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In the community, in the action

March 01, 2018

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 6 am 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’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 healthily, sustainable cities are 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 access 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.”)

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.

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. Needless to say, seeing your water turn to sludge is a fairly convincing 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 for the tanker truck arrival… One gentleman told us how he travelled 6km every day 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.

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 is a Business Development Associate Fellow at Piramal Sarvajal