As groundwater levels drop all over India, New Delhi regularly faces water shortages in the summer. A primary school teacher in New Delhi began a collaborative project to design and install rooftop rainwater harvesting, which has raised the local water table and dramatically reduced the school’s dependence on the municipal water system. The Sri Ram school is part of a larger movement to install rainwater harvesting systems on buildings and apartment complexes around the city. Encouraged by its success and support from the community, the school has started numerous other environmental projects as well, such as a ”zero-waste” policy, vermicomposting and no-plastic drives.
From about 1997, water shortages began making headlines in India. Delhi, receiving only 611 mm of rain annually, would be one of the urban centers hard hit by droughts. Madhu Bhatnagar, at the time a social studies teacher at a public elementary school in New Delhi, began asking herself what could be done about the high level of water consumption in schools, though at the time she didn’t know anything about rainwater harvesting (RWH). By chance, Bhatnagar attended a weekend seminar on rainwater harvesting hosted by CSE (the Center for Science and Environment, a Delhi-based environmental research institute).
In the summer of 1999, with money and the full support of the principal and the Parents’ School Association (PSA), she teamed up with an engineer from CSE and a representative from the Central Groundwater Authority to design the system. It involved the laying of drains and pipes leading down from the roof where water is captured from three points on 6,000 square meters of rooftop. The water, which used to just drain into the sewers, was funneled down via a system of underground pipes which eventually drained into a filtration pit in the schoolyard to recharge the groundwater. The overflow from this tank is channelled into a borewell 200 mm in diameter and 30 m deep. A single borewell supplies the whole school, and is supplemented by the municipal water supply. The borewell is connected to pipes which lead into the school’s plumbing system, and the water for drinking goes into a separate filtration system. The total volume of rainwater harvested was 1,890,000 liters, or 55% of the total water harvesting potential.
The system cost Rs 125,000, or about US$3,000. It became operational in May 2000, and was inaugurated by the Chief Minister of Delhi as the capital’s first school to harvest rainwater. At the inauguration ceremony held for the parents and children, some interested architects also attended. Parents who were building houses at the time also brought their builders, so that they could see the system and meet some of the people involved with designing it. In this way some parents began doing it in their homes and pressuring their residents associations to install rainwater harvesting structures in their colonies (apartment complexes). “It gathered momentum, now it’s a household word,” says Bhatnagar. CSE continues to monitor Shri Ram School’s water table and quality as it does for all the RWH projects it supports.
Since the beginning, groundwater levels have risen from 45 meters below ground level in 1999 to 34 meters today, and dependence on the municipal water supply today is marginal. Word has spread quickly, Bhatnagar says, because school is “a learning point” with children as a powerful transmitter of ideas to parents and so are a crucial a link to the larger community. “I feel the children are a source of power, [and] we are the starting point of campaigns which spread to other schools,” she says. Programs like this have both spearheaded and ridden on the tide of a citywide movement to harvest and recycle water, and a municipal law will go into effect next year mandating all new buildings to harvest a certain amount of rainwater from roofs whose area exceeds 100 square meters, and on all plots of land with an area of 1,000 square meters. Other legislation comes from The Central Groundwater Authority (CGWA), making RWH mandatory in all institutions and residential colonies in notified areas, as well as in notified areas with borewells, to go into effect in March of 2002. Moreover, the CGWA has banned the drilling of borewells in notified areas. In the sprawling Vasant Vihar area where the school is located, there are 1,350 plots of land, most of which have borewells. The CGWA made RWH mandatory to those plots with borewells or they would be sealed over. This, along with examples like Shri Ram, have spurred residents into action, with 11 public projects and 30 more in the works.
The success of RWH has provided impetus for a variety of other school programs. Manika Sharma, the school principal for the past decade, gave teachers the freedom to put their ideas into the curriculum and programs. For Madhu Bhatnagar, many opportunities arose to teach kids about sustainability. For example, old traditions from India’s multiple festivals which are celebrated in schools, have taken on new habits such as fireworks and plastic decorations. Shri Ram took this as an opportunity to promote safe and sustainable festivals and campaign against the use of firecrackers. The school took a holistic approach to its campaigns. “It wasn’t just about lighting the firecracker and air pollution, it also goes back to the production of the cracker, where does it come from, who’s involved? Young children, safety of the children, child labor–all of that,” Sharma explains. From there, the school had a no-plastics drive where cloth bags were made and given to parents so they would not bring plastics into the school. They also discouraged parents from covering the students notebooks with a plastic sheet as is common practice in other elementary schools. “The parents were very much in agreement with what we believed in, which helped a lot because it became a community project,” Sharma says.
While the school was already doing innovative projects, creation of the RWH system was a springboard for programs to follow. An extensive “zero-waste zone” has been created, with all garbage separated at source in the classrooms, and large-scale paper recycling both in the office and the classrooms began. At the end of every year, there is a “book bank,” where children return their old half-used notebooks. Some of the more colourful or interesting pages are taken out, made as covers, and the unused pages are rebound again as new books. Another aspect of waste recycling was the kitchen waste for composting. Waste from the school lunches is composted on-site with two pits. One does vermicomposting, and the other uses enzymes. The compost is bagged and sold to parents, or it is used in the garden where vegetables such as eggplant and tomatoes, flowers and medicinals are grown organically. The school has also begun experimenting with CSE to begin greywater recycling in the school which would be used in the gardens. Most of the funding for these activities has come from the Parents’ School Association which holds fundraisers, but recently Bhatnagar has been looking at other sources of money, for example from multinationals, to start more ambitious projects like getting solar panels or starting recycling programs in other schools.
Some challenges have been to get other schools to begin RWH. Replication of the system has had more success with parents in their colonies or homes than with the schools. None of the 14 neighboring schools have started RWH yet. Sharma says the reason for this is financial. “A lot of schools back off to say, ‘oh a couple of lakhs (one lakh is one hundred thousand) [rupees], 3-4 lakhs….we’d much rather buy chairs, or desks or whatever….so they don’t think long-term,” she says.
Bhatnagar has moved from teaching social studies to the design an environmental curriculum and promoting it through a network of 23 public schools. The curriculum is a 30-minute capsule once a week and all levels from the four-year-olds to the highest classes are part of it. This includes field trips and “yatras” (walks) to various important places, including a walk from the near the source of the Yamuna River to where it runs through to Delhi (as Bhatnagar says “from purity to profanity”). Shri Ram is the lead school for the 25 schools “eco-clubs” where children get together for various environment and nature activities. Other school-wide projects have been to campaign for tigers, where a group of children presented letters to the government to protect the endangered tigers in Sariska and Ranthambore sanctuaries. They also raise money for “ragpickers’” education (children who rummage garbage for material to sell), and using recycled materials at festivals. The campaigning has not always made Bhatnagar popular. For example, stopping firecrackers or burning of dieties at festivals has provoked some backlash in the community that the school is interfering with traditions, and this period, Bhatnagar admits, was “tough.” But she says the parents have told her how much more aware and motivated their children have become. “They say, ‘Mom, just look at that house, there the water tank is leaking, so why don’t we go and tell them?’…they jot down names of polluting vehicles and they stop people from littering on the road,” she explains. “Kids are great activists.”
This school is located in Vasant Vihar, an affluent neighborhood with well-educated parents who have the access to information, time, and financial means to support these kinds of initiatives. This is one reason for the success. In this way, it can be compared to the Trans Indus community, where the wealthy may be an entry point for a paradigm shift, and the success of the project can pave the way for similar projects in middle- and lower-income neighborhoods. (Sharma, however, doesn’t think that the general income level of the neighborhood was a factor in the school’s success. For one thing, not all the children are from higher-income families. Secondly, she says, “you don’t need money to educate children turn off lights or the taps, or separate their waste.”)
This case also illustrates the position of schoolchildren as a nexus point in the web of community, and their potential for social and environmental change.