming a hill, and harmony

Rural India opens up a floodgate of surprises if you are looking for ordinary people with extraordinary accomplishments. I saw an incredible example of the success of the Koti Vruksh Abhiyan at a village called Domnal about 25 km from Vijayapura on the road to Solapur in Maharashtra.

This road, recently converted into a superb highway by Nitin Gadkari, the Union minister of road transport and highways, is one of the many visible markers of the way this once-sleepy district has been changing. Our car swerved off the highway and took a narrow country road. Soon, we came near a lush green hill, the site of an amazing success story in social forestry.

The hero of this story is Nanasaheb Patil. In 2014, he retired as deputy tehsildar and returned to his village with a strong desire to help transform it. The hill is his ancestral property, covering an area of 34 acres. It was completely barren.

In 2016, he started planting trees on it under the guidance of the forest department. He used all his retirement earnings for this. Water was scarce. Luckily, the nearby Domnal Lake had been filled with water from the Krishna river by then. Nanasaheb Patil nurtured the saplings himself using a small, self-driven water tanker.

Within five years, the hill became unrecognisably green. “We have planted over 10,000 trees of 50 different varieties here,” he said. “Now, this hill is home to over a hundred species of birds,” he said proudly. At his urging, I planted a sapling there as well.

The hill had another surprise in store for me. As we walked up to its summit, I saw a small shrine with a green dome. “This is the dargah of Baba Daval Malik, a Sufi saint who came here some 400 years ago,” Nanasaheb Patil told me. In disbelief, I asked him, “You are the owner of this hill. So how come there is a Muslim saint’s shrine here? Who maintains it?”

He replied, “This is maintained entirely by Hindus. Muslims are a tiny minority in our village.” Nanasaheb Patil said that every year, on Gauri Purnima, a five-day urs – to mark the saint’s death anniversary – is organised and attended by thousands of people, mostly Hindus. “There is no Hindu-Muslim problem in our villages,” he said.

The author with Nanasaheb Patil in front of the dargah of Baba Daval Malik. Credit: Sudheendra Kulkarni

Prashanth, who had accompanied me on this visit, remarked: “There are two saints on Domnal Hill. One is Baba Daval Malik. The other is Nanasaheb Patil.”

A self-effacing person, Nanasaheb Patil demurred. “What we have achieved here is a collective effort,” he said. “It’s not a one-man show. If you start doing something to help society, good people will join you automatically.”

What lessons does Vijayapura’s ecological transformation have for the rest of India, I asked M Madan Gopal, a widely respected Indian Administrative Service officer who served as the additional chief secretary of forest, ecology and environment in Karnataka. According to Gopal: “In view of the visible changes in climate, shifting rainfall pattern and people’s growing water needs, it is necessary to promote such innovative initiatives all over India through active community involvement and sustained ownership that will facilitate much-needed equitable development.”

MB Patil is no longer a minister, although he continues to be a state legislator. There is a Bharatiya Janata Party government in Karnataka now.

What struck me at the end of my two-day travels in Vijayapura and Bagalkot districts is that even though Patil is out of power, he and his colleagues continue to be deeply engaged with the mission to transform the region. This is not easy because politics breeds local rivalries and a change in government causes a change in priorities.

The ‘hundredth monkey’

“Cities must reintegrate nature into their spatial planning decisions, and restore the ‘natural layer’ as the backbone of their development,” says the World Economic Forum in its report BiodiverCities by 2030: Transforming Cities’ Relationship with Nature published on January 17. “This means preserving natural habitats within and around cities, renaturing degraded land (through, for example, community-based tree planting) and ‘growing smart’ by embedding nature in new or upgraded infrastructure.”

The report, which “provides a vision for cities of the future”, urges a paradigm shift in urbanisation to tackle “the interconnected biodiversity and climate crises”.

Bijapur’s “Bhagirath Prayas” for the revival of its ecological heritage has prefigured, to some extent, the vision put forward by the World Economic Forum. It has made the region “Sujalam Suphalam”, or rich with water and fruits, as our national song Vande Mataram has envisioned India to become.

However, it is just the beginning, and it is not without flaws. But it is surely an audacious beginning, whose one important lesson is this: it demonstrates how a combination of government plans and resources, committed political leadership and people’s enthusiastic participation can bring about a positive change.

Is it replicable? I found the answer to this question in the pages of Jnanpith laureate Amitav Ghosh’s acclaimed book The Nutmeg’s Curse – Parables for a Planet in Crisis. Ghosh describes local efforts of this kind as vital “Earth-centred mass movements” that could save the planet from the climate crisis.

He says they could start a “social epidemic” in which a good effort in one place has a demonstration effect on other places to trigger large-scale changes. Referring to Bron Taylor’s book Dark Green Religion – Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future, Ghosh cites the fable of the “Hundredth Monkey”.

“If an isolated group of monkeys living on an island learns a new behaviour, goes the story, there will come a point when, if enough of them adopt that behaviour, then other monkey populations on other nearby islands will also follow suit…The lesson, in any event, is ‘that everyone must optimistically and continually do their part to promote the needed spiritual, ecological, and political changes, because one never knows who the decisive monkey will be’.”

Sudheendra Kulkarni served as an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and is the founder of the Forum for a New South Asia – Powered by India-Pakistan-China Cooperation. His Twitter handle is @SudheenKulkarni and he welcomes comments at sudheenkulkarni@gmail.com.