Ramveer Tanwar at Nawada Pond in Gurugram, January 24, 2023 (Photo: Ashish Sharma)
ON A SUNDAY morning as he was relaxing at home, with the laptop in front of him, his nephew came running to him saying his name was being mentioned by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on television. By the time he went to see it, it was over. But his mobile was filled with messages congratulating him. Modi said in his Mann ki Baat that day that Ramveer Tanwar quit his job in a multi-national company (MNC) to dedicate himself to cleaning ponds, restoring several of them, and has come to be known as the “Pondman”. Tanwar could not believe it. When it sank in, he immediately went to have a bath. “I thought I should be presentable before the media came with their cameras,” he recalls with a hearty laugh. As he anticipated, TV channels were soon knocking on his door. He spent the rest of the day giving interviews. From then on, there has been no end to the media attention on Pondman.
Fifteen months later, he is still not sure how word about him reached the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). On a winter morning, wearing blue jeans, a smart watch, a white cotton shirt, casual shoes and a black shawl round his neck, the 29-year-old moves about in a Maruti Suzuki Ertiga, with a ‘Pondman’ sticker on the rear window, from one site to another in Ghaziabad on the outskirts of Delhi. He is working on creating small urban forests—five in Ghaziabad and one in the national capital—using technology popularised by Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki. It involves making the soil fertile and planting trees and plants of different sizes and species, leading to a micro forest coming up in about two years.
It is still “The Pondman” that he is known as, a tag initially given in jest when he worked with an MNC. While working as a junior engineer at Cyient in a job involving the designing of geographic information systems (GIS) for maps, he kept talking about ponds. “My colleagues would jokingly say I am a pondman more than an engineer. And, when the prime minister referred to me as ‘pondman’ that name stuck.”
Tanwar and his team have so far cleaned and restored about 50 ponds in six states— Uttar Pradesh (UP), Uttarakhand, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh (MP), Delhi and Gujarat. A source of naturally replenishing aquifers, ponds have been fast disappearing from the country’s quintessential rural landscape because of domestic waste, dumping of garbage, encroachment and climatic change. “After cleaning, we do plantation around the pond and put up benches. We leave some space for villagers to plant vegetables. We permit fish farming also so the farmers will themselves clean it,” says Tanwar. Some ponds have turned into picnic spots, some into fish farming ponds, and some have just been revived from under the debris of years of negligence.
By late afternoon, through with his meetings, he heads home to Greater Noida. As he travels, he gives two online interviews to the media and receives a call from a tea company which wants him to be in an advertisement. “These days, they often look for social influencers as brand ambassadors,” he says.
By October 2021, when Modi mentioned him, Tanwar and his team had cleaned 17 ponds. What has changed since then? “On an average, I give at least one interview a day.” He laughs again, his characteristic nonchalance playing down his fame. On a serious note, he says, with the pat on the back from the prime minister and recognition, credibility and the trust quotient have gone up. Getting a No Objection Certificate (NOC) has become easier and the corporates themselves started approaching him. Tanwar has been made Ghaziabad’s brand ambassador till 2023. He also gets invites to lecture at various universities, including top ones, which helps him financially. If Tanwar agreed to all the requests, he would have at least one talk to deliver a day.
His own admission in college came with challenges. The youngest child of a Gujjar farmer at Dadha village in UP’s Gautam Buddh Nagar district, he is the only one among his five siblings to have gone to college. When Tanwar got admission at the private UP Technical University in Greater Noida for B-Tech, he had to find a way to pay for his education. He started giving tuitions to about 30 high-school students. It was during a session with them that his students said that whatever they learnt was confined to passing examinations and did not have much value in practical life or for saving the environment. “I told them let’s break this trend.” It was decided to write suggestions on slips of paper. They searched facts online about water crisis. At a meeting after that, they zeroed in on the proposal of holding “jal chaupals” to create awareness about the need to conserve water among villagers who never imagined that they could run out of the natural resource some day. They stuck the slips on the walls of the village houses. The chaupals became popular.
Tanwar and his team have so far cleaned and restored about 50 ponds in six states—Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Haryana, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi and Gujarat. Some ponds have turned into picnic spots, some into fish farming ponds, and some have just been revived from under the debris of years of negligence
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The idea emerged from concerns about wastage of groundwater in his village. When the hand pumps were removed, the villagers got submersible pumps which ran on power, extracting several litres of groundwater in just a minute. As soon as power came at night, the pumps started running. The villagers would run the pumps to fill even just a glass of water. The waste of water, he says, is worth lakhs of rupees every day, going by calculations based on the price of bottled water.
TANWAR AND HIS students felt that awareness alone was not enough unless solutions were found to problems. He and some of his friends decided to clean the village pond. But there was so much encroachment on it that they gave up. They moved to the neighbouring village of Dabra where the pond was on the outskirts. He and a few friends rolled up their sleeves, took spades from the labourers, collected empty packets and got down to cleaning the pond. They found clothes, footwear, plastic, domestic waste, all of which were put in the packets and taken to a nearby landfill. Ever since, he has never hesitated to get his hands dirty to clean up a pond.
When he joined the MNC after college, he had asked for an early shift, starting at 5AM and finishing by 2PM, after which he gave tuitions to school children and continued his work on restoring ponds. When he realised that he could do justice to neither his job nor his passion, he got back to doing what gave him most satisfaction—restoring ponds. He knew his family was disappointed. Being the first in the family to get a college degree, they expected him to take up a white-collar job. Besides, work like cleaning waste has traditionally been linked to lower castes. That did not deter Tanwar. After he quit, he approached NGOs, such as Green Yatra, and got four-to-five projects for pond restoration. In 2020, he started his own NGO called Say Earth which is working on pond restoration and creating small urban forests. They have also dug small ponds in the hilly areas of Bhowali and Almora in Uttarakhand. A “#SelfieWithPond” on social media—taking a photo with the pond in the background if it needs revival—has resulted in 10,000 posts. “This brings the pond to the notice of the district administration. There’s an awareness and sensitivity about the disappearance of water bodies.” For Tanwar, it also serves as a database.
He does not like to call it social work. “I would say social enterprise. Unless these things get out of that social work tag, they will not attract youngsters. The youth should see it as a profession. I want to make it self-sustainable, and ensure my engineers get paid as much as those working in a corporate office.”
His is a simple story of a village boy who set out to clean ponds. It may be a drop in the ocean in a country where the water statistics are alarming. The dependence on groundwater for all use is 65 per cent. Only 8 per cent of the annual rainfall is captured through harvesting. The missing ponds are a reality. Residents of Joshimath have recently been quoted as saying that there were five ponds in the area which either dried up or were encroached upon and it could be that the water underneath led to fissures in the structures.
“What he is doing is commendable. It is seemingly mundane and simple but it will make a difference. It may positively impact the groundwater below,” says hydrogeologist Himanshu Kulkarni who has been working on aquifers and groundwater for over 35 years.
Tanwar realises that one pondman is not enough. He wants to train others to do what he is doing. However, he says that he has never thought about what he would like to do in future. “I have no idea. Right now, I enjoy this work. When I feel I have had enough, I will move on to something else. But I don’t know yet what that will be.”
Alone in the car, Tanwar listens to Osho. As the day comes to an end, he is all set to go to Kashipur the following morning to give a talk at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM). He will talk about his work as a pondman. “That’s the pet topic,” he smiles.