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    No infrastructure planning can match civil society led collective action

    Civil societyNo infrastructure planning can match civil society led collective...
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    No infrastructure planning can match civil society led collective action

    Policy makers and planners must acknowledge people’s action and take these into account in their planning efforts. People’s action can do wonders. The case of rivers being rejuvenated is an example.

    By Manoj Rai

    Acknowledgement is sweet. It is sweeter when it comes from none less than the Prime Minister of India.

    Recently Prime Minister Narendra Modi praised the collective efforts of people in rejuvenating the Noon river in Uttar Pradesh’s Jalaun district.

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    “Noon river was on the verge of extinction. The river had virtually turned into a drain causing an irrigation crisis in the area. It was then that people made the resolution to restore it,” said the Prime Minister said.

    Alluding to his oft-repeated theme of sabka-prayas (collective effort), he added, “Noon river has been rejuvenated in very little time and at little cost with people’s effort. It is a brilliant example of how people’s will can do wonders. When we protect nature, it also protects us.”

    Like most man-made problems, water scarcities trouble the poor the most. As a result, many civil-society organisations began working towards revival of rivers and wells. In doing this, they reached help to the poor and marginalized by giving them access to water, so essential for a dignified life, and also to aid in their livelihoods (mostly agriculture).

    Communities are central to action

    Almost fifty years ago, Rajendra Singh established the Tarun Bharat Sangh to work to bring water to people in arid Rajasthan. People called him the waterman of India for the example he set. River rejuvenation became a popular subject of discourse in civil society and government circles. Planners had to look at it as the default way of avoiding massive irrigation canal infrastructure.

    What started as simple and small experiment by a handful of NGOs has become an important development sector in the country. Now, the government even has a separate ministry to facilitate the management of water issues in the country.

    Rivers are nature’s own infrastructure projects. A river benefits people as a lifeline. Life on planet earth would not be possible without water and rivers bring us water in many seen and unseen ways.

    Many individuals, groups and organizations are working tirelessly in different parts of the country for revivals of local rivers. Two factors are common to all such efforts for river revival. First, it is important to engage people and communities with the variety of actions required for river revival. People must contribute their bits in reviving their rivers. They must ‘own’ the process. Revival of river is also revival of relationship of mutual care that people have and can give to the river – and vice versa.

    A second important factor is the existence of ‘somebody’. One who can act as a catalyst cum facilitator for promoting, channelising, and sustaining people’s engagement. The person could be an individual, a leader, or a group of individuals or an organization.

    Government can replicate and scale up what civil society innovates

    This example also shows that government agencies need to further strengthen their capacities to facilitate people’s engagements. Most often. local NGOs play the role of the facilitator. NGOs know how to encourage and engage people. They also know how to maximize the results of minimum resources available at their disposal. That means, NGOs work with people to create a model of resource engagements, including engagements of the people. These models are ready to be replicated by government and other agencies.

    The government can play a very important role in scaling up such initiatives. It can provide appropriate resources and institutional supports. Governmental supports provide bigger platforms and institutional legitimacy to the projects.

    Rivers are lifeline of the people and people are protectors of the rivers. Engagement of people and communities are crucial for strengthening and sustenance of initiatives for river rejuvenation. Civil society sensitizes and makes people aware about means and methods for revival of the river. Thus, civil society collaboration with people with active support from the government are an effective way to revive the rivers to make available safe and needed water to every water.

    Several national and international organisations have been working in the area of water conservation and water management since the early 80’s, highlighting the importance of river revival or river rejuvenation. What started as a simple, small experiment and innovations by a few NGOs has today become an important development sector in the country. The government even has separate ministry to facilitate the management of water issues in the country.

    River revival, once a fancy topic is a reality today. Beyond civil society organisations, these terms are popular even among government and market organizations.

     

    Manoj Rai is a specialist in participatory research and has extensively worked with Union and State Governments and Civil Society Organizations for strengthening of the local government led local development initiatives in India. He has helped Central Asian governments address their sustainable development goals.

     

    Image: Picture of River Teesta taken from Teesta Bridge used for representative purposes. Photographed at Siliguri, West Bengal, India on 9 March 2019 by Joydeep
    Joydeep / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0

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