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Photographs by Soumik Kar

The World's Greatest Philanthropists

A smile pandemic
The initiatives of the Surat municipal body backed by The Rockefeller Foundation have led to a pleasurable outcome

Rajesh Padmashali

Zia Khan doesn’t usually roll up his trousers in public but during a recent trip to Bihar he ended up doing just that. Working with The Rockefeller Foundation, Khan has found that field visits can throw up the odd surprise or two. On this occasion, the head of the initiatives and strategy program team had to wade through knee-deep water to get to a bamboo boat that would take him across the river to Diyara Rasulpur, the village he was to visit. “We got up with the team, rolled up our pants and waded through the water and walked through the village.” The visit to the village, where the foundation was experimenting with a solar plant that charged a battery device used to power light bulbs, left a deep impression. “It was remarkable how life just shut down once it got dark. We visited a home where they had put in a light bulb. There were two kids studying. I don’t think they necessarily wanted to study, but they were. Until that point, it never occurred to me that as a kid there was never a time I wasn’t able to study when I wanted to study. I wish there was a way to have more people experience that.” This is one among countless examples of how the foundation is doing its bit to change people’s lives.

The Rockefeller Foundation is the first name in institutional philanthropy and, since its inception, has given away more than $18 billion in grants worldwide. During its initial years, the foundation used to disburse more foreign aid than the US government and the founder, John D Rockefeller Sr., always pushed his staff to address the root cause of society’s problems. Rather than getting involved in the actual implementation, the foundation involves the important players in the ecosystem that it seeks to influence. The intent is to ensure that those who will gain the most also take responsibility for sustaining future execution. On its part, it helps out through grants and cross-learning from its worldwide network. In India, the foundation has been operating since 1915 and its biggest success was facilitating the Green Revolution. Since then, India has grown manifold and one of its biggest challenges today is dealing with rampant urbanisation. Hence, the current focus here is on rural electrification and urban resilience.  

Flood alert 

Surat isn’t only known for its diamond trade and great food. The south Gujarat city, which is located at the mouth of the Tapi river, also has the uncomfortable distinction of being the most flood-prone city in the state due to its location. Over the past 100 years, it has been inundated 23 times through different types of flood — rain, river and creek. The last big one was in 2006, when untimely emergency water release from the Ukai dam caused financial damage estimated at a staggering ₹20,000 crore. About 75% of the city was submerged: in low-lying areas, water rose as high as 25-27 feet. Thankfully, that situation has not repeated itself since, but last year came close. In 2013, the water released from the dam was even more but the resulting flood did not cause much lasting damage, courtesy an early warning system developed under the Asian Cities Climate Change Resilience Network (ACCCRN), an initiative by The Rockefeller Foundation. 

Every year, during the monsoon, thousands of cusecs (cubic feet per second) of water is released from the Ukai dam downstream into the Tapi river. The reservoir’s maximum capacity is 345 ft and the storage level varies from 316 ft to maximum capacity, depending on anticipated rainfall. 

The capacity of a flood to cause damage has been exacerbated by new construction that has come up. Not only is the city actually lower than the river in some places, the channel has also become shallow after a series of bridges were built downstream in Hazira. Earlier, the capacity was around 1.1 million cusecs and now the safe limit capacity has fallen to a third of that. After the 2006 flood disaster, then, an early warning system was deemed necessary. “Water once released from Ukai dam takes about eight to 10 hours, depending on the quantity released, to reach the city and we wanted the entire thing monitored,” says Kamlesh Yagnik, president, Southern Gujarat Chamber of Commerce & Industry (SJCCI). 

The sentinel

To avoid a 2006-like situation, Surat city now has an early-warning system to monitor the water level at Ukai dam 

That’s where the newly-created Surat Climate Change Trust (SCCT) — a multi-stakeholder body that received a ₹2 crore grant from The Rockefeller Foundation — came in. It floated a tender that was bagged by IIT Delhi’s Institute of National Resource Management, which put up 10 automatic weather stations and one tide station for better forecasting. “The model tells us if X quantity of water is released, what will be the water level around a particular building in ward number 15. Each property is now marked with coordinates and we know how many people are staying in that area; if I have to shift them to a safe location, what kind of effort would be needed? These coordinates will help locate anybody in distress, so that rescue and relief can reach them,” explains Yagnik. 

The system proved its worth in the 2013 rainy season — just nine months after the trust was formed — when it helped the authorities manage water release in a systematic manner at lower levels. Though the flooding wasn’t totally avoided, the damage was curtailed at around ₹700 crore, which is especially remarkable, considering that the quantity of water released was much more than in 2006. The big difference was that last year, water was released over 15 days, compared with over two or three days in 2006. The Surat Municipal Corporation (SMC) was constantly communicating through FM radio, mobile and its website and normalcy was restored within 24 hours. “For the first time, people put up hoardings on the streets, thanking SMC and the government. Rarely in time of disaster do you find people praising you,” says MK Das, Surat municipal commissioner, sitting in his Mughal Serai office, a 400-year old ASI-protected structure.

If the ACCCRN initiative has effectively managed to counter floods and save life and property, it is because of concerted efforts by the local municipality, meteorological department, local academicians, state irrigation department and their engineers, disaster management authorities and local businessmen — all brought together through The Rockefeller Foundation. It has so far given a total of ₹4 crore for initiatives in Surat and the city has much more to look forward to. It is the only Indian city to be chosen by the foundation to be part of the 100 Resilient Cities (100RC) initiative — as part of its centennial celebrations, the foundation is giving grant support of $1 million each to 100 cities around the world to build urban resilience. In the first phase of 100RC, 400 cities applied, of which 32 were selected. Surat did exceptionally well among the three Indian cities selected under the ACCCRN programme, which is perhaps why it made the final cut. Now, under 100RC, SCCT and SMC will get money to appoint a chief resilience officer, who will coordinate among all different stakeholders and ensure things stay on track. 

The chosen one

Nowhere is the pressure to become more resilient felt more than in some of Asia’s fast-growing cities. In India, certainly, money allocation and political debate is centred on rural areas and based on political power rather than needs and capacities. And if cities aren’t coping with exploding populations and creaking infrastructure, municipalities aren’t effectively providing services either. 

“There is rapid urbanisation, capability is low, money is little — how can you provide services?” queries GK Bhat, chairman, Taru, a consultancy that is partnering The Rockefeller Foundation in its ACCCRN initiative in India. 

After ACCCRN was launched in the country, the first stage was identifying the cities it could work with. Taru started with some 200 cities and shortlisted six of them — Surat, Indore, Hubli, Dharwad, Jodhpur, Gorakhpur and Kakinada — that it studied in detail. The final list included mid-tier cities Surat, Indore and Gorakhpur, keeping in line with The Rockefeller Foundation’s style of not going for cities too big to allow for effective implementation or too small to muster their own resources for overall resilience. 

When Taru started the shortlisting process, it essentially asked the following questions: How is the municipality working; has it done anything innovative; is there a willingness to buy in new ideas; what other institutions can be champions? “You cannot deal with climate change in isolation; it is only the last straw on the camel’s back. Urbanisation and poverty are hitting urban systems more. Climate change only adds to the disaster dimension,” Bhat explains. 

Accordingly, Indore was chosen for its water problems. The water source for Indore is the Narmada river, 70 km away. Once the water reaches the city, it is vertically pumped 700 m, making it one of the costliest water being supplied in India. Hence, water conservation is a priority. Gorakhpur was chosen because The Rockefeller Foundation and Taru wanted to work on one Indo-Gangetic plain city that had very different problems. In Gorakhpur, the foundation is working on community-based flood management systems and peri-urban agriculture. It is also working on lake conservation: lakes around Gorakhpur were being dumped with sewage and waste, and many were filled and buildings constructed on them, leading to the reduction of open spaces, warming and loss of ground water enrichment.

Why did Surat make the cut? One reason is that besides its entrepreneurial spirit and joie de vivre, the defining characteristic of the city is that the stakes are high for both industry and the municipality. Most of the industries are located within the city and are a source of commercial revenue for the municipality. So, it is in their best interest to come together and tackle any issue that threatens the city’s stability.

“Investors will lose confidence if there is perennial disruption due to floods. Other competing cities will attract more investment at our cost. Our goal is to keep the Surti spirit flying high all the time,” says Das, who is on his second stint in the city, having earlier served as district collector.

With that realisation and buy-in from the Chamber of Commerce, local intelligentsia and the community, Surat embarked on a journey to build resilience. First, a City Advisory Committee was formed and, subsequently, SCCT was formed, in which the municipality is also a partner. In all, besides two permanent trustees, the trust has representation from 12 board members comprising businessmen, SMC, irrigation department, Gujarat State Disaster Management Authority (GSDMA), academia and individuals. Today, SCCT is the only multi-stakeholder body in India that has a mandate to take a variety of measures on urbanisation, poverty and climate change. And it’s not just on paper: the trust is united, active and efficient. “Bhat has provided the glue that keeps everyone together,” says Yagnik. 

What has also made this trust work effectively is the fact that it has good representation from government agencies and a highly responsive community — SMC’s tax recovery rate is 97%. Some time ago, a television crew came to interview Das and found a large queue at the municipal office. The crew asked if they were there to complain. Suppressing his laughter, Das replied, “They are not here to complain; they are here to pay tax.” In a step towards making SCCT independent, SMC created a sustainability and climate change budget of ₹1 crore in 2013. 

SCCT’s biggest achievement has been to save the city from major material damage and death but, equally importantly, it has also worked hard to ensure that the after-effects of flooding or waterlogging do not threaten lives. 

Health matters

Born and brought up in Surat, Vikas Desai, with her public health background, understands the transition in health matters better than anyone else. The head of Urban Health & Climate Resilience Center, she says, “The 1994 plague was the turning point, after which not only governance but health system reform also took place. The need to strongly converge different needs, such as cleaning the city, safe water supply and health, was stronger after 1994.” 

Desai is a walking encyclopaedia not only on Surat’s health history but also vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue. She reminds us that Surat was popular for food and filariasis in the 1950s. While Surti food is still in vogue, filariasis is a thing of the past because there are no longer any open sewer lines in the city. That’s because SMC goes out of its way to keep the city clean. 

It has also rehabilitated slumdwellers in the process. The majority of the residents of the Bapunagar slum used to reside near the bank of the Tapi. During floods, they used to shift from the location and encroach on the corporation’s school building. As a permanent solution, they were rehabilitated at Kosad, about 3 km from the city. “We have made 20,000 houses, more than four schools and 40 community halls, a police station, post office, fire brigade, jobs wherever possible and training for skills. They are given loans as well,” points out Das.

Those living in the city can avail of a door-to-door collection system for solid waste and the streets are not only swept three times a day but also during the night. Solid waste is managed by the municipality but collection is parcelled out to several private contractors. But that is not enough — any flood situation makes the city a prime breeding ground for water-borne diseases. In low-lying areas, where the flooding takes more time to clear out, susceptibility to disease is higher. 

That was the genesis of a good surveillance system for vectors and infections and the beginning of the health component under ACCCRN. Surat was the only city under the initiative where health was included in the programme, whose focus otherwise is on climate change and flood mitigation. 

“Surat used to contribute to a large portion of total malaria cases in Gujarat; that has gone down tremendously. When we plotted the peak of malarial occurrence, it is high but is not as high it was in 1987 or 1992. That means that our surveillance system is keeping it under control. During our discussions, there is more talk about diabetes than malaria now,” says Desai.

But she does not want complacency to set in; hence, she and her team are now working on strengthening the existing surveillance system though technology support. “We are exploring if we can have technology-based surveillance from the field itself. Right now, the health worker moves from house to house, collects data in a register and then does manual feeding. Real-time data will not only save time but also improve the quality of surveillance.” 

While The Rockefeller Foundation’s work in Surat focuses on keeping the city flood-free and healthy, in villages across the country, the idea is to create jobs and self-employment opportunities so that villagers don’t have to go to cities to find economic opportunities. That’s where rural electrification comes in.

Lighting up lives

The rural electrification push has an interesting self-sustaining angle. It persuades cellphone service providers, who use diesel for their cell towers, to convert to solar and biomass energy to get a virtuous circle in play. On its own, it is uneconomical for the village to pay for its power. Once the mobile operator becomes the anchor customer, it makes sense for the private energy service company (esco) to sell power at a price that the village and its nearby communities can afford. Because there is a large company that assures a guaranteed off-take, the esco gets an assured load and the villagers get affordable power. Earlier, the esco would have to deal with low and unreliable demand. 

Khan says the biggest challenge is in getting the different parties involved on common ground. “Our job is to convince the telecom industry that this is good for their economic and social objectives. They can reduce their energy costs and, in the process, also protect the environment by cutting down emissions.” On its part, the mobile operator would want a competitive price for the power it consumes. The esco, on the other hand, would be keen its biggest potential client acts as a good corporate citizen and pays enough to cross-subsidise those whose lives will improve tremendously once they get regular power supply.

Judith Rodin, president, is pretty excited about the foundation’s work to reduce energy poverty in India through the Smart Power for Environmentally-sound Economic Development (SPEED) programme. Currently, pilot programmes are underway in rural communities in Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. “While expansion of rural electrification has been slow in India, the mobile industry has experienced dramatic growth in these very regions. Cell towers are the second-largest industrial user of diesel. Given the anticipated increases in fuel costs, cell-tower operators are seeking to reduce their dependence on diesel, presenting a unique opportunity for increased investment in reliable, clean energy solutions.”

Be it lighting up remote Indian villages or making cities more resilient, The Rockefeller Foundation’s role has been to align stakeholders on the same side of the table for a common cause. Those positive alignments will probably have the persuasive power to create impact that reaches far beyond Surat or Diyara Rasulpur.

 

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