Thursday, 18 February 2016

Back to School

I had been traveling to see Sarvajal’s field operations (check out my previous posts here, in case you missed it!) and had just arrived in Rajasthan to see the Jaipur Schools Project. I was particularly excited to go see these sites since I had heard a lot about this program around the office and was well familiar with the background:

 The Michael & Susan Dell Foundation (MSDF) and Piramal Sarvajal collaborated with Akshaypatra and Jaipur Zila Parishad to address the drinking water problem in 15 government schools in the Chaksu and Sanganer blocks of Jaipur District in August 2013. Whilst access to safe drinking water had been an increasing concern over the past decade for most of the state of Rajasthan, this particular belt had seen extremely high levels of fluoride leading to acute cases of fluorosis amongst the residents. The 12 primary schools that have been part of this project are all set remotely and 3 of the 12 schools do not have access to electricity.

You, like me, might be saying to yourself, “Whaaaat?! A state public school without access to electricity?” If you grew up in the West, like me, there’s nothing like that tidbit to humble you with your own privilege, huh? Well, brace yourself, many of these schools did not previously have any water source at all. That means that elementary school kids would pack off to school in the morning on a hot Indian day with the only access to drinking water being what they could carry with them from whatever source was available at home. Even in late October the Rajasthan sun left midday temperatures at around 102°F/39°C and I was guzzling water just to get through the morning. I couldn’t imagine how these little kids would have been able to stand it. Or how it could have been healthy.

Luckily Sarvajal and MSDF stepped in to provide clean drinking water solutions. They installed Water ATMs in the 15 schools so that the kids could drink clean water all day. A local operator would come by once per day to fill the ATMs up from water that had been purified in a centrally located plant and kids could access the free, safe water with the push of a button. In fact, the entire operating cost of this project is offset by water sales in the nearby town, making this an entirely sustainable venture! I was really struck by the power of social entrepreneurship to make development projects viably sustainable long term... but that’s a topic for a later discussion!
Sarvajal Delivery Vehicle in a school
With Pawan and Ashutosh, the local Jaipur field guys who manage the territory, I set out to see the progress that has been made just two short years after the project’s inception. At the first school I went to, the students had taken such pride in their Water ATM that they constructed a whole case for it’s protection and had painted it blue to match the unit. Below is a picture of an older prefect girl who was entrusted with filling up the classroom kettle for the lunchtime chai.

Sarvajal WaterATM in school
This school felt like a fun and inspired place to learn: the walls were covered in educational murals, the learning breaks were filled with cute class songs, and the teachers were smiling – a feat given the 150+ kids under the age of 12 that they managed daily between 5 of them! One of the younger teachers whose English was excellent conspiratorially sought me out and explained that, while that it is officially a girls’ school, local boys under a certain age are welcome as well. She also told me how much they appreciated Sarvajal’s presence at their school and the prestige it brought locally that people from well beyond India had invested in the well being of their children.

We distributed the drawing and learning materials before Pawan launched into an animated program, tailored to the kids’ ages, about the importance of safe drinking water. Meanwhile Ashutosh managed the drawing competition for the older kids – “draw something that about the importance water in your life.” Even though these kids already have access to safe water through Sarvajal, the hope is that they will grow up understanding the health benefits of this access and continue to prioritize it for their families. They might even influence their parents into securing a clean water source for their households. I just imagine little waves of health benefits and smart choices rippling out from Sarvajal’s touch point in these kids’ lives.

Awareness Campaign in school with Pawan, the showman
Pawan is a showman. He easily held center stage for the 70 or so kids under 8 years old who obediently wagged their very eager hands to answer his quizzes or volunteer in his demonstrations. He sparkles performing his task – clearly he loves kids but he’s also very informed and able to take complex social issues and boil them down to a child’s level of understanding. To me, Pawan represents the best of Sarvajal: He got a Masters in Social Work, Community Development and has dedicated his life to improving the lives of his fellow Indians. He’s spent several years with various NGOs and multilaterals running their community programs but has landed at Sarvajal because he’s confident this is where he can help make an impact. He says he’s recently been promoted to manager, and now spends more hours at his desk, overseeing a broader swath of community programs, but his heart remains in truly the field with the communities. He is very modest though eager to share, saying his English isn’t great – though it’s better than many immigrants’ in the U.S. and certainly better than my Hindi! Regardless, it’s his energy that really communicated his passion. It’s infectious and I can understand what makes him so good with people.

After watching both him and Ashutosh wrap up their programs, giving out awards to the winner’s of the most innovative and creative drawings and then thanking the teachers profusely, we pile back into the car. Down the dusty one lane roads we ramble. The infrastructure is really poor out here – the potholes sent me flying across the backseat and several times we had to drive off the narrow one lane road in face of oncoming carts or cow herds. It’s no wonder that the location of these remote villages in the vast, dusty desert makes it a supreme challenge for the government to manage basic services without Sarvajal’s remote monitoring technology.

Thoroughly jangled, I extracted myself from the backseat 30 minutes later at the next school. This one was much smaller and not as (relatively) affluent. Still, it was tidy and the kids were eager to learn. So Pawan and Ashutosh launched back into their schpiel to the delight of a fresh audience.

The Water ATM at this school is a ring structure model. I loved seeing the little adjustments, like the stairs, that had been made for the children to access the water. One little girl was so proud of herself for filling a used soda bottle almost bigger than herself, standing on tippytoe to do so!

Sarvajal WaterATM and a little girl
Having seen the presentation once before, I took the opportunity to ask the teachers what they thought about the Water ATM. Beaming at being asked, they said that loved what it did for their kids. Less often felled by the diarrhea that burdened them previously, the children were coming to school much more regularly, especially those who lived close enough to also enjoy the Sarvajal water as their main source at home. They also said the water tasted much better and was much more convenient than the bore well water they had previously been using.

 Happy school teachers with WaterATM
Back at the drawing contest I was delighted to see several children had drawn the Sarvajal ATMs as their association with healthy water. I snapped a few more pictures but soon had to pile back in the car for the bumpy ride back to Jaipur.
A little girl  with her drawing. She associated Sarvajal with healthy water!
That evening I had plenty of time to mull over my experiences (my train back to Ahmedabad was over 3.5 hours late). What had particularly struck me during my visit was the incredible development challenge India faces in maintaining basic utilities across remote locations and terrible infrastructure. On community-level water projects, it means that at any given point the stakeholders have limited or no information about the purification machine’s functioning status or the quality of product water. This massive blind spot often leads to operational ruin in the long term. Lacking the accountability, the high capital investment is wasted.

Pawan and Ashutosh with WaterATM
Luckily Sarvajal has the ability through our Soochak device to enable real time monitoring, process controlling and data tracking. It’s ability to track, in real time, vital machine health parameters enables engineers to design preventive maintenance schedules, ensuring lower machine downtime and streamlining maintenance scheduling for multiple rural locations. For communities, consistent access to safe water means better health and the lower operational costs mean water prices remain widely affordable.
Alessandra in this field trip
In fact, it is the faces of these people, 278,000 customers Sarvajal serves daily and the savvy entrepreneurs and smiling Sarvajal employees that ultimately impacted me the most. Working alongside inspired people to help empower communities, I can’t wait to jump out of bed each day to help Sarvajal bring safe water to all.

----Alessandra Kortenhorst

[Alessandra is a Business Development Associate Fellow at Piramal Sarvajal. Find out more about us at Sarvajal and follow us on Twitter at @PiramalSarvajal]

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

In the Community, In the Action

In my previous blog post I described how I was a WASH-newbie before arriving in Ahmedabad to start work at Piramal Sarvajal. I had fervently set about familiarizing myself with the WASH landscape in India and my new company’s market and model. However, I started at a disadvantage – I am a Western transplant in India for the first time and thus without the innate understanding of the interplay between water and culture in my new home. (An abundantly clear example was when I excitedly announced at lunch that I had seen a borehole well in a village and my colleagues bemusedly explained they had grown up drinking borehole water, what was so special about that?) Clearly, I was going to need to see Sarvajal in action to fully grasp it in all of its complexities.

I set out from Sarvajal headquarters in Ahmedabad on another steamy afternoon in late October. Although I am now used to the heat, it nonetheless reaffirms the particular urgency of our water work as I watch chai wallas and day laborers toil away in the late afternoon sun. I was lucky enough to be able to escape to the luxurious comfort of the air-conditioned sleeper car I had booked. Staring out the train window at the whirring Indian vista, I lost myself in the excited anticipation of my adventure.


I woke up at 6am the next morning in time for the train to pull into a grimy Delhi station. After a quick refresh, I reported for duty Sarvajal’s the Delhi office to eagerly greet the local team. I was working with Mukesh, Vishal and Varsha. We later met up with Ajay, one of our local plant operators.

Sarvajal Team members in the field trip
Sarvajal’s Delhi operations are part of a new and exciting effort to adapt our proven rural model to the urban slums. As the worldwide trend moves toward urbanization (about 70% of the world population is going to be living in cities by 2030 according to Professor Jeffrey Sachs of the Columbia Earth Institute) the challenge to create healthy, sustainable cities is becoming more imperative. In a city like Delhi, that also means battling with the increasing disparity between the rich and the poor. The Times of India cited a note filed before the Indian Supreme Court reporting that 49% percent of Delhi’s population resides in urban slums and unauthorized colonies without any civic amenities. These bursting slums grow in the shadow of the new multimillion-dollar apartment complexes being erected and many who share the dusty streets with the country’s executive leadership still don’t have reliable accessibility to safe quality water.

We headed out to one such community, Narela, where Sarvajal has partnered with the Delhi Jal Board in an experimental endeavor to bring clean water to the urban poor. Narala was not what I was expected from a city slum. True, it had the poverty, the trash, the open sewage, but it was two hours outside of Delhi by auto. It is technically a sub-city of Delhi and felt to me like a suburb of the city proper. (Note, it is by no means suburbia, a quick Google of the name brings up news stories titled “Narela police station: String of murders, dumped bodies keep police on their toes.”)

Sarvajal WaterATM in slum location
Ajay clearly keeps a tight ship as our Sarvajal purification plant was a clean and inviting oasis located in the Muslim quarter. After a quick check in on the machine health and operating status, we headed out into the community.

Sarvajal recognized early on that you can scope the site, secure the funding and install the water purification plant but none of that does you any good until you get the community to buy the water! It takes some convincing to help people understand why they should spend precious money on water, a commodity they have been getting for free for generations. As a result, integral to Sarvajal’s local activities are the Community Awareness Local Marketing (CALM) campaigns where the Sarvajal team goes door to door in the local community teaching about the health benefits of clean water, explaining the entrepreneur’s new business and signing up new customers.

Sarvajal team's Community Awareness campaigns in Narela slum
The Sarvajal crew does look very impressive, going door to door in their fresh blue t-shirts and matching caps against the dusty-brown urban backdrop. There is even a jaunty Hindi marketing jingle to accompany the procession. The team’s presence is greeted as a peculiar but welcome distraction. (I’m sure the presence of a tall blonde girl in tow does nothing to belay the whole spectacle.)

One particularly convincing part of the CALM activities is the electrolysis test demonstration: the Sarvajal employee asks for a water sample of your current drinking water and uses the Sarvajal purified water for a comparison. The electrolysis device has two prongs that get submerged with one in the household water and one in the Sarvajal sample. An electric current is passed through the water, burning up the dissolved solids, which turn a disgusting greenish black. Needles to say, seeing your water turn to sludge is a fairly convincing argument that you need a better water source!
Seeing your water turn to sludge is a fairly convincng argument that you need a better water source
I was blown away by the impact Sarvajal was having on the people they serve. Through the Hindi-translated-to-broken-English language gap, stories emerged about healthier kids, families saving money on disease treatment, women relishing new free time that had previously been spent waiting on the tanker truck arrival... One gentleman told us how he travelled 6km everyday from the outskirts of town to get Sarvajal water! He explained that has two small kids at home and their health is well worth the daily trek.

Alessandra with some of the Sarvajal consumers
I spent two days with the team pounding the pavement (well, mostly dirt roads) in Narela. We handed out flyers, talked with neighbors, gave demonstrations at the local children’s center and at the community medical center. At one such presentation, a group of local women spent 30 minutes drilling the Sarvajal team with questions about the connection between drinking water and health and about Sarvajal’s services. These people may have been forgotten by the government, living amid squalor and beyond the reach of pipes, but they should not be dismissed: smart and competent, it only takes a little boost, like access to healthier water, for them to improve their standard of living and invest in the future.

Walking back through a field of garbage after a long day of community awareness activities, Ajay, the local operator sighed. “I feel really proud,” he said with a tired, though unmistakably satisfied smile. “I feel really good that I am doing something here to better my community.” 

Ajay, I couldn’t agree more.

----Alessandra Kortenhorst

[Alessandra is a Business Development Associate Fellow at Piramal Sarvajal. Find out more about us at Sarvajal and follow us on Twitter at @PiramalSarvajal]