Dr. Avinash Pol, a dental surgeon from Maharashtra, guided the residents of more than 70 villages in the state to help revive water bodies and learn about beneficial government schemes. He also helped them with sanitation work. He has been honoured with many awards, including the Baba Amte Manavta Puraskar and Rajashri Sahu Award.
It all began back in the 90s when young Avinash was a medical student in Pune’s prestigious Bharati Vidyapeeth Dental College. The college was often flooded with long queues of needy patients who were treated for free. Most of them arrived from remote villages and would wait for days for their turn to see a doctor.
“There was an old lady who came to me. Her gums were swollen and she was in tremendous pain. I asked her why she had not come earlier but she did not answer. Finally, when she was about to leave, she told me that she was a widow and a mother of two children. Her son was blind and her daughter was a special child. She had to work all day in order to provide for them. When the pain in her gums became unbearable, she sold a kitchen utensil and came to see me. She also said she might not return for further treatment,” said Dr.Pol
The old woman had no idea that there were government schemes like the Sanjay Gandhi Niradhar Yojana for widows. Similarly, there were other patients who were in bad health due to poor sanitation practices; they were unaware that there were schemes to help them build toilets at home. Dr. Pol would inform them about the existence of such benefits and also help them with other problems.
He was determined to work with these villagers once he finished his degree. After graduating, he set up his dental practice in Satara but his heart was still set on working with the poor and needy. So, when a young man named Arun from Beblewadi village told him about the sanitation problems his village was facing, Dr. Pol went to visit it in 1997.
Very few people showed up for the gram sabha (meeting) he held there. No one trusted him as he was just a 23-year-old young man with no power and influence.
Next, Dr. Pol and Arun decided to build a toilet in the village. Watching them work alone on the project, some villagers pitched in too and soon there were toilet blocks in every household. As they continued to gain the trust of the entire village, roads were made, an assembly hall was built and people benefited from the various agricultural schemes that Dr. Pol told them about.
When the residents of surrounding villages came to know that Beblewadi had become open defecation free and was doing well in terms of agriculture too, they started approaching Dr. Avinash Pol for solutions to their problems as well.
Dr. Pol would visit these villages to survey them, hold gram sabhas, ask the villagers to raise funds, and start working with them. He also started holding these meetings over the phone from his clinic in Satara.
Once the initial work had started, Dr. Pol would approach the government for help with the rest of the work.
“There are many government officers who are keen to help our villagers. I always had full support from such officers. And the government schemes have always played a major role in developing these projects,” says Dr. Pol.
The doctor would also ask every villager who visited him as a patient if he/she had a toilet at home. For those who could not afford to construct one, Dr. Pol would tell them about the various government and bank schemes available to get loans. For those who said they did not have any space to build one, the doctor would show them how to go about constructing a toilet in the minimum space available. And for those who did not want a toilet at home thinking it would create a stink, Dr. Pol would help break the misconception – he kept a toilet seat in his clinic and would demonstrate how the toilet should be fitted so that it would not smell.
Dr. Pol focused on sanitation for almost 6-7 years. While doing so, he came to realize that insufficient water supply was a big challenge for the villagers. He was also inspired by the work of Mr. Popatrao Pawar who revived the water bodies of the village Hiware Bazar in Maharashtra. So he started taking up water projects too.
He started building channels and linking wells and rivers to begin with, thus making many villages free of dependency on tankers. The water revolution gained such momentum that the people started calling him ‘Panyacha Doctor’ (Water Doctor).
Residents of Satara today thank Dr Pol for helping them build a lake that is full of about 10 crore litres of potable water, available throughout the year. Dr Pol was also able to help revive lakes like Bichukale, Palshi, Kirkasal, Panwan, Jakhangaon, and Velu in Satara, Akoladev and Ghanewadi of Jalna, and Kingaon of Aurangabad.
His project of linking 15 wells and two borewells has turned out to be a unique initiative in the state.
In all his projects, the initial investment and labour are offered by the villagers and he approaches the government for help only later.
“I do this for a simple reason. If you invest in something you always maintain it. I want people to take care of these public properties like their own. When the government does the entire project, people don’t feel responsible for protecting it,” says the Water Doctor.
Dr. Pol has helped develop more than 70 villages in the past 19 years. However, he does not run any NGO of his own. He does not plan for the next project, nor does he dream of doing anything big.
“I just keep going. I take every day as it comes. Anyone can call me to their village and I will help them find solutions. I feel every educated individual should do this. Just make a visit to a nearby village. Share your knowledge with them. Try to find solutions for them with your knowledge and see the miracle,” he says.
Dr. Pol is now a trustee of the Naam Foundation, an NGO started by actors Nana Patekar and Makarand Anaspure. He is also on the advisory committee of the Pani Foundation started by actor Aamir Khan.
“There has been a huge difference after these well known actors became associated with rural development. People look up to them and if they do something like this even the common man gets motivated to bring about a change,” says Dr. Pol.
Villages from other states have also started approaching Dr. Pol for help. Recently, he visited village Bonli of district Sawai Madhopur in Rajasthan. The village is facing water scarcity and the government has to supply 110 tankers every day to this village. Dr. Pol visited the village and conducted a gram sabha in the presence of District Collector and other officers. A detailed survey was also done with the help of the villagers and the officers.
The result was that the women of this village took up the mission of water conservation through the MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) scheme, which will make the village tanker free in another year’s time.
“I consider problems as my patients and the public as my NGO. There is nothing beyond these two,” says Dr. Pol.
To know more about his work or to get his advice on water conservation and sanitation, you can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org