New Delhi: 29-year-old Ramveer Tanwar had a fond love for water bodies since childhood. At that time, when young Tanwar returned from school, he would quickly eat his food, pick and take a herd of cattle for grazing in his village Dadha in Greater Noida. Then, he sat by the local pond to leisurely finish his schoolwork, as the animals munched on the grass. He used to go to the village pond whenever he had time and sit there for hours. The youthful pastime quickly became a passion and a significant aspect of his life.
Over time, Mr. Tanwar went on to pursue his Bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the KCC Institute of Technology & Management. It was important for the students pursuing the course to participate in the social and environmental activities and provide viable solutions for the same. During this time, Mr. Tanwar also witnessed a takeover of urbanisation in his village and all the areas of Greater Noida. The urbanisation resulted in population growth, which further resulted in the shrinkage of space for water bodies and forest lands, as the tall buildings were constructed in those areas.
As upset as he was witnessing the change, Mr. Tanwar knew he had to address the concern of disappearing water bodies and forest lands rather than mulling over it. So, he utilised the opportunity provided by his college of getting involved in a social or environmental activity for the issue.
Mr. Tanwar and his batchmates started an informal campaign on water conservation called ‘Jal Chaupal’ (‘Meeting on Water’) with local communities. He started from Dadha, but soon visited other villages in Uttar Pradesh, including Dabra, Kulipura, Chauganpur, Raipur, Sirsa, Rampur, Salempur. The student group was also accompanied by several environmentalists and they held meetings with the villagers.
In the meeting, villagers shared their experiences on water quality issues, and the student group and experts discussed mitigation measures that could stem the problem. He told the NDTV-Dettol Banega Swasth India team,
Topics related to water conservation were discussed in several schools and colleges, not just ours. The difference is that we have taken a step forward in mitigating the problems.
Soon after he completed his graduation, he got a placement in a multinational company, where he worked for nearly two years. But ‘Jal Chaupal” remained in his heart all that while, and soon this informal campaign/group became Mr. Tanwar’s mission. Mr. Tanwar quit his plush job to dedicate his time and energy in saving the parched water bodies and promoting afforestation. He became a full-time conservationist in 2016.
Mr. Tanwar said that more than 60 per cent of the water bodies in India are either filled with garbage or solid waste or those areas have been encroached upon. He said,
This is more prevalent in the areas where urbanisation is taking place. The wetlands in the rural areas are comparatively in a better position. Whichever area is urbanised, rest assured the wetlands of the area will be damaged.
Mr. Tanwar said that man-made activities have also posed a huge risk to these water bodies.
The biggest man-made activity that has caused the problem of deteriorating water bodies in the name of development, or as we call it, ‘sustainable development’, is connecting the drainage system to the water bodies. It is happening everywhere, be it in Gujarat, Bengaluru, or Uttar Pradesh. There is no separate network for the disposal of sewage coming from urban areas, everything is dumped into ponds or lakes.
Mr. Tanwar said the lack of solid waste management for years was another reason for the deterioration of the water bodies, and it was prevalent in both urban and rural areas. In rural areas, he said, the management is more difficult because there are no dedicated landfill sites or garbage collection vans, and nobody likes to keep the waste inside the house. So, the villagers dump the waste in the nearby water body, most of which is non-biodegradable. Besides, the water bodies that are no longer a source of income for the villages or communities, are not taken care of, he added.
There have also been adverse effects of manmade activities on an individual’s health. Mr. Tanwar said that when the water bodies become contaminated with dangerous bacteria, it could result in devastating health effects in humans. Symptoms may include an array of health issues, such as diarrhoea and neurological problems. He said,
All the areas where water extraction has been conducted or the groundwater levels have fallen below, the surface is filled with fluoride and arsenic, and both of these elements are ubiquitous in the environment. These two elements are recognised worldwide as the most serious inorganic contaminants in drinking water or any water body. We have witnessed this in many parts of Uttar Pradesh, where these two elements have resulted in people having weak bones, pain in their feet, and much more. In a lot of areas, where you have polluted water bodies, you will find people suffering from cancer. So, these are some of the health effects of manmade activities.
Say Earth, An Initiative To Restore Water Bodies And Create Urban Forests
After working for two years with his batchmates and volunteers, in 2018, Mr. Tanwar founded the non-government organisation named Say Earth. Based out of Greater Noida, Say Earth is one of the leading environmental NGO in India working for water conservation by restoration of water bodies and creating urban forests.
So far, the organisation has restored more than 80 water bodies in the last six years and created four urban forests in the last two years that are self-sustaining. Apart from Uttar Pradesh, the restoration work has been done in six states, including Uttarakhand, Delhi, Haryana, Karnataka, Punjab, and Madhya Pradesh.
Most of the work the organisation does is sponsored by several corporations as CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) funding. In many cases, the corporate houses have reached out to Mr. Tanwar for the restoration of wetlands and other times, he has approached the corporates.
Process Of Restoring Water Bodies
Mr. Tanwar said the restoration of each water body comes with its own challenges, and the treatment varies according to the problem. There is no one particular procedure that is implemented for all.
For example, if there is a pond that is filled with litter, garbage, and sewage, we will first remove the earth manually, convert it into compost, and then segregate and recycle some of the material. After removing the top layer of litter, we see a thick layer of other garbage, including discarded clothes, slippers, shoes, silt, etc., which stops the percolation of the pond. Most of the ponds were created for the purpose of percolation. So, we remove all the material along with the silt so that the percolation restarts.
In the process, Mr. Tanwar is accompanied by volunteers and several people who work with him as a team. The group later plant trees on all the sides of the revived ponds and fence the area, along with the water treatment system. Mr. Tanwar said,
We look at the sustainable technology-based and low-cost ecological treatment systems. Constructed wetlands (CWs) and Floating Islands (FIs) are now being used for the treatment of wastewater by natural processes that follow ecological principles to achieve desired degree of treatment of water and rejuvenate water bodies.
Impact Of Ramveer Tanwar’s Efforts To Restore Water Bodies
Mr. Tanwar said that after the parched water bodies were revived, there was a significant improvement in the ecosystem around it and farmers were the primary beneficiaries. The farmers started water chestnut farming, aquatic farming and organic farming among others. The quality of the crops that farmers grow in these lands have also enhanced, further generating a good income. The farming activities also ensure the sustenance of the water bodies, Mr. Tanwar said.
He also witnessed people visiting the revived water bodies for their evening walks and physical activities. Apart from this, many species were forced out when these water bodies were parched, but after they were revived, several species have found sanctuary in them. The birds are benefiting from the abundant insect life emerging from the restored ponds, which they are feeding on, he said.
Kanwar Pal Singh, is a resident of village Nayphal in Ghaziabad, where Mr. Tanwar had revived the pond in 2019. Mr. Singh said that the restoration of the village pond has brought a new life to the water body as well as improved the health of the villagers.
The pond is right at the corner of my house. For many years, it was full of garbage and had a putrid smell. The villagers used to dump the garbage, plastic and other waste in the pond. The pond bred ground for mosquitoes and several insects, which affected the health of people. Malaria and Dengue were contracted by many people, including my family members.
Mr. Singh said that the villagers tried to clean the pond several times but it did not bear fruitful results.
By the end of 2019, Mr. Tanwar had visited my village and witnessed the deteriorated condition of the 9,500 square metre pond. He spoke to all of us and requested for our support to restore the pond. From taking out the litter and silt manually, creating a track around the pond to planting trees nearby, it took almost two years. Additionally, Mr. Tanwar and his team also covered the pond area with iron rods to prevent wildlife access. Let me tell you, earlier there were hardly any birds, but now you can see ducks in dozens. The ducks love to eat algae and are excellent for cutting down on algae that overruns ponds.
The Nayphal villagers take care of the pond and make sure to keep the surrounding area clean.
After reviving multiple lakes and ponds, he realised deforestation was another major problem in India. To address the concern, he started creating urban forests in the last two years.
Mr. Tanwar listed some of the primary factors that were a threat to the forests. He said that individuals and the government depended on forests for construction purposes, be it the creation of a national highway, a house, or any other product and that ruined the forest areas. Besides, thousands of blasts that take place for excavating minerals also caused damage beyond repair to the structures of the forest areas. He said that the forests were needed more in the urban areas than the rural.
The Process Of Creating Urban Forests
Mr. Tanwar follows a Japanese method of building urban forests, known as ‘Miyawaki’. The Miywaki method involves planting two to four trees per square metre. Miyawaki forests grow in two to three years and are self-sustaining. They help lower temperatures in concrete heat islands, reduce air and noise pollution, attract local birds and insects, and create carbon sinks. Miyawaki forests grow 10 times faster, are 30 times denser, contain 100 times more biodiversity, and are viable solutions for cities looking to rapidly build climate resilience.
So far, Mr. Tanwar and his team have developed nearly six small forests in the Delhi-NCR region itself. Additionally, they also adopted two landfill sites from the government: – Indirapuram Landfill Site and the Siddharth Vihar Landfill Site, where they planted about 50,000–70,000 trees, which will grow into a full-fledged forest in a few years.
Speaking on whether India must consider implementing the Miyawaki method on a large scale, Mr. Tanwar said that the methodology was suitable only for urban forests and areas facing extinction. He said that several governments of many states have urged the operators and universities to create forests through the Miyawaki method on their premises.
Speaking on how the country could make a balanced use of natural resources to make sustainable development a reality. Mr. Tanwar suggested an increase in the agroforestry activities. He said,
There are so many plants and saplings from which we can create biofuels. Apart from this, we also need to increase the production of biodiesel, as it can be a domestically produced, clean-burning, renewable substitute for petroleum diesel. Currently, we are completely dependent on petrol and diesel, but using biodiesel as a vehicle fuel will increase energy security, improve air quality, protect the environment, and provide other benefits.
For reviving wetlands and creating urban forests, Mr. Tanwar works with several volunteers.
Nehha Sharma, one of the volunteers of Say Earth, has been involved with wetland conservation for years. Ms. Sharma has visited two-three sites with other team members for the restoration of the ponds and lakes. She primarily conducts the survey of the areas where the ponds are degraded or the forest lands are encroached and suggests interventions.
Mr. Tanwar’s works drew appreciation in social media and soon people started calling him as the Pondman of India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also praised his efforts in October, 2021, during his monthly radio programme ‘Mann Ki Baat’.
गाज़ियाबाद के रामवीर तंवर जी को लोग ‘Pond Man’ के नाम से जानते हैं।रामवीर जी तो mechanical engineering कर नौकरी कर रहे थे।लेकिन उनके मन में स्वच्छता की ऐसी अलख जागी कि वो नौकरी छोड़कर तालाबों की सफाई में जुट गए: पीएम @narendramodi#MannKiBaat pic.twitter.com/NfSmH3DkIy
— Prasar Bharati News Services & Digital Platform (@PBNS_India) October 24, 2021
Mr. Tanwar said that India would need more environmentalists and nature enthusiasts to give life to the country’s water bodies and protect forest lands.
India needs more than just one PondMan and more organisations like SayEarth that can replicate this work. We also visit several universities, including IIT institutions, to motivate students to conduct research in the same line. This is the only way forward.
NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via the Banega Swachh India initiative, which is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ population, indigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fight malnutrition, mental wellbeing, self care, science and health, adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, which is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.