Taking the lead

Situated in the heart of the once proud and prosperous Malwa Plateau, the rapidly growing city of Indore, buffetted by the waters of the Narmada, is today facing an acute water crisis. The municipality cannot supply enough water and the groundwater table is falling, and whatever there is of groundwater is getting polluted. Nothing unusual in this scenario. Every Indian city is facing it. But Indore has one big difference. The city's leading newspapers, Dainik Bhaskar and Nai Duniya are campaigning for water conservation - more like activists rather than the usual bickering but hands off journalists.

Tradition has it that Indore celebrates two Holis. One, the normal Holi that we all celebrate across the country. And another five days after the normal Holi called Pancham Holi.

When the residents of such a large and densely populated city become profligate it is not surprising that a lot of water gets used during the festival revelries. The municipality has to make special provisions for meeting the extra water demand. But this year they had a reprieve.

The local press decided to play the role of giving leadership to the masses and a sense of direction. The newspapers went on a campaign and urged the citizens to observe a dry Holi - a Holi without the famous pichkari, the water pistol that everyone loves to use, but only with the lovely colours of dry gulal.

As part of its Pani Bachao Andolan (Save Water Movement), Dainik Bhaskar even organised three big public meetings that had the chief minister, Digvijay Singh, and environmentalists rubbing shoulders with each other, and filmstars and models thrown in to draw the crowds. The first day nearly 8,000 children were brought together for a painting competition, the theme was, you guessed it, on water. The second day saw a women's meet with activists like Medha Patkar and Vandana Shiva and models like Priyanka Chopra. The third day, a public meeting with chief minister Singh, Ajay Devgan and Mahesh Bhatt from the filmworld, and three environmentalists which included Anupam Mishra and Rajendra Singh. Anupam Mishra said that if people in Rajasthan with 200-250 mm annual rainfall can survive with the help of rainwater harvesting, then why should there be water shortage in Malwa that has 800-900 mm rainfall. The paper has also been taking out advertisements urging people to take up water conservation. Dainik Bhaskar has today emerged as the biggest Hindi daily with a total circulation of 1.8 million and a readership of 10 million.

Sudhir Agrawal, managing director of the paper, explained why the paper got into this campaign. "Every month we meet select readers and increasingly we found our readers worried about water. We publish from Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chattisgarh and all these states are suffering from an acute drought this year. Therefore, we felt we must start a campaign for water conservation."

Good business sense but one with a social purpose. The paper's extraordinary reach gives it a power to create 'water literacy' that no other institution has. Creative copy editors hit the message hard. Here are two good headlines that I found during my two-day stay there: "People pump out water as if it rains underground"; "There is no shortage of water but……", in other words, there is no application of mind.

Indore's other and older daily, Nai Duniya , has also been campaigning for water conservation and water harvesting. The paper's chief editor, Abhay Chhajlani, worried by the sinking water table in the villages and towns of the Malwa-Nimar area of Madhya Pradesh, had started a campaign for water conservation in June 2000 after the paper had taken out several advertisements on the subject. At a public meeting attended by the city's mayor and leading officials, Anupam Mishra and Rahul Ranade of the Centre for Science and Environment explained to the people the whys and hows of water harvesting. The paper also organised a meeting of ngo s and activists for advice and has brought out a simple pamphlet on water harvesting for distribution.

The paper has a circulation of 130,000. By setting aside 5 paise per paper sold, it has created a fund of Rs 1 crore under the Nai Duniya Jan Seva Trust.

The trust now wants to create models of water harvesting in houses and farms by funding small projects. Some ten projects have already been completed in rural and urban areas. An interesting innovation of the paper's creative artists is a monsoon greeting card instead of the Western New Year and Christmas card. The card reminds Indians the value of the monsoon and of rainfall. If you want some for this monsoon, get in touch with the paper.

The lead that has been taken by these two papers is indeed exemplary. The media has finally stepped in to take onus for leading the masses in the right direction. At a time when India is suffering from acute social and environmental stress and a governance crisis of unbelievable proportions, India's democracy will inevitably open up a greater role for the media and the civil society.

- Anil Agarwal