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Back to school

March 01, 2018

I had been travelling 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!

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 its protection and had painted it blue to match the unit. Below is a picture of an older perfect girl who was entrusted with filling up the classroom kettle for the lunchtime chai.

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 of 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.

Pawan is a showman. He easily held centre 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 multilateral 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 back seat 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!

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 diarrhoea 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.

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.

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.

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.

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 is a Business Development Associate Fellow at Piramal Sarvajal.