Thursday, 21 February 2019

In Sarvajal, an operator’s job has always been a male strong hold. This year (2019)however, as an impetus to create equal opportunities for women in this realm, we have employed women as operators in three places. The operators are closest to the community in which we serve safe drinking water, they are the ones who binds us to the community and help us build trust and overcome local challenge. In Tamil Nadu, Operators also are entrusted the responsibility of building community’s knowledge about drinking water.

I am Vennila, Operator, Kattur Village, Minjur block, Thiruvallur Dist, Tamilnadu 
Vennila hails from a place called Irukkam where the water is tasty...You take a boat to reach our place, she remembered. Eighteen years ago when she was married, she moved to Kattur, her husband’s place. He husband runs a tea shop. The family also have some land that they cultivate various crops on. Nothing worth a mention and nothing could take the family out of the debts, she sighed. She found odd jobs to do to supplement the meagre income. The last one was that of a cashier at the Electricity Board, which was a leave vacancy. Soon the time had come for her to hand the job back to its owner who returned after leave. She was out of a job again. 

She has studied till 8th standard, but Kattur being a remote village did ßßaa offer anything in terms of work other than the hundred days work scheme which has the entire village competing for. Now, her son is in the 3rd year of college and her daughter is doing her 11th grade.  Last October, there was talk of the water ATM plant being set up in Kattur village. She was identified for the Operator job by a village water committee member. She had handled cash, but had not handled technology. However, after speaking to the team from Sarvajal, she was confident that she could learn it – she was willing to stretch herself for a job. 

Naren, Junior Field Engineer (JFE) from Sarvajal spent time teaching her to operate the machine and the recharge cards. I don’t know English, but JFE brother went over and over again to teach me the process. Initially it was difficult as I could not remember the sequence and my mind would go blank. JFE brother was a strict teacher. I soon realised that only because he was strict, I was even putting the effort, if not, I would not have learnt to recharge the cards. He did help me for a week after too, She recalls.
My routine starts with filling the tank and helping people who come to the ATM from 7.30 in the morning to 11.00 a.m.  I go into the village for enrolling people as members. I go home for lunch and return at 3.00 p.m. and I am here till 7.30 p.m. This routine is convenient. If anybody needs me otherwise they do call me and I can be at the water plant in minutes.  When I need help I call the JFE brother.

This job has given me three things that I wanted a) a workplace near my house, I have got it now. b) I like helping people, and serving water is the best that I can do as service and c) I make friends quickly and I know this village well. People trust me and would listen when I talk to them about the new water ATM. They would hand over the money for membership without thinking twice about it.  

With the agriculture and the tea shop, it was hard to make ends meet. Now, being an operator, I will be able to ensure a steady income for my family. My children can continue to pursue their education.

Water from ATM is tasty ...just like that from my mom's village. After drinking salt water for the last 18 years, this water plant has brought us good water. 

I am Kannagi, Operator, Kattur Colony, Minjur Block, Thiruvallur District

Kannagi is a powerful Tamil folklore heroine who burnt the city of Madurai for her husband was wrongly sentenced to death by the King. Our Kannagi, her namesake, took this job to be able to be closer to her husband who was disabled due to a motor accident 2 years back. Her house is just three houses away from the Sarvajal plant. 
She studied till class 10 and moved to Kattur colony 13 years back at a tender age of 16. Her husband used to work at the Ennore Foundary and earned enough to take care of his family. She had her children, a boy and a girl one soon after. She never went out to work. Her Husband's expertise in cooking, lead him to doing wedding-catering, as per invitation. The income helped live life comfortably. He was returning from one such venture riding pillion with a close friend, when a car rode into them from behind causing the accident which incapacitated him. The family spent a lot on his treatment draining all their resources. The situation presented Kannagi with the compulsion to earn for the family. She tried through the 100-days-work-scheme, but then she had to rely on her mother to take care of her husband. She also did work as a sanitation worker, but this took her away from her husband.


When village water committee was constituted they were looking for a woman who can take up the operator’s job and the committee members were interested in her profile.  Someone who is reliable would have to operate the machine and build the membership. The operator has to be around to ensure that water is available for people to take.  They felt her education would allow her to pick up the skills necessary for job. They were sure that the family deserved at least one earning member. They entrusted her the job in consultation with team members of Sarvajal. When she was asked to use the phone to send some messages, she was not able to, at first. But in a week’s time she learnt that. She also learnt to operate the machine.

She says she likes the job because it allows her to be around when her husband needed her. She would be able to now pay for the hospital visits herself. Above all, she feels that she will be able to build a toilet in her house which would give them dignity. They are presently using the public conveniance...a toilet of their own would ease their life. Kannagi feels that she is in control of her life and is willing to learn anything to keep the security of her family.

I am Priya, Operator, Chaklapalli, Thally Block, Hosur

Chaklapalli is a beautiful village far from the hustle and bustle of Hosur, burst with roses, the horticulture farms that exports flowers to markets and perfumeries in Europe. Valentine’s day promises good business in this part of rural Tamil Nadu. A bus drive takes you through the picturesque setting and weather that is reminiscent of a hill station.

Here, the Sarvajal plant was operational on February 8, 2019.  Vishupriya, called fondly
as Priya, was identified by the headmaster of the Chaklapalli Government middle school, to take on the role of the operator. She hails from a humble background. Her father works as the person who gives water from the panchayat, a duty which fell on priya and her mother as he took to drinking heavily. The duo continues to operate on his behalf.

Priya lives with her parents as she is the younger of the two siblings. Her sister is married. She stopped her studies after 12th due to financial issues, but the school offered her a teaching position and allowed her to pursue her degree. She graduated in Tamil Literature and is currently doing her B.Ed.

Priya was part of the first meeting at the school premises to constitute the village water committee where Sarvajal's team explained about the project. She was happy that the Operator job was assigned to her. Her colleagues and friends discouraged her, but she felt strongly about doing the work of an Operator. Giving water was what she and her mother did even though her father got into drinking. It was something that allowed her to live a life of dignity. 

Priya was teaching all subjects in middle school and was always in the company of children of her class. Sitting in the water plant all alone for two days was strange. She found her peace when she realised many people who were becoming members from her village could not append their signatures. She spent time at the plant and also taught them how to put their signatures. It was very satisfying. She would continue providing tuitions for children after she leaves the plant. That way she thinks she will be able to utilise her skills in being a teacher.

Many people in the village did not understand the benefit of drinking purified water, so I have started talking to people about the benefits. There are 65 people who have become members. Earlier, there was only one person which had a domestic water purifier in his house. I think it is a good change where more people are becoming aware of it. She feels she is imparting knowledge just like any teacher would.

Some people who called me ‘teacher’ earlier, tease me by calling me ‘Operator madam’. Let them call me anything, I chose this job. They have someone or the other to support them, but I have just me and I am determined to take care of my family. I continue to be the provider of water. It is life just like education is. I don’t want to think about which one is better. I get my life by giving life... I only pray for strength to do this better.

When opportunities are present to women who have not handled technology, their progress from the offer -to -training- to -taking -over may be gradual, but once the level of effort is understood , it becomes methodical and reliable. Women as operators want to stay ahead in the knowledge required to discharge their duties and they are not shy to say that they did not understand something. Along with the skills, they bring into these workplace, care for the machines, the cleanliness of the premises, and a drive to reach out to the communities.

Article by Anuj Sharma, CEO, Piramal Sarvajal
I get to read a lot of stories from different lands, translated from different languages. One such story that I often recall is about this one ‘bestest’ ship that this king wanted his navy to make. It was expected to be the largest, the strongest, the fastest, the most beautifully ornamented and able to support a large number of luxury-loving variety-demanding royal travelers. Against the caution and advice of many of senior generals and engineers, the project was commissioned, designed and built. And on its day of its launch, the doomed ship sank. Obviously, “grand vision” was over-constraining, not smart!

Many of you may have come across the statement and mentions to the effect that the ‘19th century belonged to Physics, the 20th to Chemistry and that the 21st will belong to biology’. (I am not only unable to recall where I first read it, but am also not able to ascertain online who this comment is credited to)

Regardless, there are lots of mentions and supporting examples provided. The examples expand the meaning to the 19th century being about ‘laws that apply to all matter’, and for some by implication a deterministic world. Similarly, the 20th century about discovering, how matter changes when it interacts with other matter(s). Thus extrapolating that the 21st century will be about learning from ‘evolution’ in biological systems and its replication. Though, a massive reduction of trends in hundred different directions, this statement and its possible implications fascinate me.

What further boosts my interest is the close association of the two words, namely Organism and Organization. Now in biology, organism means any individual entity that exhibits properties of life, in fact it is synonymous with ‘life-form’. On the other hand, an organization is an entity with multiple people who are associated with each other for serving a collective goal or purpose and is attached to an external environment. The former has types like cellular, multi-cellular etc. and the latter also has companies, clubs, NGOs etc.

The questions it raises are quite interesting: like can we treat the entire nation or the society as an organization. I guess yes. Then what is the goal or purpose we are working towards? What is it? Where is it? In the Constitution, perhaps!

Assume now that the society is an organism/life-form, this one raises even more intriguing questions: in a multi-cellular and fairly advanced organism, despite specialization of tissues and organs, sense of pain and loss is recorded when even smallest of the hairs/nails gets plucked or if there is even a minor scratch. Therefore a certain sense of oneness and empathy, feeling of other’s pain as one’s own, really is a test which cannot be sidestepped or ignored.

Another feature of advanced organisms is ‘the intelligence to respond to the environment’. Now if one were to put the above two premises together, the conclusion is that the real smartness is in becoming inclusive and empathetic.

So — if in this societal organism’s case, parts of it are not getting basic things like nutrition, safe drinking water, education, health-care and safety, its sense of empathy needs to kick-in as the first requirement of its being intelligent, advanced or smart! Ergo, Empathetic = Intelligent, Advanced Smart!

A recurring blog by Sarvajal CEO Anuj Sharma – an educationist at heart, who began with Pratham – has been with Piramal Sarvajal since its inception in 2008. He keeps stirring the turgid pot of knowledge as far as all-around solutions for the safe and reliable drinking water problem called Beyond The Pipe go.

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

These are interesting times when TV anchors and authors in India and elsewhere are finding philosophical appeal and mass purchase potential in old allegorical narratives, while western management schools and communication gurus are rediscovering story-telling at the centre of communication-effectiveness measured by stickiness.
I am often reminded of a story from the Mahabharata epic and it is new age version that experience has helped me develop – the story of Guru Dronacharya asking the Kauravas and the Pandavas to take aim at the eye of a wooden bird placed on a tree branch. The moral is that if you see nothing but what you aim for, you will definitely get it. Also, one prominent implication practiced is ‘you wait until you reach 100% certainty/clarity’. Often happily forgotten is the fact that this was training context, not the real battle one.
The story of preventive health and its link to the availability of safe drinking water and broadly to WASH coverage looks like a case in point. As the story and mythological extract go, only Arjuna sees the bird’s eye and nothing else, while everyone else sees something or the other besides the eye of the bird. And hence, Drona asks only Arjuna to try and, as expected, he successfully hits the bird’s eye.
Obviously, I am nobody to question Drona and his great wisdom, but very often we have seen the greatness of large schemes and grand designs become the bane of a simple, quickly realizable, satisfactory action. Frankly, what is the point of hitting the bird in the eye? Just hit it, anywhere, that’s good enough!
Point is let’s not over-constraint the solution design. In urban plans, it is only fair to assume that every household ‘should’ be connected to piped water supply and ‘should’ get adequate quantity of good quality water for household purposes including for drinking. But knowing fully well that such a plan will take long before it reaches everyone, not keeping space for nimble community level drinking water infrastructure as an interim solution is like betting 100% on a blueprint.
Simply put things are iterative, the solution will evolve. Pursuing excellence and improvement at every step is better than waiting for the perfection of a great grand blueprint that will be implemented en masse in a homogenized manner.
Writing this I am also aware of the fact that the new age management Guru Jim Collins, who I agree with more often than not, popularized the concept of ‘Good being enemy of Great’ implying complacence of good stops further improvement.  My humble submission is that there are cases where ‘waiting for great is becoming the enemy of good’. In fact on some further digging one finds similar sentiments being expressed through the times of Confucius, Aristotle, Shakespeare and Voltaire.
In my limited understanding and experience ‘reaching everyone, soon enough, with good quality and adequate quantity’ is the noble goal for public services. The goal is not to reach everyone with the same or single blueprint.
A recurring blog by Sarvajal CEO Anuj Sharma – an educationist at heart, who began with Pratham – has been with Piramal Sarvajal since its inception in 2008. He keeps stirring the turgid pot of knowledge as far as all-around solutions for the safe and reliable drinking water problem called Beyond The Pipe go.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Many households in villages that have been declared ODF are not yet ‘Contaminated Drinking Water Free (CDWF)’. Can there be a drive, similar to the one for achieving ODF status, to ensure access to safe drinking water for all?

‘Swachh Bharat’ or, more precisely, making villages, districts and states ‘Open Defecation Free (ODF)’, has had mixed results, not unsurprising in a large and varied country like India. But what is fascinating is the amount of action and communication it focused on the goal and the effort and resources it helped mobilise and apply. Water, Sanitation and Hygiene are customarily clubbed into WASH. Can there be a drive, similar to the one for achieving ODF status, to ensure access to safe drinking water for all?

Diarrhoea and related deaths are preventable through a combination of safe sanitation and safe drinking water. While the country is moving towards ODF status in many cities and villages, the same cannot be said about clean drinking water access and availability. The seriousness of the situation has been emphasised in many reports at different points in time, measuring different dimensions (often not agreeing with each other), but the underlying message is hard to miss.

In the last few years, India’s efforts to tackle diarrhoea have led to a 52% fall in deaths of children below the age of four, but the prevalence of diarrhoea at 9.2%, as reported by the National Health Data Survey, is still high. Despite the improvement in both adult, maternal, child and infant mortality, diarrhoea remains among the leading causes of death in Indian children below the age of five, killing an estimated 321 children everyday. It is estimated that 163 million Indians lack access to safe drinking water.

The tragedy is, many households in villages that have been declared ODF are not yet ‘Contaminated Drinking Water Free (CDWF)’. As more villages and districts become ODF, the gap between ODF status and CDWF status will only increase.

According to the August 2018 CAG report, there has been a decrease in the share of allocation towards drinking water (from 87% in 2009-10 to 31% in 2018-19). The National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP), despite spending 90% of its Rs 89,956 crore budget over five years till 2017, has not achieved its targets. Not only do a large number of rural households not have piped water connectivity, access is a challenge in urban households, including slums, too. More than 70% of piped water households in urban India get less than two-thirds of the promised quantity.

However, immediate attention is required on the ‘water quality’ front. India is placed 120th amongst 122 countries in the water quality index, with nearly 70% of water being contaminated. It is therefore extremely important for government programmes on water to look beyond creating assets. This clearly means ensuring appropriate quality, quantity, and reliability of water supply, as a measure of preventive healthcare in both rural and urban areas.

There is another important dimension, that of inter-linkages of ‘access’ and ‘quality’ with ‘source sustainability’. In mid-2018, a Niti Aayog report cautioned us that by 2030, the country’s water demand is projected to be twice the available supply.

There is another important dimension, that of inter-linkages of ‘access’ and ‘quality’ with ‘source sustainability’. In mid-2018, a Niti Aayog report cautioned us that by 2030, the country’s water demand is projected to be twice the available supply.

The government has taken cognisance of this and Niti Aayog has developed a Composite Water Management Index (CWMI), based on the data from central and state resources to enable effective water management.

Non-state players

Another visibly bright spot with a lot of potential is related to the participation of non-state players, be it academia, corporate foundations or multilateral organisations like UNICEF, bringing in ‘proven’ models and know-how of technology application. This has a huge potential to address the crisis, provided their barriers to scale are addressed by the government.

For example, on the academia front, there are examples of IIT-Bombay’s contribution in devising a standard operating procedure for small pipe schemes, IIT-Madras’ work on addressing arsenic contamination, as well as the collaborative effort of Safe Billion with Gadgil Water Labs of UCLA. Similarly, Niti Aayog’s Aspirational Districts programme is working with multiple foundations and CSR initiatives, contributing from devising decentralised solutions to ensuring safe and affordable drinking water at the last mile to communities, to supporting recycling and treatment of wastewater to mobilisation through swachhta preraks.

There is an urgency and criticality with which drinking water access and quality issues need to be addressed. Instead of one single blueprint, flexibility in approach allowing for contextual adjustments with a focus on community/habitation as a unit should be preferred. ‘Contaminated Drinking Water Free’ habitation status should become the outcome indicator.

Issues of water-borne health risks, water quality, access and source sustainability are all interlinked and should be addressed parallelly. This requires enhancing and strengthening of participation of academia, philanthropic and developmental organisations along with coordination and convergence in actions of various departments and ministries, ranging from those for natural resources to agriculture, drinking water and sanitation to health, housing and urban affairs to women and child development.

While the challenges are enormous, so are the opportunities for cross-learning. What will ultimately matter is how one galvanises a nation’s imagination and efforts towards a single goal. Therefore, realising ‘CDWF’ status for every habitation should be the next goal!

(The writer is CEO of Piramal Sarvajal, a social enterprise and part of the Piramal Foundation)