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Access to safe water through social innovation

Progressing with the quotation “Blue is the new green”, there is no doubt that we are approaching toward a water stressed future. Public utilities which should be ideally responsible for provision of this basic need are finding themselves short in their reach and capacity even in metropolitans; forget about semi urban and rural geographies. Yes, everybody is aware; problem is persisting from decades, but how to address remains to be challenged?

Let’s talk of India as a case; the Union government of India, in the past few years has tried to do lot of innovative things around drinking water to reform the sector. Funds were allocated, infrastructure raised and so on and so forth.

However if one get chance to pass by villages not even very far from Tier 1 cities, dry out hand pumps, women and children carrying water from distant wells or ponds, muddy contaminated water; is common ringer.

Similar scenario does persist in African subcontinent. A recent evaluation of rural water schemes in Africa showed that 30-40% of these were disfunctional and it can take up to a month or more before pumps are fixed, leaving communities without easy access to safe water. The problem simply lies with the way it is designed, completely focused on inputs and not around quality and maintenance, which are the main factors.

Over the time these shortcomings were tried and tested with innovative approaches and social outreach models. Non-governmental organizations, philanthropists tried to level up these voids. Successful flagship programs for water facilitation in both quantitative and qualitative aspects in different geography came up with times. Some of them faded with time and some are up and running even today. Learning’s from these contemporary and innovative programs suggest that old school philanthropy always gets questionable in terms of sustainability and scalability. As soon as donor or facilitator left the program arena, schemes failed to deliver water due to financial overdue.

From the pure market approach also, it is difficult to cater water needs in rural context which finds hard to digest water as a commodity concept. Amid this poverty penalty, marginalized communities have always remained devoid of potable water from civic authority or any hope from private sector. Talking about provisions of potable water for every soul, problems do exist and they will keep challenging from different corners. Decentralization holds the key to address current water needs. Social enterprise Sarvajal, a for-profit business working on viable mass-market solutions to India’s water crisis, have successfully turned innovative ideas into products and services on a larger scale benefiting thousands with potable water.

Capturing some of the beneficiary experiences, on her turn, 26-year-old Sapna Jatav takes out a plastic card and holds it in front of a sensor of the water ATM. The sensor reads her card and shows a balance of Rs 130 (INR). Jatav places a 10-litre container below a pipe on the water ATM and presses a button. Reverse Osmosis (RO) processed water starts flowing from the pipe. Jatav releases the button when the container is full. The machine calculates the quantity of water dispensed and deducts the amount from her account. One litre costs 50 paisa (Rs 0.5 INR).

Going with the proverbial strategy, “teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”, Sarvajal (“Water for All”) franchise business model decentralizes water distribution. Sarvajal’s rural entrepreneurs, or franchisees, purify local water within local villages. The motive is to engage community itself in the process. To access the previously unreachable rural hamlets surrounding larger villages, [Sarvajal] developed a “water ATM”, or radio-frequency identification (RFID)-based water-dispensing unit. People could scan the card on the ATM’s sensor and press the button, depending on their water requirement. This pre-paid based innovation ensured zero debt. By placing this point-of-sale device in a central area, customers have 24/7 access and Sarvajal can track individual-level water usage.

It is a profitable business for the company as well. The total cost of setting up the RO plant with the machine is around Rs 5 lakh (5, 00,000 INR). Franchisees pay 40 per cent of their earnings to the company. If the franchisees own the machine, they pay 20 per cent of the earnings to the company. A unit breaks even when it serves 125 families with 20 litres each daily. The company provides maintenance, advertising support and community drive. The initiative, powered by solar energy, is changing the lives of many in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. Earlier, people depended on the saline municipal water or groundwater that has high fluoride content but this simple match of commercial strategies to maximize improvements in human and environmental well-being seems to be breaking the hurdles in rural water space.

Everyman has got five fingers in his palm; It’s the way of using them which defines success or failures. Over the last decade, the scope of Social enterprises and impact investors in India has successfully expanded beyond financial services and agriculture. As they say in Sarvajal “We do not say that we provide the best solution, but this is the best we can do in the existing circumstances,” With no government initiative to tackle the problem of contaminated water, such an entrepreneurial venture is providing a brilliant way out in difficult times

About The Author


Akhil Choudhary

A Development Professional working as a trade officer for facilitation of Indo-Israel trade in clean-tech sector. Carrying a research oriented approach and honest objective to learn and implement, he has been part of various assignments by working with corporate to development organisations at different technological ends. Passionate about tracking all the latest developments in Clean-tech and Social sector his constant endeavor is to learn its intent and connotations with experienced analyst vision.

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