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People with disabilities are frontline warriors in Aamir Khan's movement to fight water crisis

It's a first-of-its kind initiative in India that has brought together people in 4,000 villages across Maharashtra this year. A program where different villagers are being equipped with technical skills and leadership abilities to tackle the issue of drought in their villages.

We are talking about Paani Foundation, the NGO started by actor Aamir Khan to find a solution to the drought crisis in Maharashtra. The training is imparted through teams at the taluka levels, as well as films, manuals, and even an Android app.

A movement that started with three talukas in 2016 and grew into a water revolution involving 75 talukas this year, as Khan points out on the website.

Large parts of Maharashtra are afflicted every year with drought, badly affecting thousands of villages and crippling every aspect of social life. We found that wherever the issue has been solved in villages…the solution lay in people's collective efforts and labour. So, Paani Foundation was conceived to work with people across the spectrum..- Aamir Khan, Co-founder, Paani Foundation

Mobilising people

And what a spectrum it truly is, bringing together people across castes and religions. Not a small achievement given the deep social divisions that exist in India's villages.

Even more special is that the water management initiative is truly inclusive. People, both with and without disabilities, are a part of the training programmes conducted on the technical aspects of watershed management and conservation.

A recent video released by the Paani Foundation pays tribute to these water warriors who have shown the way to the rest of the villages. People like Sunita Gaikwad and Ankush Kale, who are physically disabled, but did not hesitate to be a part of all the digging, cleaning and widening.

An involvement that Social Media Head Svati Chaktravarthy Bhatkal says happened quite organically.

Our training focused strongly on the critical importance of why a divided village has to come together if we have to fight drought and harvest water. What happened was that the energy created by people coming together also provided a platform for persons with disabilities to participate and demonstrate to everyone that they are just differently-abled. So I would say it was the Peoples Movement that provided the platform for the differently-abled to contribute and inspire the village - Svati Chakravarthy Bhatkal, Head, Social Media, Paani Foundation

Making of a water revolution

To incentivise the program there is a competition held called Satyamev Jayate Water Cup, where villages compete to win prizes for the best project in watershed management.

From 116 villages in 2016, when the initiative was launched, the number of villages jumped to 1,300 in 2017. Evidence of its huge popularity, driven in large measure by Khan's popularity and close involvement in the movement.

Many people with disabilities came forward for the residential training in the second year, with each and every one participating in full enthusiasm.

This included even the shramdaan, or volunteer labour, which requires all villagers to pitch in for some tough, backbreaking work on the fields. The enthusiasm shown by the disabled people was a game changer, believes Training Head Lancy Fernandes.

As fractured communities started coming together.. it unleashed an energy which villages had never experienced before. It was this energy that created a platform for people with disabilities to take part in shramdaan and even the planning and management of the work. Like any member of the community they responded to the social challenge of making the village drought-free. Their very presence at shramdaan sites was an inspiration to all, especially those who were abled and did not volunteer for it - Lancy Fernandes, Training Head, Paani Foundation

An initiative that was started to address a social problem is enabling greater integration of disabled people within the community and giving them the opportunity to discover and showcase their skills. This water revolution is truly helping to break myths and change attitudes towards disability.

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