When Bhagwati Agrawal, 68, first came to the U.S. in 1969 from India, he had no idea he would one day be giving back so much to his native homeland.
Agrawal, a naturalized citizen and a Vienna resident for more than 30 years, is one of only five Americans this year to receive a $100,000 Purpose Award.
Through his nonprofit, Sustainable Innovations, Agrawal founded Aakash Ganga in 2003 to create a system for collecting rain — one of precious few sources of drinking water in parts of India prone to drought. Now, gutters, pipes and underground tanks gather the short-lived rains of monsoon season in six villages, home to roughly 10,000 people.
Aakash Ganga is a rainwater harvesting scheme which channels rooftop rainwater through gutters and drainpipes to two-tier, underground reservoirs, where it then is available for the year-round use of the village.
Before the system’s implementation, to get drinking water in Rajasthan, India, local women and girls spent hours — often in grueling heat — finding and hauling drinking water back to their remote villages.
With the help of grants and awards from the World Bank, Lemelson Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Indian diaspora, the Rajasthan Association of North America, and philanthropies, Agrawal eventually plans to provide water to more than 50,000 people in remote villages throughout the area.
Aakash Ganga means “River from Sky” in Hindi.
“The name resonates with Indian people. Everyone in India aspires to take a pilgrimage to the Himalayas, the start of Ganga. Indian mythology narrates how Ganga came from the sky,” Agrawal said.
Aakash Ganga builds an infrastructure to capture rainwater for the next 25 years. The onetime annual cost is $2 per person, Agrawal said.
“It helps provide clean drinking water,” he said. “The ground water in the areas it is implemented has high concentration of fluorides, nitrates, and minerals. The TDS (total dissolved solids) may exceed 5,000. That is 30 times the World Health Organization recommended limit of 150. I visit India every three or four months. Each visit lasts two to three weeks to meet with the teams that are implementing the project.”
Now in its seventh year, The Purpose Prize program is funded by the John Templeton Foundation and The Atlantic Philanthropies. The Prize is awarded by Encore.org to Americans 60 years old or older, in an effort to promote encore careers to exceptional innovators. AARP also sponsors The Purpose Prize.
According to Encore.org, a panel of 23 judges — leaders in business, politics, journalism and the nonprofit sector — chose this year’s winners from more than 800 nominees. Encore.org also is recognizing 35 finalists as Purpose Prize fellows for outstanding contributions in their communities.
“Purpose Prize winners are in the midst of solving society’s steepest challenges, from foster care to foreclosure,” said Encore.org founder and CEO Marc Freedman. “And they underscore that significant social innovation is by no means the exclusive province of the young.”
Agrawal said the idea came to him in 2003 as he was sitting around with Indian-American friends, discussing their homeland.
“I was born in Chhapoli, a farming village located on the edges of Thar Desert, Rajasthan, India. I hosted a handful of my Indian-American colleagues at my home for dinner one night in Vienna. In between bites of samosa, we indulged in our favorite pastime: solving India’s societal problems such as corruption, urban slums, and the lack of access to clean drinking water. We each bragged about the donations we had made over the years to support social causes in our country of origin,” he said.
“Suddenly, a colleague thumped the coffee table and asked, ‘What difference would it make, even if we were to give $100 million to India?’ The conversation came to an abrupt halt; the silence was deafening. Soon, consensus emerged, that the answer was, ‘Probably not much.’ That question ignited a fierce debate. We concluded that a systemically sustainable model for providing drinking water was what was truly needed. That night changed my life.”
According to the U.S. Department of State, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched the U.S. Water Partnerships on March 22 to tackle the worldwide scarcity of drinking water, specifically citing India as a concern.
“In the villages where we are concentrating, a person is lucky to get three gallons of safe water per day. Here in the U.S. we consume 110 gallons per day,” Agrawal said. “The Purpose Prize award has energized me, makes me feel young. I feel as if I can beat Usain Bolt, the 100-meter Olympic champion. I hope to use that energy to continue doing this work.”