A well-deserved award for Chennai's Rainman
I have known Sekhar Raghavan for some years now. He is a simple, unpretentious man who uses public transport and charms people with his intelligence and ready wit. Raghavan, of course, was the one who established the Rain Centre some years ago. He has campaigned relentlessly for the proper installation of RWH systems. Chennai’s Rainman, as I call him, is a recipient of the Harmony Silver Award 2010.
The award is well deserved – for he has painstakingly shown many, many residents in Chennai how to save water. Raghavan was selected as one of ten recipients of the Harmony Silver Awards this year. The eminent five-member jury panel comprised Chanda Kochhar, MD & CEO of ICICI Bank; Shyam Benegal, veteran filmmaker; Mrinal Pande, editor-in-chief, Hindustan; Piyush Pandey, CEO, Ogilvy & Mather; and Smita Parekh, director, World United Colleges.
Ragahvan received a cash prize of Rs 51,000 and a citation at a function in Mumbai on October 6 organised by the Harmony for Silvers Foundation whose chairperson is Tina Ambani. Since its inception in June 2004, the Foundation has established itself as the voice of India’s Silvers, as it refers to the country’s senior citizens. The Foundation believes that every society owes its seniors financial stability, healthcare, shelter, security and an enabling environment to fulfill their potential.
It was in 1995 that Raghavan, a Besant Nagar resident, started campaigning for rainwater harvesting (RWH) in the area and impressed upon residents the need to put as much rainwater into the soil as possible. People took him seriously only when neighbourhood newspaper Adyar Times wrote about his initiative. From 1998 onwards, Raghavan’s campaign gathered momentum. He was able to convince residents to build recharge wells. Meanwhile, he was inducted into a high-powered committee for RWH under the leadership of Shanta Sheela Nair, then secretary, Municipal Administration and Water Supply.
In 1999, Raghavan filed a PIL in the Madras High Court against Chennai Corporation, to prevent the construction of storm water drains. “The drains constructed either on one side or both sides of important roads were meant to discharge all the rain falling on roads into the sea. It was clearly a wasteful, anti-harvesting measure,” he says.
Thanks to Ramakrishnan, an NRI, the Akash Ganga Trust, a citizens’ group consisting of RWH practitioners and experts was formed in January 2002. The Centre for Science and Environment decided to support Raghavan and, thus, the Rain Centre was born. Support also came from M.S. Swaminathan who suggested to then Chief Minister Jayalalithaa that she inaugurate the Centre. And she did, providing a major boost for RWH in the city.
Raghavan steered activities at the Rain Centre, which included getting schoolchildren to come and see what proper RWH was all about. Soon, the Centre became a reference point for RWH and Raghavan found himself busy answering numerous calls, advising residents and arranging for plumbers. “There was a paucity of plumbers, PVC pipes and cement rings for recharge wells. The Rain Centre would receive at least 50 calls a day. It trained 30 plumbers on the correct methods of RWH and they were deputed on calls,” he recalls.
The Bay View Apartments in Kalakshetra Colony, Besant Nagar, comprising five residential blocks of 140 flats has a model RWH system, implemented under Raghavan’s supervision. Each block has its own well. The water harvested from rooftops is taken to the main well through a filter (made up of sand-blue metal pebbles) and to three recharge wells in each block. The roofs are kept clean; bursting fire crackers and hand-washing are not allowed. The run-off water at the ground level is led to the same recharge wells with the help of a speed breaker near the gate. None of the structures are hidden. They are de-silted twice a year; the perforated lid is removed and plastered again after de-silting. The maintenance budget of Rs 10,000 is met by all the blocks together.
“Any RWH system is complete only if it harvests rooftop as well as the rainwater that falls all around the built-up area (run-off). The driveway run-off, particularly in multi-storeyed residential and commercial complexes is ignored due to inconvenience or ignorance. Secondly, even while harvesting rooftop water, care is not taken to apportion it to different structures such as a sump, or recharge structures such as open well and wells and pits. Finally, RWH systems must be cleaned and de-silted, especially pre-monsoon. Many residents ignore this point. In several homes residents do not even know where the RWH structure is,” says Raghavan.
The Rain Centre’s thrust is on creating awareness about the importance of RWH, not only in augmenting resources but also in raising groundwater levels and sustaining the water table, helping citizens to implement RWH systems in an efficient and cost-effective manner, and carrying out studies on the nature of sub-soil, the effectiveness and adequacy of various structures and the post-monsoon impact on quality and exploitable quantity of groundwater.
In Chennai, residents who implemented RWH reported appreciable increase in water level in their wells. On an average, the water table rose by 6-8 metres. Residents in areas like Mandavelli had never seen the table rise so high in the past 30 years, says Raghavan, adding that the moral is that old dug wells can indeed be revived. “If the monsoon is favourable, even shallow wells can be revived; water from such wells is far better than borewell water. We have to make sincere attempts to harvest every drop of water that falls on our heads before thinking in terms of mega projects like interlinking of rivers and desalination of sea water.”
Since October 2005, Raghavan has been sensitizing the residents of Kovalam, a coastal town in Tamil Nadu, about the relevance and importance of ecological sanitation. He was also associated with the construction of a model composting toilet in Kovalam. In January 2008, nine composting toilets were constructed by the Akash Ganga Trust in the habitats of fishermen and other economically weaker sections in Kovalam.
Since 2007, the Akash Ganga Trust has partnered with the Institute of Buddhism and Economics to promote eco-sanitation in Kovalam. The Institute is a non-profit organisation associated with Komazawa University in Tokyo, Japan. Every year during the past three years, the Institute has brought a group of Japanese college students to India to expose them to Indian culture and community development. The programme has developed a special relationship with Kovalam. “On coming to know that almost 60% of women there did not have access to a toilet of any kind, the students suggested that the Institute make building latrines a priority for future visits,” Raghavan says. The organisations worked together to construct eco-san units in the village. Backed by grants from the Japanese International Cooperation Agency, 66 eco-san toilets were constructed in a Dalit settlement in Kovalam and in a nearby village.
Raghavan has served as a member of the Task Force on Water set up by the Confederation of Indian Industry. He obtained his BSc and MSc degrees in Physics from Madras Christian College, Tambaram. His father, M.V. Raghavan, was the first General Manager of Ashok Leyland who moved to the Amalgamations Group and later served as Director and General Manager of The Mail.
Pictures show the facade of the Rain Centre in Mandavelipakkam; Raghavan seated before a rainwater harvesting model that is common in the rural areas of Rajasthan; and illustrations and pictures that adorn the walls of the Rain Centre.
An abridged version of this story first appeared in The Hindu Business Line.