Roberval Tavares
Ashoka Fellow since 1991   |   India

Santosh Ragunath Gondhalekar

Santosh Gondhalekar, a young engineer who has been working on social problems since secondary school, is demonstrating an approach to the development of village water resources that allows the many…
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This description of Santosh Ragunath Gondhalekar's work was prepared when Santosh Ragunath Gondhalekar was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1991.


Santosh Gondhalekar, a young engineer who has been working on social problems since secondary school, is demonstrating an approach to the development of village water resources that allows the many different actors to consolidate the numerous, usually fragmented pieces of the water management puzzle into a coherent, efficient plan.

The New Idea

There are more than thirty different aspects of managing village water resources, varying from conservation to land management, from distribution to finance, and from popular education to building ongoing management capacity. Unless all the pieces can be brought together into a professionally competent and comprehensive plan that everyone understands and that ultimately is implemented in an equally coherent way, even major investments in the different pieces of the puzzle are likely to achieve little. The challenge, of course, is how to achieve the needed orchestration.Santosh's approach has two main elements. First, upon a local citizen organization's request, he and his team, "Gangotree," analyze the area's needs and water resources in depth and prepare a detailed, fully integrated plan. Second, he will work closely with local groups and all the necessary outside agencies to involve, educate, and help organize everyone with an interest. Although these two steps require different skills, they have to be closely joined to each other right from the beginning. Much of the value of Santosh's model comes from demonstrating how this complex relationship between technicians and grassroots leaders can be made to work on a regular basis.The analytical and planning dimension of the process requires everything from detailed analyses of families' needs to engineering design and preparation of specifications for construction of dams to percolation tanks. All these pieces must then be laid out in a time-phased action program that, for example, gets the new water storage and distribution infrastructure built before the new trees and grasses that depend on the water go in. This sort of work requires a great deal of specialized knowledge - knowledge that neither villagers nor local or even regional citizen groups currently have. The "software" half of the puzzle is no less demanding. Knowing and, even more important, having the trust of the local community is essential if such water and land reformation is ultimately to work. Here the citizen organizations, either native to the community or well established there, are best positioned to take the lead. The second half of Santosh's approach, then, works out a series of partnerships with the most suitable groups he can find. Santosh knows that his organization, even if terribly successful, cannot serve even his home state of Maharashtra, with its 40,000 villages. However, he can demonstrate a new way of organizing India's effort to improve the lives of its people through truly integrated watershed planning and implementation. If he can make it work, others will follow the Gangotree model.

The Problem

Farming in monsoon India has long been called "a gamble with the rains." Even when the rains come, much of their value can be lost without wise management. All too often the weather fluctuates between flood and drought.For centuries, but especially in the last few generations, India has spent heavily on water schemes. Huge centrally planned irrigation schemes have helped some areas, albeit often with harmful consequences elsewhere. Local food-for-work labor gangs dig smaller local water projects. However, India is increasingly recognizing that these programs achieve far less than they should, largely because they are fragmentary, not rooted in an understanding either of an area's water balance or its people's needs, and not understood or supported by the local population. Many different departments not only conceive, pursue, and evaluate their own plans and targets far away, but often do so without communicating with one another.

The Strategy

Santosh has begun by marshaling the most critical ingredients for his strategy: knowledge, coworkers, and quality citizen organization clients and partners.He expanded his own technical training with an apprenticeship with V. Salunke and through explorations with other major watershed leaders. He has brought three talented colleagues with him to Gangotree, and he is running an intern program for young graduates in order to get their help immediately, while training them to spin off and start some of the first generation of emulative organizations. He has quickly succeeded in engaging such excellent area citizen groups as Vanarai (Pune), the Center for Applied System Analysis and Development (Bombay), Jeevan (Pune), Ramoshi Berad Seva Sam Tee (Belgaon), and Vivekananda Kendra (Kanyakumari).Initially, Santosh is working in a fifteen-village area near Pune and hopes to turn it into an early demonstration that is easily accessible to other groups and the media. This case example will soon be followed by others, involving other partners. In starting work in a community, he knows the importance of early, very concrete victories. Thus, for example, he typically sees if he can help villagers get convenient, safe drinking water in a project's first year and then goes on to the area's longer term agricultural needs.

The Person

Santosh was ready to launch such a difficult program at age twenty-four because he began thinking about and working on social problems when he was a schoolboy. The only son of a middle-class family, he was selected to attend the Jnana Probodhini's private school for exceptionally talented young people. A student there from the fifth through twelfth standards, he was exposed to numerous national problems and given the opportunity to see them and what various people were doing about them, both in school and during school-organized travels to all parts of the country. In school, and later when studying for his engineering degree in Paris, Santosh began experimenting with organizing and leading.As his idea began to crystalize, Santosh apprenticed himself to the "father of watershed management," V. Salunke, a public entrepreneur who created Maharashtra's model "pani panchayats" (local representative water management councils) and now serves on the Planning Commission. During this self-education period, Santosh visited citizen groups working in various agroclimatic regions. He attended various workshops and helped design forty water-harvesting structures, assisting in the construction of ten of them.

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