Washington, DC – Bhagwati P. Agrawal, 68, whose voice belies his age, boomed on local radio stations during rush hour in Washington, DC recently as he spoke to journalists after accepting the 2012 Purpose Prize in San Francisco for creating a system for collecting rainwater to quench the thirst of thousands in the parched land of Rajasthan, one of the western states of India.
Agrawal, now a naturalized US citizen and a resident of Vienna, Virginia, is one of the five winners of the $100,000 Purpose Prize, created in 2005 by Encore.org. The Purpose Prize, in its eighth year in 2012, is the nation’s only large scale investment in people over 60 who are combining their passion and experience for social good.
One of the judges, Sree Sreenivasan, Chief Digital Officer of Columbia University and co-founder of SAJA, the South Asian Journalists Association, told India America Today about his experience, saying, “The Purpose Prize judging is one of the most meaningful and inspiring things I do every year. Almost every applicant is worthy of recognition and to see the kind of effort and selfless sacrifice put in by these folks is amazing.”
Sreenivasan noted that he is a product of cultures “that have taught me that there are only two options after retirement. America teaches you that retirement is for relaxing, bingo, fishing. India teaches you that retirement is a time for meditation, grandchildren, preparing for death – growing up, the Indian government’s retirement age was 58 – in my parents’ state of Kerala, it was 55!” Sreenivasan added, “The Purpose Prize participants and winners show me a third way: engaged, active, helping humanity.”
Looking forward to his own retirement, Sreenivasan told India America Today, “It’s also a challenge: What will I do to make a difference at 60 plus? What will drive me? What sense of purpose will I bring to my family, neighborhood, city, state and country? I’d better hurry, I have less than 18 years to prepare.”
Compared to Sreenivasan who still has years to chalk out his future plans, engineer Agrawal, who is turning 69 in 2013, is already making a difference in his 60 plus years as he has been successful in bringing solace to the thirsty masses in six villages, home to nearly 12,000 people.
Agrawal has been working with unflinching dedication and unsullied faith and his work was aptly summed up by Encore.org, the organization behind the award, saying, “Through his nonprofit, Sustainable Innovations, he founded Aakash Ganga, or River from Sky, in 2003 to create a system for collecting rain – one of precious few sources of drinking water. Now, gutters, pipes and underground tanks gather the short-lived rains of monsoon season.”
The most common sight in Rajasthan is village women carrying water vessels on their heads or on their waists for miles every day to cover the basic needs of their families, while the omnipresent village kids can be seen running around announcing the arrival of a periodic water tanker.
With water wells in Rajasthan often more than 400 feet deep, the women must take turns dropping a bucket, then hauling the water up by walking away with a rope tied around their waists, often in grueling heat.
“India’s chronic water scarcity keeps girls out of school and women out of the workforce. It denies people good health,” said the soft-spoken Agrawal, adding, “The Purpose Prize will help us improve the quality of life in the region where I was born, and I am grateful.”
“Because of B.P. Agrawal’s work, thousands of people in remote desert villages have access to a vital, life-sustaining resource,” said Marc Freedman, founder and CEO of Encore.org and author of The Big Shift, adding, “He’s an inspiration for all of us who want to use our experience in new ways to help others.”
Agrawal is working to expand Aakash Ganga to dozens of other villages, and is focusing on unleashing the potential of the children and women who no longer spend hours fetching water. His nonprofit, Arogya, or Kiosk-based Clinics, is training them as health care workers who can diagnose and treat common illnesses in their villages.
He is simultaneously busy on this project, which is aiming to treat common ailments and preventable diseases in rural Rajasthan at a $0.25 per visit cost. The Kiosks would be equipped with computerized best medical practices for the treatment of these ailments. Agrawal is working in close cooperation with the Jain Foundation floated by Atul Jain, the Founder-CEO of TEOCO, a multi-million dollar global company.