The worst drought in 40 years struck Maharashtra, India last March. Maharashtra is the second most populous state in the country, bordering western and central regions. It includes Vidarbha, the eastern, land-locked portion of the state, which makes headlines every year for its high suicide rates among farmers because of lack of irrigation. As if that weren’t trying enough, the drought hit during a massive political scandal uncovered in 2012, which revealed that Deputy Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Ajit Pawar, had been diverting the already low water supply from agriculture to power plants.
On May 22 Greenpeace India took action to raise the issue’s profile. Activists unfurled a 250-foot banner over the Upper Wardha dam in Amravati district, sending the message loud and clear: water being diverted from the dam to the controversial Indiabulls power plant should be allocated back to agriculture. Organizers heard from colleagues that it may have been one of the largest banners ever used in a Greenpeace campaign.
When the drought struck in Maharashtra, the urgency around water scarcity and over-promising water availability to power plants surfaced. Up until then, water diversion was seen as a local issue. But campaign organizers took this opportunity to frame it as a larger state-wide issue — raising alarm bells that the same could happen in other drought-stricken districts in Maharashtra, like Marathwada and Viarbha.
‘Should we urinate into the dam?’
Amidst the crises, Pawar made a shocking public statement. Referring to a drought-affected farmer who was on a hunger strike for 55 days, the deputy chief minister said: “If there is no water in the dam, how can we release it? Should we urinate into it?” Though he later issued a public apology, saying that it was not intended for the farmers experiencing drought, Pawar’s lack of true empathy for people in the situation became clear to locals. Pawar went on a one-day hunger fast the following week to repent (and recover his public image).
This moment of public outrage marked a pivotal rise in public support for the campaign. Not only did Pawar make utterly insensitive comments, but his actions (i.e. political scam involving inflated financial exchanges with companies building dams in the region) placed him in the limelight for direct responsibility in the suffering of farmers.
Greenpeace India organizers wanted people to understand that it wasn’t just that Pawar was mismanaging public funds and recklessly approving the building of dams, but that he was also making financial profits from selling the water to industry at the expense of farmers’ lives. It became clear that Pawar and his political party were responsible for diverting water from agriculture to industry for more than eight years.
A farmer in Amravati generated more than 20,000 signatures through a GPX (Greenpeace Extra) online petition supporting the campaign. His ask? To halt allocations to all water diversion going to industry and provide irrigation for farmers battling the drought. The online petition got a lot of traction amidst the controversy around Pawar, especially in urban areas. Campaigners realized they needed to find another way to reach people in rural areas.
Urgent mobilisation for rural areas
Previous campaigns involving rural villages in central India proved successful in mobilising people through missed calls and Radio Sangharsh around forest protection in the face of coal mining. In this case, time was not on campaigners’ sides; they couldn’t go to villages, meet villagers and show people how to use the technology used for Radio Sangharsh. What would be a viable option? Missed calls.
They decided to issue two types of calls to action: SMS messages and interactive voice response (IVR) messages. When villagers received SMS messages, they were invited to dial a missed call (so it wouldn’t cost anything) to a given number to demonstrate their support of the campaign. With IVR, villagers would receive a recorded message voiced by a local Sarpanch (elected head of a village).
Sample IVR Content (in English, original message in Marathi):
I, Pankaj Amle, Sarpanch of Chinusta Grampanchayat also secratary of Amravati District Council appeal to the public that while Maharashtra is suffering water scarcity, draught and famine, the water meant for agriculture is being sold and diverted to plants. This must be stopped immediately and water should be released back for farming (Farmers). I request you to support this initiative. Please join the mobile petition to demand so, by pressing any button after this. Thank you!!.
Campaigners achieved a 71.5 percent conversion rate through IVR. From May to August 2013, over 232,000 people supported the petition through this method. SMS messages, on the other hand, generated about 23,000 missed calls, which was 4.5 percent of the total number of SMS messages sent.
“But we won’t be able to shift all our communication to voice messages,” explains Anirban Chakrabarti, part of the mobile team for Greenpeace India. Voice messages were “beyond successful” in this campaign, but each of these tactics have their pros and cons, he says. Voice messages only allow for 20 seconds to explain the importance and urgency of a campaign, whereas people have the opportunity to read a text message over and over again.
IVR messages were also strategic for rural villages because many villagers’ phones won’t allow them to receive SMS messages in local Marathi. Unicode messages are also expensive and literacy rates are low in these areas. Campaigners sent IVR messages to people in Amravati, Akola, Jalgaon, Nasik, Beed, Solapur, Aurangabad, Ahmednagar, Jalana, Satara, and Sangli — all within the Maharashtra state.
The rain finally began to fall in June 2013. Greenpeace India volunteers hand delivered 275,000 signatures in August (collected via online and mobile tactics) to State Agriculture Minister, Radhakrishna Vikhe Patil, who was receptive and aware of the situation.
Opposition parties began seeing eye to eye with activists about the gravity of the problem thanks to the demonstration at the dam, petitioning, and raising awareness of the issue, says Greenpeace India campaigner Jai Krishna. Assembly sessions became visibly heated around drought mismanagement, he adds.
The team is now raising awareness among investors that power plants are risky in India. Even if water is diverted from farmers, water scarcity is inevitable with the number of coal powered plants being proposed.
“Exactly when power plants run the most — the summers — is when they’ll have no water,” Jai explains. “This misplaced hope that there is water and we can keep building power plants is something we haven’t fully investigated yet, but we’re trying our best to get it out into business papers to make this point. It’s something very huge.”
The issue of power plants and its entanglement in political corruption is still ongoing, but some new stations are being disrupted. Some communities are preventing new plants from laying pipes on their land, for instance.
“The state is actually making it worse for farmers who are suffering, which is the most tragic part of the entire issue. Everyone knows it’s severe. Everyone knows people are committing suicide because they can’t make ends meet with their farmland,” Jai says. “Everyone knows if they had irrigation they would not suffer so much.”
Learn more about the coal-water campaign here.
Mobile radio mobilises rural grassroots via cellphones
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