The Internet’s zenrainman is in real life Bengaluru’s S. Vishwanath, an influential story-teller, writer and educator on sustainable water and sanitation. Together with his wife, architect Chitra Vishwanath, he runs Biome Environmental Solutions, a firm specializing in ecological architecture and Biome Trust, a nonprofit that works on water conservation, management and sustainable sanitation. Biome is recognized for its work with a wide range of groups: students, communities, volunteers and informal labor groups such as farmers, plumbers, construction workers and well diggers.
Vishwanath has been interviewed many times before, but Broken Toilets is interested in his online presence, where he is as prolific as he is loved. His digital avatar, zenrainman, has nearly 88000 tweets, 6,417 Twitter followers, 493 YouTube videos and over 1,800 YouTube subscribers (quite a following given the subject matter). On Instagram, he regularly posts images of farms and old wells, architecture from his travels, and an almost daily photograph of his serene living room. He runs two Facebook groups: the beautiful Open Wells of India and the world and more pragmatic Sustainable Sanitation India. For nearly a decade, he has been writing a weekly column on water for The Hindu newspaper.
Environmental issues in India are on the verge of becoming the world’s problem. Although taught at school and university, environmental education is still very engineering and technology focused and remains quite disconnected from everyday reality. India is also rapidly losing its traditional knowledge and conservation practices. Meanwhile, the cities are starting to learn the consequences of bad development the hard way.
Vishwanath’s posts on social media are very simply about people and nature. He speaks to the inquisitive citizen about science, resources and practices. His videos range from short clips of places he visits, practices he observes, farmers he speaks to, academics and writers he meets, to simple DIY or low-tech water conservation how-tos. He also sometimes sensitively records the city’s more fragile economies. For us online, his point isn’t to show his favor for rural life or evoke nostalgia for the past, but it is possibly a gentle reminder of what and on whom our very urban existence depends on.
For the sake of full disclosure – I’ve worked with him and the Biome Trust. I spoke with Vishwanath one morning at his home in Bengaluru in early February, 2016.
What was your introduction to water and sanitation, and to sludge?
My interest in water and sanitation was very serendipitous. I worked with the Government of India and the Housing and Urban Development Corporation Organization (HUDCO) and there was an opportunity to visit a lot of villages and towns to look at housing projects and urban projects. Most of them were suffering from a lack of water and sanitation, which was a key challenge. When I started to ask why was this happening I learned that there was a larger template of resource sinking and degradation of the environment.
I also saw the inability of the government’s imagination to solve these problems at the rate at which they were being created. I started to see if other actors were involved and I came across various community groups or institutions that were working on this problem. One of them was CSE’s ‘Dying Wisdom’ [a seminal report on India’s traditional rainwater harvesting systems], which, when people started explaining to me, I got interested in taking forward.
The narrative from the government is about high technology and infrastructure as a solution, whereas the narrative from the community and from individuals seems to be on small, local water and sanitation solutions, which we were never taught in engineering. I wanted to learn more about it.
I remember reading a book by John Kalbermatten a long time ago – he was the doyen of appropriate technology for water and sanitation and worked with the World Bank. In it he spelt out various sanitation technologies available, from the “improved pit” to the “ventilated improved pit” and so on. But the “twin leach pit” was something fascinating. The logic of the twin leach pit is that you use one pit at a time, it takes about a year and a half to fill up, and then you switch to the other one. And by the time the second one is full, the first’s sludge is completely composted. It can be taken out and used as manure. It is a brilliantly simple device that takes into consideration the practice of users; that is, to use water for ablutions and flushing. And the design fits in the culture of people’s usage of sanitation – it doesn’t ask them to make huge changes in behavior and so on. But even that technology was not being understood on the ground and so that prompted one to ask the question, “Why?”
So that’s how the story starts. We [HUDCO] funded a major sanitation scheme across 53 towns and cities, and we had the most complicated funding mechanisms, and I wondered why it had to be like that. And then I went on an inspection tour, and you basically see nothing. People hadn’t got the idea of what a toilet should look like, how it ought to be designed and built, and there were some messy politics around it. The whole program collapsed. So, that was my introduction to sanitation.
Can you tell us about how you started talking about these things? The communication aspect of your work.
So there was this small magazine from California called the Whole Earth Catalog, and then there was the Whole Earth Review. I was reading that in the 80s.
Oh wow! How did you get access to them?
Complete serendipity. Somebody I knew had a whole bunch of them and wanted to throw them out. So I read one of the issues and said, wow! Give me all of them! And I saw the connectedness of it all, and how important it was to have fun with what you were doing and to enjoy it and to see that these processes needed a lot more people. So I think that magazine was instrumental in some ways.
That’s really interesting and I’m happy to hear you pointed to a magazine. I find magazines extremely influential.
And as you know Whole Earth was and is not about one thing, it’s about everything! I still have the big Whole Earth Review, it was like a Bible. It was the way in which the magazine presented itself. It engaged you. And then the opportunity came to start to write about these things.
So did it start with the column in The Hindu?
Yes, it began with The Hindu. People were not writing articles about complex issues like water. So they said do a couple of stories. And now it’s been going on for 9 years, with about 450 articles.
Was that what started your work speaking to groups about water issues? Or had that been happening concurrently through projects and Biome?
It wasn’t so much about speaking then. One of the reasons why I write is, if you can put across an idea in 650 words with one photograph, it can be extremely clarifying and you can better communicate what you want to communicate.
So what was interesting was this, when I started working for the Hindu, YouTube had just launched. For one of the first stories I wrote for them I made a 2-minute video and then embedded it in the story.
Now it’s de rigueur, but when I sent it to them, they were like, “What is this blue thing you’ve put in your article?!” A photograph was the maximum that people did then. But they had issues because the clip was linked to a site outside the purview of the Hindu and they couldn’t allow that.
Was that the first YouTube video you made?
Yes, one of the first videos. It’s [the channel] called the zenrainman channel. It’s got about 1.9 million views. Every morning I get up and count the hits.
Video: An early zenrainman video
It should go up to 2 million in a couple of weeks.
What’s interesting about YouTube is that you can communicate in many languages. If I record something in Tamil or Hindi, and I do subtitling in English, now I have two audiences. I’ve shot some of the same videos in five languages. But, the quest remains, how do I localize consumption of my videos? For the longest time most hits came from the US, Australia or the UK, and while it’s good for hits what does it mean? If I make a video of the village of Devarayasamudra, I want the village of Devarayasamudra to see it. [Earlier] you needed a computer and broadband connection to get it but now with mobile phones, you can reach out to so many more people.
Video: Villages in Devarayasamudra
With a photograph, you are in charge of the photograph and you can interpret it and sell it any way you want it. With a video I don’t have to be the intermediary. I am a mere documenter. Which I like, because it brings out so many different perspectives.
But what you also bring, which I think people want, is a narrator, someone they trust, to give them a perspective on what they’re seeing.
So you have to build a brand. And the brand is trust. You have to be consistent if you want to be taken seriously. It’s no longer the professional in the sector, but the average “Joe” consuming this. And the narrative for them is different from the narrative for the sector specialist or somebody immersed in this space.
So is that who you think about when you make the videos?
I know for a fact that a lot of policymakers had ideas triggered and have used what has come from these articles. I don’t think I have to take credit and they don’t have to quote me or anything, it is their idea, whatever they have done. I’ve seen it getting into policy and so many things. Rainwater harvesting in this city, when that took off…
[Vishwanath, is best known for his work on rainwater harvesting but doesn’t seem to like that it’s still so closely associated with him.]
So I’m sure you have many, many stories of how people read what you wrote and how it led to business, or change.
A whole lot of things. The Bangalore International Airport’s rainwater harvesting. The whole criticism of the location of the airport was, why are you putting it in a place with no water? Now, with them preserving the wells within their airport, doing rainwater harvesting, the groundwater table is so high that their open wells have water.
I just mentioned Devarayasamudra, the villagers there had heard a talk years ago where they were told open wells had to be cleaned up and revived. This last March they ran out of water. Doddiganahalli, [Doddiganahalli is a small village part of Davarayasamudra panchayat], cleaned up 2 wells on their own and they started to get 10,000 liters of water. It was a bit salty, but it was good enough for all of their non-potable uses. They were very happy with it and they took great care of it. So there is a video of a man who takes the water from the well used to wash clothes to water his trees, and he is 85.
And then, because they had heard a talk and seen a slideshow and got in touch with us, they made a percolation pond. In November it rained a lot, an unusual rain. Those who were prepared were able to get a bounty, those who were not, weren’t able to get anything. But this well, for the first time in a hundred years filled up to ground level and the villagers felt they had done it by themselves.
So when you do work with villages that do not have access to the media you typically use, how do they hear about you? Walk me through the trail of breadcrumbs, through some of the less direct routes you use to reach out to people who you would think wouldn’t have access to these kinds of ideas?
You have to travel, because you want to learn, not because you have something to tell or say. So a lot of it is one-to-one with families and with villagers and villages. Inevitably you have very interesting conversations.
Can you tell me a little bit more about Twitter, Instagram and Facebook? I’m curious to know how to use each of those platforms differently, how do you tell stories or what do you think the most value is in each of those mediums?
So Twitter [for me] started when Twitter was launched. Mark Charmer who used to be with Akvo introduced me to it, he said, there’s this nice thing called Twitter. It was fascinating to see the conversations that were happening there.
At that point of time it felt like a very diverse, very creative crowd, and non-political. And so, you could use Twitter to document site visits, you could take photographs and put them up in real time…you could use it to push people to links, to your blog or to Slideshare – which is another one of those things that I use a lot. All of my presentations are on there. Instagram? Instagram is really apolitical.
And your blogs?
There was rainwaterharvesting.wordpress.com. It started in around 2006.
The blogging now has somewhat declined. I think now the messaging has become shorter and smaller and somehow we don’t invest in a long narrative.
I have a theory about this. I think for the people who like to collect and document and record their lives, having all of these ways to document things was hugely exciting, because you could spend less time doing it. But the thing now is that the documenting of your life is now your life – a kind of constant, “perma-documenting” of one’s life. And it’s not just us who are doing it, there’s also surveillance that’s happening and other people who are documenting our lives. So maybe that has affected how we see the act of documenting, the next stage is what we make out of what we document.
It definitely is a self-indulgent exercise and then you move on. There’s boredom also. And you get your share of stalkers.
You’ve always worked with citizen groups. What is your approach when you are met with citizens groups who come to you saying, we have a problem what can we do? We want to engage, how do we do it?
At the end of the day citizens have to understand that there is nobody out there who can solve your problems. Getting that message across has been the thing.
One of the things that Biome and you have been able to do is play a role linking people who want to find an environmental solution. You don’t just connect people to ideas, but to real services as well by connecting community groups to plumbers and well diggers. I was wondering what the role of social media has been in this.
So you act as a platform and as a connector. On Facebook you can do a specialized platforming, which is where we have Open Wells of India and the World. That’s got more than 2,000 members now, more than 5,000 photos and vides documented, and stories around wells and ideas around wells. There is one on Sustainable Sanitation in India, which is a much more niche group. What it does is bring along interested people who would share things you would otherwise not have access to and some of them can also do a bit of interpretation of that material and put it up there. So it becomes very powerful. But we don’t have a do-it-yourself culture here. In India we want to hire somebody and the hiring is done in the informal sector. And so one of my happiest roles has been to identify traditional well diggers and get them into play in the market. Muniyappa, the first guy that I met… I was on a dirt track bike outside of an event and I was pushing my bike out and he came over and asked me if I wanted a well. So we strike a partnership and he’s dug about 3,000 wells. He must be the world record holder for most wells dug! Mostly through the publicity I’ve given him: I wrote about him in the Hindu, I made a video about him, I’ve spoken about him to Kannada channels. His whole village is a village of well diggers and they have all benefitted and contributed positively to the whole water harvesting and groundwater recharge movement. And they were never part of any policy discourse.
I think what’s troubling about development is that when people come in thinking that nobody is doing anything, but even at the smallest level somebody must have been doing something. That’s the part I find hardest to deal with.
People want a complete solution, right? And most often they want a technical solution. But unfortunately most solutions are not technical, they have to do with the politics of a place, the management of a place, the way systems work in a particular setting, cultural, social milieu. The question is who decides what is right and what is wrong, who should be allowed to decide and who should go on with their lives the way they want to.
To get back to sludge, can you talk me through one of your sludge videos?
There is one called, “Managing wastewater in a water sensitive city”. Sludge in a wastewater treatment plant is seen as a nuisance by the utility – they don’t know what to do with [the] heaps of it. So here comes a farmer who hires a truck and some labor. He goes to these wastewater treatment plants, fills up the truck, finds a market for it. Sells it for 9,000 or 10,000 bucks [rupees]. Makes a profit of about 2,000 bucks. And he now visits almost all the wastewater treatment plants in Bangalore and picks up all the sludge.
[The farmer Vishwanath refers to begins speaking at 5:02.]
So what do you do with this? Do you bring it to the notice of the institution? What will they do, how will they respond? This is all happening informally – nothing is being paid, but the farmer regularly desludges. And he has such a fantastic, discerning of the quality of the sludge. So he has grades, A, B, C, D, in his own mind. He says, the one from the H.A.L. sewage treatment plant is the best sludge. He argues that the one from Jakkur is as good as soil.
So does he discuss all of this openly?
If somebody talks to him – nobody talks to him – so when you go ask him where are you going, where are you taking it, how did you get into this, he says, “You’re the first guy who has ever asked me!” He’s a wealth of information, but where is this wealth of information playing itself out in the solution space of sludge management?
Our conversation rambled on for another half hour until the pressure cooker went off – a notification for lunch.
Note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Many thanks to Radhika Viswanathan for her thoughtful editing.