Roberval Tavares
Ashoka Fellow since 2002   |   India

Sekhar Raghavan

Akash Ganga Trust - Rain Centre
Dr. Sekhar Raghavan is building a people’s movement in Indian cities to develop rainwater harvesting (RWH) to sustain and protect ground water sources from contamination.
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This description of Sekhar Raghavan's work was prepared when Sekhar Raghavan was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2002.


Dr. Sekhar Raghavan is building a people’s movement in Indian cities to develop rainwater harvesting (RWH) to sustain and protect ground water sources from contamination.

The New Idea

To solve the dire problem of insufficient water in urban areas, Sekhar offers a comprehensive package to involve urban citizens in rainwater harvesting. Even though most urbanites realize the acute shortage in the supply of drinking water, the overall approach of government and civil society to solving the problem has been piecemeal. Sekhar has observed the dynamics of the delicate relationship between rainwater and the availability of potable ground water, and he sees a solution to the problem of shortages in urban rainwater harvesting.

Sekhar recognizes the inherent utility of rainwater harvesting. He believes that the government cannot be solely responsible for providing adequate drinking water and protecting sources of potable ground water. Sekhar points out that a system of managing rain water in urban areas will be much easier to maintain and much less expensive than importing water from faraway places and building long storm drains to take rainwater out of the cities.

Sekhar has taken a broad approach, from building grassroots support to affecting state policy, to promote harvesting. Through his “Rain Centre” Sekhar serves the public with information and practical training, building the foundation for a region-wide system of urban rainwater harvesting.

The Problem

Drinking water shortages and artificial floods are common in almost all urban areas. These can occur because of overuse of ground water without replenishing the supply, heavy investment to construct storm water drains that take precious rainwater away from urban areas, and depletion of open spaces and indiscriminate paving.

Until recently, the coastal suburbs enjoyed the luxury of drawing potable ground water. The World Health Organization guidelines state that total dissolved solids should not exceed 1,500 ppm. In many coastal areas, total dissolved solids in ground water are slowly increasing, oftentimes exceeding these levels.

Storm water in urban areas is directed to a series of surface and underground drainage systems. This diversion of rainwater prevents the recharge of ground water. The diversion also results in the contamination of rainwater from choked sewage pipes, which results in the spread of disease during the wet season.

It is estimated that India receives 400 million hectare-meters (mham) of rain and snow. But most of this water is not captured as surface or ground water. The result is routine shortage of water for domestic, industrial, and agricultural purposes. Statistics clearly show that by 2025 the agricultural activities will demand a massive 77 mham of water, and domestic and industrial consumers will need about 28 mham of water. By 2025, it is said that more than 50 percent of Indians will live in urban areas. River and other surface water bodies are expected to provide about 70 mham of water while the remaining 35 mham of water is expected to be drawn from ground water. This factor alone is enough to drive home the hidden danger India is facing.

Sekhar contends that India is not a rain-starved country, but a water-starved country. Most of the coastal areas of India receive considerable rainfall, around approximately, 129 centimeters a year. The rural masses have a fundamental dependence on water and soil, and rainwater harvesting is not uncommon. However, urban dwellers have taken water for granted. Most people think that ground water is a perennial source and feel that drawing water from the ground does not require regulations or policies. Even when regulations do exist, in the case of Chennai, Tamil Nadu, generally private firms control extraction and transportation of water for sale. The controls have virtually no impact on these transactions. With few exceptions, most states have not made serious attempts to regulate groundwater mining.

While working with the Centre for Policy Studies, Sekhar came to see that the agricultural prosperity of ancient India lay in the management of water bodies. At the same time, he saw the salinity of Tamil Nadu’s coastal aquifer increase to irreversible levels. This resulted from excessive paving (residences, roads, foot paths, and storm drains) and irrational mining of ground water. A comparison of water management between rural and urban areas led Sekhar to study existing laws governing ground water. He found many of them to be ineffective. Sekhar traces the absence of national policy and state rules regulating groundwater management to a lack of awareness, specifically a lack of cooperation between the government and the citizen sector.

The Strategy

Sekhar believes that regardless of location and rainfall levels, rainwater harvesting is a natural, beneficial choice. He notes that coastal cities, more than any other areas, ought to implement RWH to guard against losing rainwater that otherwise runs into the sea. He notes that in cities away from the coast what is not harvested may benefit towns located downstream. Sekhar also emphasizes that complete dependency on public and private water supply, and mining water from ground and surface without recharging will throw India into further calamity. With this basic premise, Sekhar has developed the following strategy:

• Initiate citizen-based movements in coastal towns to popularize rainwater harvesting;
• Build a volunteer base, including essential technical support from trained masons, plumbers, architects, and town planners;
• Develop campaign material and establish demonstration sites;
• Use the media extensively to disseminate the information; and
• Influence the state to bring in non-threatening and encouraging legal provisions and incentives in support of rainwater harvesting.

Sekhar has started his campaign in Chennai and other coastal cities and towns of Tamil Nadu, a southern state of India. Simultaneously, he is building a network of support with other citizen sector organizations and forums working on rainwater harvesting. His aim is to take his movement to interior cities and small towns. He is looking to motivate the government departments to adopt this practice—particularly the departments of water supply and sewage disposal, city and municipal corporations, and public works. Although the basic premise of his work is to raise awareness and facilitate technology transfer, Sekhar understands that obtaining an appropriate legal framework and achieving sustainability of his efforts are critical to his success. As a result, Sekhar moves from house to house, locality to locality, department to department, and city to city to subscribe all to rainwater harvesting.

Sekhar has initiated Seethalakshmi Raghavan Memorial Social Trust (named after his parents) to popularize RWH. Sekhar first set out to motivate the residents of his own neighborhood to appreciate the need for harvesting rainwater but was met with apathy, skepticism, even hostility. “I have been chased out of houses and flats as if I am preaching something which is not relevant,” Sekhar says. He has devoted every Sunday and other holidays for the past twenty years to this part of his campaign.

Sekhar has received assistance from the Indian government’s Ministry of Environment and Forests, to develop handouts and posters for the rainwater harvesting campaign. In the past seven years, Sekhar has conducted hundreds of presentations, workshops, and demonstrations in Chennai and other cities. One great success story is the area of Padmanabhanagar, a suburb of Chennai, where 80 percent of the houses have adopted rainwater harvesting as a result of his efforts. People of Chennai have filled up sumps and tanks and show many other signs of having successfully recharged ground water. Local and national newspapers and magazines have covered Sekhar’s efforts. This publicity has increased public awareness of the good and necessity of RWH and has given Sekhar new contacts for his movement.

Although the High Court of Tamil Nadu dismissed a complaint filed by Sekhar against the construction of a storm water drain in Besant Nagar, the concerned department consulted Sekhar for remedial measures. That resulted in the construction of percolation pits within the drains. Now this successful experiment is being replicated elsewhere. Sekhar’s growing public recognition and credibility has enabled him to build rainwater structures in public places, charitable trusts, and government schools.

Sekhar established his Rain Centre through the Akash Ganga Trust to fulfill a long-held dream of developing a model rainwater harvesting Centre. He is both trustee and full-time volunteer for the center. The center distributes information and maintains a permanent exhibit, while providing demonstrations and training workshops on rainwater harvesting. Sekhar says the center stands as a working model for people to visit and learn from. With appropriate training for masons, plumbers, and unemployed youth, the movement also provides jobs, as it meets the ever-increasing demand for urban rainwater structures. Sekhar also likes to think of his organization as a reminder to the government to take action. As a permanent invitee to several government committees on water management, Sekhar is known for his straight talk and realistic plans.

The Person

Sekhar spent most of his childhood in the coastal region of Chennai. After his basic education, Sekhar completed a Ph.D. in physics from Madras University. However, his career path shifted to rural studies when he joined the Centre for Social Policy Studies.

Sekhar recalls that Chennai never experienced water shortage until the 1980s. In the early and late 1990s, the city experienced a severe drought that was a cautionary signal. He believes that the exploitation of delicate coastal aquifers is one of the main reasons for this artificial water scarcity. The practice of urban dwellers to waste resources—food, water, paper—always disturbed Sekhar. In the 1990s, after observing the dynamics of rainwater for a long time, he saw that rainwater, too, was being wasted in urban areas. It was then that his idea for urban harvesting began to emerge.

While working with the Centre for Policy Studies, Sekhar’s fieldwork in villages transformed his outlook towards water management and its utility. The people who regarded Sekhar as a bore when he began his one-man mission now understand and admire him—now that his work has captured the attention of the media and the respect of the government. Sekhar has presented several papers at both state and national level consultations on rainwater harvesting.