Restoring Rivers & Making Climate Action Plans: Interview of an IAS officer

Learnings from the Field: Using Central & State Govt policy & GRs to drive climate action on-ground.

Restoring Rivers & Making Climate Action Plans. Interview of an IAS officer.

Meet Astik Kumar Pandey, the Maharashtra Cadre IAS officer from the batch of 2011 who has taken on the task of restoring rivers & waterbodies across cities in Maharashtra. Known for his trailblazing leadership and hands-on approach to solving complex urban & rural challenges under his jurisdiction in the roles of ZP CEO, Collector & Municipal Commissioner. The Policy Times caught up with him to get his views on the issue of Water Body Restoration and Climate Change, both topics on which he has a deep interest and demonstrated experience. His Morna River restoration effort when he served as the Collector of Akola got a special mention by PM Modi during his Man Ki Baat radio program, and his extensive work in water management for irrigation under the Jal Yukt Shivar program in Jalgaon has been appreciated publicly by CM Devendar Phadnavis, while his efforts for Kham River Restoration has been hailed as a model by then Minister for Environment & Climate Change, Aditya Thackeray, and the National Institute of Urban Affairs. He was also awarded ‘Best Collector’ by Indian Express Group, 2020 and The Lokmat Times Maharashtrain of The Year Award 2021 among others.

Why are you interested in restoring waterbodies in the interiors of Maharashtra? Aren’t these waterbodies  seasonal, and have sewage n garbage flowing through them, is it even worth the effort? 

Well, the simple answer is yes of course its worth the effort. It IS a real mission to accomplish, and as far as I’m concerned, this should be a priority for everyone. Along with poverty alleviation, education, infrastructure we have to focus on the state of our environment too. All major civilizations are based along rivers, the sea coast or along lakes, so water bodies are essential to our survival and growth as a species, apart from their crucial ecological functions. Having been a history student, one can’t ignore what happened to civilizations when rivers died or when the climate changed, we read historical accounts of the great floods across cultures. Now, we are at the brink of, or perhaps in the midst of another climate emergency, as the UN IPCC confirms, and the 6th Anthropocene Mass Extinction. So, its really a no-brainer that we need to go all out to conserve our environment, and waterbodies, even the seasonal ones, are an essential part of our urban and rural ecosystems. And you’re right, 90% of Indian rivers and streams are seasonal, as are our lakes & ponds, they are rain-fed and support their own complex ecosystems which are no less important than perennial ones.

I think every inch of our country and indeed our planet is worth protecting, conserving and restoring for our future generations. We cannot possibly continue on this trajectory of thoughtless degradation any longer. Its ironic, we keep saying, “pani bachao, nadi bachao, pedh lagao pedh bachao’ but the point is, in the interconnected web of life, we are actually saving ourselves if we conserve our environment.

When I became a father 7 years ago, it really brought home the point that while my wife Mokshada & I may plan for my son’s education, his financial security for the future, I can no longer take for granted that he’ll have pure air to breathe and water to drink. So, we need to think now, about the world we’re going to leave our children, what we do now, will decide what happens in the next 10-20 years. We need to invest in an environmental insurance for our kids, if you will. More and more people are waking up to this.

That’s some really powerful motivation, so tell us about the work you’ve done for waterbody restoration & climate action. 

Since my very first posting as ZP, CEO, Jalgaon, I took up the task of implementing the Jalyukt Shivar Scheme for water storage and percolation to assist agriculture. But soon enough, realised that this scheme not only provides access to irrigation, and improves the groundwater table, it was also a fine tool for waterbody restoration. We must have done over 500 gabion bandharas, percolation tanks, storage tanks, compartment bunding, contour bunding, etc. Similarly, we used the same approach to desilt and make micro bandharas, 10 K.T weirs along a 15 km stretch of Kamal Ganga, a seasonal river, in Murtijapur, Akola. The amount of rainwater we could harvest and percolate was immense, with 23 villages along the stretch of the river going from mono to dual crops in 1.5 yrs! And we did all of this without allocating separate funds for the program, but by implementing the 29th Nov, 2017 GR envisioned by Minister of Roads & Highway Transport Sri Nitin Gadkari and passed by then Chief Minister Mr. Devender Fadnavis, we waived the royalty of an NHAI Contractor who made the expenses. Such unique, ambitious and fast paced interventions are possible only if you have the support of visionary people from the field, for example, Harish Pimple, the local MLA of Motijapur pushed this intervention through.

I also noted that the Punjabrao Krishi Vidyapeeth, Akola was suffering from a huge water shortage, which directly affected the functioning of the university esp with regards the quality of horticultural R&D  that they were able to do on the land. Again, together with the Vice Chancellor Mr. Bhale, we harnessed the Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan program again with the 29th Nov GR to build large shet-tale or water storage tanks each of about 5 acres in size, and harnessed rainwater that made the university water sufficient. There is no reason why this cant be done in all large government campuses to make them watersufficient.

When I was Collector, Akola, we did a similar project for the Akot Taluka, where the groundwater was saline, and so agriculture was suffering. After our intervention, next year onward some villages were able to grow cotton, banana, maise and even export it! Thus increasing the income of the farmers. I feel really grateful that I got the opportunity to implement the Jalyukt Shivar scheme and the GoM 29th Nov GR in its spirit, and even adapt its application to get good results.

Thereafter, there was Mission Clean Morna. Born out of a need to do something about this highly polluted river that flowed in the middle of Akola city. It carried all of the city’s filth and garbage, was overgrown with invasives like water hyacinth and mexican juriflora, and hadn’t been desilted in ages. So, here I knew I could access machinery through the schemes i’d used before, but this river would need more, it would need public participation. We approached local media houses, radio stations and appealed to the people to join in. And soon enough, people started pouring in to clean the river, we had 40,000+ people volunteer on the field, in the river, all that human energy directed to protecting the environment, it was electrifying and reassuring. Thereafter, we tried to harness funds from AMRUT for establishing underground drainage and sewage diversion & treatment for the city, installed solar lights and plastic screens, and created a DPR for the long term restoration of the river. Within the 2 years that I was there as the DC.

The Kham River Restoration, of a seasonal river originating close to & flowing through Aurangabad City began in 2021 when I was Municipal Commissioner of Aurangabad Municipal Corporation.This time too, we had a lot of support from civil society organizations like Varroc Foundation and a local start-up called EcoSattva Environmental Solutions. They partnered with the administration through CSR funds, to plan a study, with drone orthophotos of the river, an analysis of sources and quantum of pollution, and well defined interventions. So, on Republic Day, 2021, we began the effort to:

  1. Prevent solid waste & sewage pollution into the river from the city, and to find waste to trap the debris as well as divert the sewage flowing in.
  2. Clean-up the legacy waste dumped in the riverbed and along its banks over the past many decades.
  3. Ecologically restore the banks, with removal of invasive species such as Mexican Juriflora and replacement with native trees and grasses. We also restored wetlands along the banks.
  4. Create Community Ownership, through ecological recreational spaces, as well as programs to have the residents engage meaningfully with the river.
  5. Plan and execute a DPR for the long term management and protection of the river.

To do this, we harnessed funds through CSR, I also decided to do the yearly pre-monsoon clean-up in-house. Previously, the city would contract out this activity, with very less monitoring and data on outcomes. So, in 2021, I got my team to plan and execute the pre-monsoon cleaning in-house, with an hour by hour & km by km tracking of the work done, expenses made and outcomes achieved. I got my team of engineers and ward officers to sit with a third party local start-up working on the river restoration mission, to develop the protocol and monitor its execution. This way, not only did we effectively clean the nalas & the river, but we also managed to save public money that was then invested in purchasing the required earth movers to make this operation possible in-house year on year. We got the District Mining Officer, who worked with me before, to source the rocks we would need for rock pitching of the Kham River Banks. And so, again, without the need for elaborate schemes we could get the job done. The National Institute of Urban Affairs took special cognisance of this effort and invited AMC to be a member of the River Cities Alliance. Thus the same key stakeholders are now developing the Urban River Management Plan for Aurangabad.

In addition, I worked on a pilot to demonstrste treated Sewage Water Resue for irrigation from our AMC STP at Jhalta, Aurangabad with the Water Resource Group.

I’ve also focused on Aurangabad city create a Climate Action Plan for the next 35 years  under the Smart Cities Mission.

This is all, of course, only the beginning. There is a lot to be learned and done.

What according to you are the other key environmental challenges that the cities you have worked in have faced? And how much imp do environmental matters get, considering the exceedingly complex socio-economical urban problems that our cities face?

As a developing nation, we need to focus on ensuring the gaps in nutrition, healthcare, education, housing & infrastructure are filled, and access is available for all. At the same time urban and rural areas are both faced with the growing complexities of problematic solid waste management practices, sewage mismanagement, polluted waterbodies, polluted air, unsustainable agricultural practices, a degraded tree cover and an unplanned urban environment with traffic problems, unsafe conditions for non-motorized commute like walking and cycling. And while these matters affect the underprivileged the most, whether in terms of safe n easy access to schools & work places, access to clean water & health care, access to a decent garden for children to play in, green cover to keep the heat-island effect at bay; but now, even the privileged in their ivory towers are beginning to feel the heat, literally. The high and mighty in Delhi can no longer escape the polluted air that everyone breathes, so, hopefully now, protecting the environment will not be an afterthought, but it will get the center stage it deserves.

And I really think, it has to become a matter on which people hold their leaders accountable. The degradation has taken maybe 20-30 years to get us to where we’re at. People are waking up to this reality, and now there is a push for mitigating the damage done, adapting to the new conditions and changing course to prevent further damage to the environment. This is amply demonstrated by the Central Governments’ & State Governments’ policies of recent times, whether it be the Advisory on Conservation of Water Bodies in 2013, the Swach Bharat Mission of 2014, The AMRUT, Majhi Vasundhara, etc schemes that are all solidly steering the country, each District, Ulb & Gram Panchayet at a time, towards a more sustainable future.

What would you say has been your major learnings from your experience while leading cities and districts in Maharashtra from the ground? 

Well, firstly that change is possible. In order to do this, we need to firstly, Focus on Education – in schools, whether it be explaining how the country works, how the village and the city are governed, and what it means to be a responsible citizen with a keen civic sense. We really need this in our schools, with experiential learning modules.  Second, the government officer needs to plan interventions and keep space for the community to participate and indeed lead the interventions, esp in the environment conservation space. An officer really should look to engage with residents, local start-ups, resident groups, etc that come to you with a plan, they are invaluable for any environmental intervention, to leapfrog the effort and build sustainability. The Morna River Restoration in Akola was hugely led by the community, we would have thousands of people step out of their homes every Saturday to clean the banks of garbage and the water of hyacinth. The Kham River Restoration was also majorly supported by civil society, Varroc Industries stepped forward to partner on sponsoring the DPR & implementation for phase one. They also engaged a local start-up called EcoSattva that had been working the field and understood the complexities of river restoration while navigating the realities of the field.

What role would you say central and state government schemes play in your efforts? Are there other relevant schemes? Why aren’t they translating to results on-ground, Is there a resource crunch or a policy crunch? And how can these schemes be used more effectively?

Lets break down your question: Firstly, Yes we have a lot of relevant, and progressive public policy in place. India has been a pioneer in environmental conservation from the start, in fact its codified into the Constitution through Article 48 (g) of the Directive Principles of State Policy, and the extensive environmental protection laws since the 70s, the landmark Swach Bharat Mission, The AMRUT scheme, the NDCs as per the Paris Agreement, the Government of India, over the decades has been consistent in its commitment to the environment and climate action. 15th finance commission has a specific focus on sanitation & watersupply, so on and so forth.

These policies are also being implemented on-ground, for example the gamification of sanitation through the Swach Bharat Mission’s Swach Survekshan, has given the transformation of waste management in india an impetus through the pressure of not failing or scoring poorly in the survekshan. The rank of the ULB has also become a matter of prestige or shame for the residents, and thus also affects election outcomes. So, these schemes are translating to action on-ground.

There are also multiple state GRs, that can be used very effectively to execute restoration programs. For example, as I have mentioned above, we used state government schemes and GRs to harness funds and implement our programs.

But yes, there is a resource crunch, esp towards systems work. Most resources are earmarked for investment in infrastructure, which is needed. However, not enough funds are deployed for setting up governance systems, or monitoring systems, even things like training & capacity building could do with more funding, as well as better tools. 

 Why are clean waterbodies and clean cities still an exception rather than the norm? Is success dependent entirely on the officer in charge, is it a one-man/woman show?  Or is there something else holding people in government back?

Its not that much of an exception anymore, but it will take some time to become the norm. There is a lot of learning and innovation needed on-ground. The policy tools, as I have said, are available. But the know-how, the service providers, the technical assistance and expert assistance is still wanting. We could do what we did in the projects above, because we were lucky enough to have expert assistance and wise enough to identify and embrace it, whether it be Morna or Kham. I believe that while large consultancies are important, its the hyper local organizations, and the start-ups that have a grassroots understanding as well as know how to harness government policy, that enable transformative solutions on ground.

I think the National Green Tribunal is also speeding up matters, by giving local issues state & central level focus. The NGT is also a driving force for Central, State and Local governments to focus on environmental challenges, allocate relevant funds and execute solutions for environmental issues in real time.

Of course, there are practical difficulties of executing complex, long term interventions, with changes in government, changes in posting, changes in priority, etc. For example, the Morna DPR is still in the process, a faster approval would enable the change at scale. But this has to be navigated.

 Finally, what is your dream for Indian cities for the next 10 years?

 I am very positive that things are going to change very fast and for the better. With the G20 summit just concluding, the Central and State Governments are really taking on the challenge of climate change mitigation and adaptation. With medium sized cities like Aurangabad also having Climate Action Plans in place, I am hopeful that we will leave the world a little better for our children, than how we found it.

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Restoring Rivers & Making Climate Action Plans: Interview of an IAS officer
Learnings from the Field: Using Central & State Govt policy & GRs to drive climate action on-ground.
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