The Lede
The Art Of Absurdity
Tamil Nadu

The Art Of Absurdity

Anand Kumar

Anand Kumar

The Art Of Absurdity

Why does the Tamil Nadu government need Sri Sri Ravishankar to save its rivers when the World Bank and the Centre have provided Rs 5500 crore for the same schemes?

By Anand Kumar

On January 26, the Art Of Living (AOL) headed by spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravishankar is all set to unveil its river rejuvenation project in association with the government of Tamil Nadu. The project will target one river, the Noyyal in Coimbatore district and three tributaries – Naganadhi, Saraswathi and Kowshika.

The AOL team of volunteers will work with the local population in villages to dig new lakes and ponds and rejuvenate and desilt existing ones. Although the name of the project is “River Rejuvenation”, the work will not happen within the river in reality. The 6-stage project, according to AOL members, has no time frame or deadline for completion.

So what is the project all about?

“We will be working across four districts – Vellore, Coimbatore, Dindigul and Sivagangai,” Chandrasekaran Kuppan, Tamil Nadu River Rejuvenation Project in-charge for the AOL told The Lede. “In each district we have got the sanction from the Tamil Nadu government to work in 1000 square kilometres for this project. In Vellore alone, we will work in 4000 square kilometres,” he added.

The AOL has a structured plan for this project.

Step 01: Educating the people in villages through Art of Living exercises, which include yoga sessions, meditation and spiritual discourses.

Step 02: The Art of Living’s technical team will then descend on the villages. The team includes geologists and other experts who will conduct studies of the area and find missing streams and the best areas to collect rainwater.

Step 03: “Once the Art of Living members are convinced that the villagers are energetic and focused through the exercises, we will select villagers who are capable of doing the job sincerely and begin the work of digging recharge wells and rejuvenating streams,” said Kuppan. Each village will have five recharge wells.

Step 04: Planting of 1000 saplings per village.

The team of volunteers who will conduct courses and yoga classes for the villagers as well as the technical team will be provided accommodation, food and a fee of Rs 10,000 per team by the Tamil Nadu government through the district administration and village Panchayats. This fund for the AOL team as well as the payment for villagers who will do the manual work of digging the wells, will come from the MNREGS (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme). Material required for the manual work will also be procured using MNREGS funds. It is not clear as to how MNREGS funds would be routed to AOL team members.

“Per day, the workers will get Rs 205 through this project,” said Kuppan.

The Pilot Project

In 2014, AOL initiated a pilot project in Kaniyambadi block in Vellore district. At the time, they announced a package to the public, asking for donations for a river rejuvenation project, detailing what they were planning to do.

The Art Of Absurdity

The group asked for donations to the tune of Rs 2.75 lakh per village for digging five recharge wells at the cost of Rs 55,000 per well. Another option for the donor was to fund a recharge borewell which would cost Rs 1.5 lakhs. “Creating water pools in the lake” is another mysterious activity that the donor could fund, for Rs 2.5 lakhs. Desilting and cleaning of smaller water bodies in the village would set the donor back by Rs 1 lakh.

Apart from the ground water rejuvenation package as detailed above, another project would take place simultaneously – tree planting. Donors who wished to fund planting of 1000 saplings per village could pay Rs 1.75 lakhs. This includes use of JCBs for plantation of saplings.

Since 2014, an area of 200 square kilometres has been covered. 230 recharge wells have been dug. The AOL claims that this work has increased ground water level to 15 feet from 45 feet. “Farmers are happy,” claims Kuppan.

The Lede could not independently verify these claims. But a comparison of data available with the Tamil Nadu Water Resources Department for the month of June since 2013, shows a small rise in the average groundwater table in Vellore district.

Year Below ground level (in feet)
2013 33.4
2014 35.6
2015 31.8
2016 37.8
2017 34.4

Vellore District Collector SA Raman said the project would be expanded. “We have only covered the Kaniyambadi block as a pilot project,” he told The Lede. “After seeing the results, we have decided to extend the project to the entire Palar river basin which covers 4000 square kilometres of catchment area,” he added. Under MNREGS, a sum of Rs 5 crore has been spent for this 200 square kilometer pilot project alone over four years.

Following this, a more ambitious project has been devised in conjunction with the state government. The same scheme will roll out in four districts now, and costs, it appears, have risen. For the recharge wells in the Naganadhi, Noyyal, Kowshika and Saraswathy rejuvenation projects, donors now need to shell out Rs 1 lakh for one recharge well, as opposed to Rs 55,000 in the pilot project.

A Striking Similarity

An eerie coincidence is evident in the plans of the Art of Living group and their methods to rejuvenate “rivers”. These same activities – digging recharge wells and rejuvenating streams along with desilting of existing lakes, ponds and tanks and strengthening of bunds of the same – all find a place in the World Bank funded IAMWARM projects.

IAMWARM stands for Irrigated Agriculture Modernisation and Water Bodies Restoration and Management. The Tamil Nadu government has received a total of Rs 2500 crore for the IAMWARM 1 project between 2007 and 2012 – this amount is jointly funded as a loan by the World Bank and a grant from the Centre.

In 2017, the second phase of IAMWARM was begun with an outlay of Rs 3000 crore. According to the IAMWARM website developed and maintained by the Tamil Nadu government, “The proposed project development objective is to improve irrigation service delivery and productivity of irrigated agriculture with effective integrated water resources management in a river basin/sub-basin framework in Tamil Nadu.” This ambitious project will cover over 1 million hectares of farmland and brings within its framework the exact same activities as the AOL plans, with the involvement of local communities, on a much larger scale across Tamil Nadu.

Which begs the question – why does the Tamil Nadu government need the Art of Living group and Sri Sri Ravishankar to do the same job that they have already been paid to do?

Another question arises – why does the Tamil Nadu government need the Art  of Living volunteers as intermediaries to get this work done through MNREGS when there is an existing robust district administrative network to do the same?

The answers lie in the implementation of IAMWARM 1. “If IAMWARM 1 had been properly implemented, there would have been no water scarcity in Tamil Nadu even during drought years,” said K Sivasubramanian, Associate Professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies in Chennai. He was part of the monitoring team of the World Bank which evaluated the implementation of IAMWARM 1.

“The main condition of the World Bank before sanctioning funds was that the state government had to form Village Users Committees, thereby involving the local communities,” he explained to The Lede. “This condition was complied with in such a manner that the so-called members of the Village Users Committees themselves did not know that they were members!”

Sivasubramanian also added that the state government had not consulted the villagers to find out what their requirements were but released funds for works that were not essential. He gives an example. “Out of the total Rs 2500 crore for the entire IAMWARM 1 project, around Rs 1000 crore was spent on strengthening of bunds of existing water bodies alone,” he said. “No work was done to find streams, recharge ground water table and to bring about more income per drop of water, which was the theme of IAMWARM 1,” he said.

“What the Art of Living calls River Rejuvenation now is already part of the existing IAMWARM schemes. There is nothing wrong in them (AOL) doing this, but a complete solution can only be brought about by involving a variety of departments as IAMWARM does – Agriculture, Public Works Department, Fisheries etc. If these people are coming now and saying they will do River Rejuvenation, then where has the money from IAMWARM 1 gone? Ideally the money was for all of these activities,” he said.

The water potential in Tamil Nadu is 24,159 million cubic metres, as per Water Resource Board records. Most of this water comes from rainfall and needs to be stored, as Tamil Nadu does not have any perennial rivers. Storage capacity covers only 55% of this water. “If storage capacity can be increased, ground water will automatically be recharged and there will be no need for us to ask other states for water,” he said.

When queried about the Art of Living’s River Rejuvenation project, Commissioner for Revenue Administration K Satyagopal told The Lede: “The entire fund for this project is from the government (MNREGS). We are not aware about AOL’s funding model. Every NGO has their own process of receiving donations. We are not getting any funds from them for this project.”

When asked about what the need for involvement of AOL was considering that IAMWARM funds and state allocations for the Public Works Department were available for the same scheme, Satyagopal said – “It is a normal procedure by any government to involve NGOs in various projects. NGOs, in many cases, are faster than government in taking such schemes to the people,” he said.

Vellore district Collector SA Raman gave an additional explanation to The Lede: “We have our own equipment, manpower, enough funds but Art of Living is helping us in educating the people to do the work,” he said. “This is something we cannot do. Through their classes, they make people take ownership of natural resources.”