Campaigns and civil society action

Citizens and civil society have an important role to play in holding governments to account on realising their obligations. Below you can find a few examples of civil society action:

Rights and governance advocacy in the water and sanitation sector in India

The Right to Information Act (RTI) in India creates the ability to demand and receive information from officials regarding budgets and service delivery is critical to communities’ struggle to improve local governance and obtain their full entitlements.

“Without access to the information held by public bodies and in some cases by corporations and other organisations, it is difficult for people to participate actively in their society or for there to be good and effective governance”.

In India, the Right to Information Act of 2005, which mandates timely response to citizen requests for government information, has been an increasingly useful tool to partners and communities.

MARI support communities to use RTI law

MARI, working in Andhra Pradesh, India, has formed people’s committees in 42 rural villages with very poor and marginalised tribal communities. MARI staff provides information on entitlements and services due from government to communities and provide comprehensive training on RTI so that communities fully understand their entitlements, the law and how to make requests for information.

Under the RTI, citizens can file a request at a local government office to find out anything. For example, which contractor is responsible for a leaky pipe or how much funding has been allocated for toilets. Within days a local official must respond. MARI communities have requested information about local government plans and budgets to see what has been spent and what is supposed to have been delivered. Once the information is received, MARI and the community work together to conduct a social audit to collect hard evidence about what has actually happened and any differences between this and the official records.

The results are put in a memorandum that is formally presented to local government officials and politicians. As all the facts are laid out clearly, the response is usually good. The pressure from these otherwise marginalised and excluded communities has led to the construction of water and sanitation facilities as outlined in the original district plans.


Initially, communities were afraid of negative or hostile responses from local government. Over time, however, and with the results this work has achieved, communities have grown in confidence and 150 requests for information have been made under RTI provisions. Not all of these are related to the WASH sector because, once villagers understood how to make the requests, they began to use the process on their own to get information about housing, road building, or the status of an application for a particular service. Simply getting an answer from local government, after being ignored for so long, has increased communities’ confidence significantly, enabling then to claim other rights and entitlements and take control of their own development. Where new access to information has identified corruption – differences between what records show as spent for services or construction but where the work has clearly not been done – it has become a political issue during local elections.


In addition to the growing confidence of communities and their ability to access information, and the concurrent construction of water and sanitation facilities in some communities, the Regional GTF Programme Coordinator organised a capacity building exercise in India for all partners on RTI. The key activity was carrying out a status survey on 200 schools – assessing that facilities existed, including whether there were separate toilets for girls as per government rules. The results showed that school sanitation was in a poor state. Sometimes school principals claimed sole use of the toilets and in some schools, toilets were permanently locked and others were filthy and unusable. Requests for relevant local government records were made under RTI and compared with the survey results, revealing many discrepancies. All governance programme partners in India came together again to hold a public hearing on the issue. Subsequent government action has already resulted in better toilet facilities in 25 schools.


There are several learnings from the use of RTI in India. The first is the value of looking for policy instruments and mechanisms outside the sector. Additionally, it cannot be overstated how valuable this tool has become to communities now that they own it. MARI could have requested the information on behalf of the communities and thus have secured sector services, but putting the tool in the hands of communities has meant that power lies with the people. RTI now belongs to the communities and they have used it to claim roads, employment, tribal development schemes and have future plans for inquiries and work. Another key learning is the importance of social auditing for holding government to account for the achievements they claim using not only hard evidence, but involving communities in this process. The final learning is the added value of sharing and cross-learning amongst Indian partners to not only share experience but create more ‘noise’ in relation to their findings in schools, demonstrating clearly the added value of being networked and committed to working in partnership.

This case study is part of the FAN / WaterAid Governance and Transparency Fund and is available here.


Using the media to draw attention to water and sanitation issues in Gaza

In September 2009, the EWASH Advocacy Task Force, (a coalition of almost 30 organisations working in the water and sanitation sector in the occupied Palestinian territory) in cooperation with the UN Humanitarian Country Team held a press conference to draw attention to the impact of the Israeli imposed blockade on water and sanitation in Gaza.

The blockade has had a severe impact on the functioning of water and sanitation services and facilities in Gaza, due to restricting entry for much needed construction materials and aid. The press conference was held at Beit Lahiya Waste Water Treatment Plant so that journalists could witness the impact of the Israeli blockade on the functioning of essential services.

During the conference statements were given by housewives, who shared their personal experiences of struggling to manage on limited supplies of clean water; the local service provider; and UN Agencies. The press conference drew significant attention to the issue globally. The event was attended by journalists from over 25 media outlets – including Aljazeera, the BBC, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Jerusalem Post and AFP.

While the problem is not yet solved the humanitarian and WASH situation is now regularly in featured in the world media.

Source: FAN, Rights to Water and Sanitation, A Handbook for Activists, 2010


Human Rights Watch: Civil society initiatives to manual scavenging in India

In 2014, Human Rights Watch interviewed more than 135 people, including more than 100 people currently or formerly working as manual scavengers, in the Indian states of Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh.

Their report Cleaning Human Waste: Manual Scavenging, Caste and Discrimination in India (2014) documents the coercive nature of manual scavenging.

In their report, they provide for an overview of civil society initiatives to combat this practice.

Below you can find text quoted from this report. Please refer to Cleaning Human Waste: ‘Manual Scavenging,’ Caste, and Discrimination in India, to access the original document.

Civil Society Initiatives

In 2002, Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan—a coalition of 30 community-based organizations from 13 Indian states—started a campaign to encourage manual scavengers to voluntarily leave the practice.

At least 15,000 women “liberated” themselves from manual scavenging through this campaign. Prembai from Amlataj village in Dewas district, Madhya Pradesh, explained that prior to this campaign, she practiced manual scavenging because she did not know there was any alternative:

“I began cleaning dry toilets when I was 10 or 11 years old with my mother and four sisters. Then I was married and joined my mother-in-law for cleaning. I had never heard that there could be a life other than this.”

Activists identify manual scavenging as caste-based exploitation, educate communities about their rights under the law, and support them in taking collective decisions to leave the practice. Kiran, from Bhonrasa, in Dewas district, Madhya Pradesh, described how in 2002, together with 26 other women, she left manual scavenging:

“We burned our baskets, held a rally, and announced to the community that we would no longer do this dirty work. The district collector and police came to the village, questioned the village council about why this work was continuing, and informed the people in the village that making us do this dirty work was against the law”.

In rural areas of Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan, typically, only a few families are engaged in manual scavenging in each village. Thus, solidarity from liberated women from other villages and ongoing support from Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan has played an integral part in empowering women to stand up to upper caste pressure. Lalibai, from Piplia Rao Ji in Mandsaur district, Madhya Pradesh, explained, “It is easier for women to leave manual scavenging when they are able to leave with a group.”

According to Arti, from Batiagarh in Damoh district, Madhya Pradesh, knowing her legal rights has been critical to standing up against community pressure to return to manual scavenging. She said, “We told the community that there is a law that does not allow us to do manual scavenging work.”

Dinesh, from Pahur Peth village in Jalgaon district, Maharashtra, was hired by the panchayat to manually clean dry toilets, drains, and septic tanks until 2012 when he learned manual scavenging is illegal:

“I had no idea about the law or the campaign to leave manual scavenging. Then one and a half years ago, I learned all this and left. I work to end manual scavenging now. I speak to people, understand their problems, and then I speak to the officials and make them understand the law.”

Without effective government programs, civil society and community based organizations are working to generate livelihoods for individuals who leave manual scavenging. For instance, they have piloted gender and market sensitive vocational training. Successful programs include cell phone repair, driving, computer training, furniture construction, tailoring, fruit selling, and shoe making.

These approaches, however, are not without their challenges. The Tamil Nadu-based Rights Education and Development Centre (READ), for instance, reports that former manual scavengers who sell fruits and other food items are often not able to sell in their local areas due to persistent untouchability practices, and instead have to travel to other communities in order to earn a livelihood.

Navsarjan in Gujarat, which has been campaigning for the eradication of manual scavenging since 1995, has set up Dalit Shakti Kendra, an organization that provides vocational training and other skills to Dalits. However, Manjula Pradeep, executive director of Navsarjan, emphasizes that success also requires confidence-building interventions in the community following the training:

“Training must go beyond teaching skills and proficiency. The real barriers come after the training. They have to use the skill to find a job. People have difficulty when they go to get jobs, and they have difficulty believing they can get a job. They need to be guided through the process.”

Civil society organizations are also focusing on converting India’s sanitation systems. For instance, Sulabh International Social Service Organization emphasizes the construction of proper toilets and has pioneered the two-pit, pour-flush compost toilet, known as the Sulabh Shauchalaya, an affordable sanitation model that does not require manual Cleaning. These toilets have been installed in more than 1.2 million houses across India, and Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International, reports that this approach has been adopted by the Bihar government.

Building on decades of community organizing initiatives, on November 30, 2012, 10,000 women who left manual scavenging with the support of the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan began a march across India, calling upon communities working as manual scavengers nationwide to stand together to end the practice. After traveling for two months across 18 states and 200 districts, the National People’s March for Eradication of Manual Scavenging reached Delhi on January 21, 2013. Releasing the Delhi Declaration for Eradication of Manual Scavenging, they called upon the government to pass new legislation and act immediately to end manual scavenging.

According to Bezwada Wilson, founder of Safai Karmachari Andolan, the Indian government has responded positively to these initiatives by engaging in serious dialogue with civil society organizations. These efforts offer strategies and good practices to translate India’s legislative commitments into effective action at the local level.

The text above is copied from Human Rights Watch’s Cleaning Human Waste: Manual Scavenging, Caste and Discrimination in India, 2014.

Public protests of the Coca-Cola Company’s operations in India

In a number of districts of India, Coca Cola and its subsidiaries are accused of creating severe water shortages for the community by extracting large quantities of water for their factories, affecting both the quantity and quality of water. Coca Cola has the largest soft drink bottling facilities in India. Water is the primary component of the products manufactured by the company.

There have been numerous public protests of The Coca-Cola Company’s operations throughout India, involving thousands of Indian citizens and several non-governmental organizations. Protests against the Coco Cola factories have taken place in a number of districts including: Mehdiganj near the holy city of Varanasi; Kala Dera, near Jaipur, Rajistan; Thane district in Maharashtra; and Sivaganga in Tamil Nadu.

The protests by villagers from Plachimada, in the southern state of Kerala have shown the strength of community-led activities, even against this global multi-national company. Through round-the-clock vigils outside the factory gates, they have managed to “temporarily” shut down Coca-Cola’s local bottling plant. As of early 2007, the factory had remained closed for a number of years and a combination of community action and legal redress was aimed at permanent closure.

Background to Coca Cola ground water exploitation case in Kerala

In 1999, the Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages Private Limited, a subsidiary of the Atlanta based Coca-Cola company, established a plant in Plachimada, in the Palakkad district of Kerala, southern India. The Perumatty Village Council gave a licence to the company to commence production in 2000. Coca Cola drew around 510,000 litres of water each day from boreholes and open wells. For every 3.75 litres of water used by the plant, it produced one litre of product and a large amount of waste water.

Two years after production began protest by local residents became common place. Local communities complained that water pollution and extreme water shortages were endangering their lives.

In 2003, women from the Vijayanagaram Colony in the village of Plachimada, protested that their wells had dried up because of the over exploitation of groundwater resources by the Coca-cola plant. They complained that they now had to walk nearly five kilometres twice a day to fetch water. They also argued that the little which was left was undrinkable and when used for bathing the water burned their eyes and lead to skin complaints. Aside form these health issues, the depletion of groundwater resources also affected the ability of local residents to raise their crops of rice and coconuts.

These protests led to a lot of attention and in April 2003, the Perumatty Grama Panchayat (Village Council) refused renewal of Coca-Cola’s licence to operate on the grounds that it was not in the public interest to renew the licence stating: “… the excessive exploitation of ground water by the Coca-Cola Company in Plachimada is causing acute drinking water scarcity in Perumatty Panchayat and nearby places…”

The Village Council considered revocation of the licence to be necessary in order to protect the interests of local people. This ultimately led to a case before the High Court of Kerala: Perumatty Grama Panchayat v state of Kerala (16 December 2003).

See Court cases for a summary of this case.

Global protests against Coca Cola

Protests about over-extraction of ground water in India and Sri Lanka by Coca Cola’s subsidiary companies had an impact on the parent company. Strong concerns dominated the company’s annual general meeting on 19 April, 2006, in Delaware, USA. A group of protesters shouted outside the meeting, waving banners with messages such as: “Coca-Cola: Stop De-Hydrating the World” and “Coca-Cola: Destroying Lives, Livelihoods and Communities.”

Inside the meeting, nearly 20 shareholders spoke on behalf of campaigns from India and Colombia. A proposal tabled by a shareholder called on the company to “prepare a report on the potential environmental and public health damage of each of its plants, affiliates and proposed ventures extracting water from areas of water scarcity in India”, but failed to receive any positive response from the company.

In its statement against the proposal, Coca Cola stated that it “recognizes that water is a precious natural resource under growing stress around the world.” It set out the actions that the company has taken to address the risks associated with water extraction and dealt with the complaints in Kerala.

“As to groundwater issues in southern India specifically, the Kerala High Court ruling released in April 2005 (the result of a year-long independent study) stated that our facility was not the cause of water shortages in that community. The study showed that a cycle of three years of short monsoon seasons in the Kerala area was the main contributor to the local water shortages. Through our rainwater harvesting efforts in several communities and plant operations in India, we currently are returning a significant portion of the water we remove from aquifers for production purposes.

“Additionally, the Company has initiated partnerships to set up local rainwater harvesting projects in communities around the country and to mobilize local residents behind these water conservation efforts. These projects combine modern technology with the reinstatement of traditional methods of water management that had fallen into disrepair in some local communities.
“The Board understands the need and desire for transparency in all matters including environmental safety and health issues related to our operations in India and elsewhere. However, we feel that this proposal is unnecessary at this time because our above-described existing environmental, health and safety policies, practices, and reporting methods provide a wide range of information regarding the impacts of our operations throughout India and the world. Furthermore, the Board believes that producing the report called for in this proposal would create a redundant use of Company human and financial resources.”

The campaign against Coca Cola has spread, particularly on college and university campuses, as well as among trade unionists and religious organisations. The India Resource Centre published a press release the day following the Shareholder meeting stating: “Even as Coca-Cola officials were trying to deal with the scores of protesters at its meeting, the campaign to hold Coca-Cola accountable was producing damning results for the company. The Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, New York, a graduate school of theology which trains students to be ministers in the Christian faith, just announced on Tuesday that it was banning the sale of Coca-Cola products on its campus. In India, a new campaign was announced in Gangaikondan, in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, against a Coca-Cola bottling plant under construction. And a massive rally is planned in Plachimada, Kerala on April 22, where Coca-Cola’s bottling plant has remained shut down for over a year because the village council has refused to renew Coca-Cola’s license to operate.”

In November, 2006, the Chairman and CEO, The Coca-Cola Company, E. Neville Isdell, spoke about the challenges to Coca Cola in India at the Nature Conservancy in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. He remarked:

“In India, we have been challenged to demonstrate our commitment to water stewardship. While we are not even close to being one of the largest users of water, we are certainly one of the most visible, and have been subject to criticism that we are depleting groundwater aquifers in the State of Kerala. Let me be very clear: Coca-Cola has a shared interest with the communities where we operate in healthy watersheds — because they sustain life and our business. And the last thing we would ever do is spend millions of dollars to build a plant that would run itself dry. Accordingly, we are working with many partners across India to improve watershed management, and with the Central Ground Water Authority, local governments and communities to expand the use of simple and effective rainwater harvesting technology. To date, we have installed rainwater harvesting systems in 200 locations, including schools and farms, that are helping recharge aquifers when the rains come.”

Sources: This section is based on a wide variety of sources including court judgements, press releases and official statements from Coca Cola, including Permatty Grama Panchayat vs state of Kerala, High Court of Kerala 2003; Coca-Cola: Continuing Battle in Kerala, Coca-cola plant must stop straining water Indian Resource Centre July 10, 2003; Coca-cola plant must stop straining water, The Guardian 19 December 2003; W.A.N0.2125 of 2003 and W.A.N0215 of 2004 Judgment 7th day of April 2005, M. Ramachandran and K.P Balachandran, JJ High court of Kerala 2005; Coca-Cola Protestors Attacked by police: four hospitalized, R. Ajayan, Plachimada Solidarity Committee (India) Amit Srivastava, India Resource Center, August 2005; Kerala Pollution Board orders Coke plant to close, Asian News International 8/20/2005; State defends village council decision to revokes Indian licence, Indian Resource Centre, September 2005; Health Minister: Coke plant will not be allowed to function The Hindu, 25 October2005; Kerala Government Assures Proactive Action Against Coca-Cola Meeting with Community Leaders Ends in Major Commitments from State Officials, Indian Resource Centre : 19 June, 2006; Kerala assures proactive action against Coca-Cola one world. South Asian; Article by M Suchitra and O.N. Venugopal, 03 Oct 2006, The Quest Features & Footage, Kochi, cited on the India Together website; Shareowner Proposal Regarding Environmental Impacts of Operations in India (Item 7)by William C. Wardlaw, III, Annual Meeting of Coca Cola Shareholders, 2006; press releases, Coca Cola Company; articles from the India Resource Centre website.


Water users participating in the operation and maintenance of the Rwengiri borehole in Mbarara district, Uganda


Rwengiri borehole was constructed in 1998 by UNICEF. A committee was selected to oversee its day to day operation and maintenance. In 2006, the borehole suffered a major breakdown and this was not addressed until the advocacy committee representative informed the Agency for Cooperation and Research in Development (ACORD) and Kyera Farm. ACORD liaised with the community to find a lasting solution to the problem. A meeting was organised with the water users to bring the issue to the attention of the authorities and ask them to take action. As a result, a new committee of nine members was gathered and trained, leading to new bylaws being passed as well and the borehole being rehabilitated.

Path to success

A community meeting was organised to discuss the poor performance of the committee and breakdown of the borehole. A committee representative reported the problem at the sub-county advocacy committee meeting, which was chaired by ACORD and Kyera Farm.

A community-level meeting was held with water users to discuss the problem and identify a way forward. The issue was also reported to the sub-county council, who escalated it to the district water office.

Several radio programmes were aired to promote the roles of community members (and other stakeholders) in the operation and maintenance of water sources, particularly focusing on the borehole. The district authorities responded by planning the rehabilitation of the borehole, while the sub-county selected a new water user committee and supported the community to collect the user fees for training the new committee. As a result, the borehole was later rehabilitated.

The water user committee members now know their responsibilities and bylaws have been passed. Lobbying and communication skills at community, sub county and district level enabled these changes to happen.

Overcoming obstacles

Before, water users were not willing to participate in the operation and maintenance of the boreholes and were not paying the user fees which would have enabled this work to happen. As a result, sustaining water sources was a major issue.

There was also resistance from politicians like councilors to make WASH a priority during the council meeting. This was because neither duty bearers’ nor users were aware that access to water and sanitation are human rights.

Analysing change

The water user committee is now very active and collects fees to pay for the operation and maintenance of the borehole. As a result, it is now well maintained, fenced, cleaned and functioning well. Sub-county officials are responsive when issues are raise, allowing users to enjoy a sustainable safe water source.

Collecting evidence

The water user committee is functioning well and members have a clear understanding of their responsibilities. The borehole is clean and fenced to ensure that animals or etc cannot enter.

Source: This case study is part of WaterAid, FAN, UKaid – Case Studies from the Governance and Transparency Fund Programme.


Mobilising communities during the Cochabamba “Water War” in Bolivia

There have been numerous examples worldwide of communities mobilising to voice their opposition to unjust water policies. Perhaps the most well known example of such community mobilisation was the Cochabamba “War for Water”.

In the city of Cochabamba in 1999, the Bolivian government granted a 40-year contract to provide water services to Cochabamaba to a company called Aguas del Tunari, a multinational company investing in Bolivia’s water sector.

Due to what the local population considered to be inequitable and unfair fixed pricing schemes, that had doubled and even tripled the cost of water and left the majority of residents unable to afford water, the presence of this transnational corporation and its management of the local water supply generated increasing and vociferous opposition from the local community. Organizations were created solely to oppose the company and its policies, in order to defend the rights of the local population.

One such organisation, La Coordinadora de Defensa del Agua y de la Vida (Coordinating Committee for the Defence of Water and Life) together with other local organisations, initiated what was later known as the “Water War”, a sustained series of marches, negotiations and demands for the revision of national water policies and a repeal of the contract to Aguas del Tunari.

As the “Water War” progressed, a “popular poll’ was held in March 2000, in which more than 50,000 people voted, the majority for the cancellation of the concession contract and for continued state management of water resources.

The government dismissal of this poll prompted what was to become the climax of the War for Water, in which highways were blockaded, a general strike was called and thousands of people, the so-called “Water Warriors”, including housewives, senior citizens, and children, took to the streets to resist the privatisation of water supplies.

The ensuing riots resulted in violent confrontations between protesters and the military, but eventually the government conceded and Aguas del Tunari was forced to withdraw from Cochabamba. In addition, compensation was awarded to those injured by the water war, and those protesters who had been unjustly arrested and detained were released.

The Cochabamba case demonstrates that citizens – uniting themselves – have demanded their right to water and have mobilized, created institutions and coordinated actions to exercise this right. The principle motto used in the campaign against the company was “Water is Ours”.