Aamir Khan has proven over and over again that he’s not just a superstar but also an accomplished actor, producer, filmmaker, TV show host and now we can also call him an activist. Aamir uses his stardom to raise issues that bothers him, the people and the government - his TV show, Satyamev Jayate, was an example of this.
An off-shoot of the Satyamev Jayate series is the Paani Foundation - which Aamir initiated as a movement to fight drought and eradicate water scarcity in rural Maharashtra.
The Paani Foundation trains people in the science of watershed management, and villagers then plan and execute various watershed management works in their village with help from the government and NGOs. We met up with Aamir Khan, who explains us how his this not-for-profit-company works and the actor also encourages people to join in.
You are urging students to participate... but how active were you when it came to being associated with social causes as a student? Were you socially aware when you were a kid?
Yeah, I was fairly aware. I rarely spent time in college as I did not study beyond class 12. After 12th I was mostly doing theatre and all of that. But, I was fairly aware about social causes and I used to respond similarly.
Do you agree that it is your superstar status that is helping you grab the attention of people be it in villages or cities?
I feel the idea has to have merit. The concept is designed by Satyajit Bhatkal, who is the CEO of Paani Foundation. The concept was tried three years ago when we started in three talukas. If the concept doesn’t have merit, then no matter how many celebrities will push it, it won’t work. So the fact that it has worked indicates it has merit. And certainly there are celebrities like me or from Marathi cinema who have been actively pushing it, working with people. It is not just me but a number of celebrities from Marathi cinema have come forward to do this.
What changes you have seen in the life of the local people when it comes to saving water?
The village that does do watershed management work sees a change in a short period of one year, the work is done in April and May, it rains from June to August, usually by January these villages would start having tankers come in as the water would get over by December.
But, a village that has done the work doesn’t have tankers come in even in April and May, they become tanker free. In June rains come again. Having done watershed work the storage capacity in groundwater increases dramatically.
"What we do at Paani Foundation is that first we studied the science of watershed management and then we have broken it down into a syllabus to teach it to people. We have made it in the form of games and experiential learning. " - Aamir Khan
So that when you learn it stays with you as the programme of teaching is very entertaining. There is a technical and social training. We invite villagers to take part in the competition, for that they need to send five villagers, who we train and they will lead the village in the competition. All the work will be done by the village, they will decide what is the area of their land, how many watersheds fall into it, what is the kind of work they need to do. So they make the plan, they execute the plan, we just teach them how to do it. If they need expert advice we guide them. Any money they need for machines, they collect it themselves.
So basically a village has done watershed management work and this is the most empowering thing for a village, as next year they do not need tankers. It is a thought out process that we have started. We started in Maharashtra - Vidarbha, Marathwada and Western Maharashtra, three areas most affected by drought and the success stories of these three talukas has helped in reaching 30 more talukas. Our training centres are not in Mumbai, we go to a village to train.
So one of our programmes is Jalmitra. When you become a Jalmitra you can come on 1st May to do shramdaan. You will be given options of talukas and whatever villages that are available for. When you reach the village you will be told precisely what to do. You can do three things - you can come on 1st of May, you can even donate money to the organisation called Bharatiya Jain Sangathana and your money will go towards machine work that will happen in villages, which have strength to do shramdaan.
So those villages which have done the watershed management work, benefit a lot.
- They become tanker free.
- Their agriculture improves
- Their women no longer have to walk long distances to collect water
- The kids who are supposed to be in school don't have to wait in line for tankers.
- Also it will prevent suicide of farmers
While water is not the only reason for farmers suicide.
Apart from donations, in what other ways can one contribute to this initiative?
You can do shramdhaan on 1st May or on any other day between now and 22nd of May until the competition gets over. The other option is to do more. There is an an app which villagers needs to fill up because when they finish work we take before and after pictures. So they have to log all the work that they do, so some of the villagers find it difficult to use the app, they are trained in it but it’s like my mother can never use the phone. They feel scared to use the app. We train you to use the app and you can help them to use it.
We also train you how to sensitise schools and colleges, so you can go to a college or school and do a presentation and sensitise kids.
You said in five years you plan to make Maharashtra drought free, which other states do you plan to reach out?
That’s a claim that’s come out in the papers. But, I never said that. People asked us what is your hope and I said my hope is that in five years we should not be relevant anymore. Paani Foundation should cease to be relevant as all the villages should know by then about how to do this and they shouldn’t need us anymore. We should become useless in five years and that’s what I am hoping. I am not even thinking of that (other states), I am only focusing on Maharashtra.
What is the biggest challenge that you have faced while doing this?
There are various challenges. When we were researching this issue, we knew what we would come across and that’s is why we designed our movement keeping that in mind.
"Perhaps the biggest challenge is of getting people to come together." - Aamir Khan
For example, water can only be stored in a pot which has no holes in it. Similarly until the human beings in a community, or in the village come close together, this mission will not succeed. If there are cracks in the society, the water will seep through it, so you have to remove all the cracks and then come together and then you will be able to save water.
"I will tell you a conceptual thing but it is actually very true, our biggest task is to get people together because our society is fractured on many levels. Politically, there are five political parties in each village, we have different castes in villages, you have land owners, some do not have land owners, some people have land close to the stream some people have land that’s not close to the stream. So to convince everyone that this one thing that we do of watershed management is actually going to help all of you is difficult." - Aamir Khan
Are there are women involved?
"Woman power is one of the most important powers for this." - Aamir Khan
Last year, when we went to a village, the women were doing shramdaan everyday, working really hard and the men were lazing about and giving excuses. So the women decided that they won’t go home. So after shramdaan, they all went to the temple and they slept over there and they told their husbands - if you are not coming for shramdaan, we are not coming home. So, the result was in 24 hrs the men said we will come for shramdaan. So, the women said, first you sign in the register, then the men started coming. The effort to solve the water problem is also ending up addressing social issues on its own organically.
Do you think the highlighting of a social cause through a film will help more?
We are doing much more than that. We are working on ground with the villages, we are doing a television show, which comes every week in Marathi because essentially we are addressing the Marathi audience. So I don’t think a movie can do any more because we are doing much more than what a movie could do.
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