From water carriers to water entrepreneurs

iJal bridged the gender gap through economic empowerment and reduced the water collection drudgery for women (Image: Safe Water Network)
iJal bridged the gender gap through economic empowerment and reduced the water collection drudgery for women (Image: Safe Water Network)

Imagine having to travel 7 to 8 kilometers every day to fetch water from a village because the water available in your vicinity is simply undrinkable and has dangerously high Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) levels. Well, this is what Jyoti Sharma a resident of Pandya Mohalla of Deeg sub-town in Bharatpur district of Rajasthan has been doing for years. For Jyoti and nearly 350 families living in this area, it had been a daily struggle to look for hand pumps elsewhere for water with tolerable salinity as the TDS level of the bore water in Pandya Mohalla is as high as 7000.

“Every two to three days, we would hire a rickshaw for Rs 5 to bring water in cans from Lagla Kothela village nearly 8 kilometres from where we live,” said Jyoti’s family. Not that the water they brought from this village was anywhere near the acceptable limit, but they had no choice. Most of the people living in Pandya Mohalla are daily wagers and cannot afford to pay Rs 500 to private suppliers for a 5000-litre water tank. For Jyoti’s father - a small farmer, it is simply not possible to pay Rs 10 for a litre of water when their daily requirement is 50 litres.

As the families were struggling to arrange for safe drinking water, their woes were addressed by the efforts of an international non-profit organization - Safe Water Network (SWN) aimed at serving affordable and safe drinking water sustainably to the most marginalized population.

In 2019, SWN had installed an iJAL water station in Pandya Mohalla that offered 20 litres of water for just Rs 5. Today, around 240 families have registered and own water ATM cards costing Rs 100 which they can recharge as and when required.

Each unit is constructed at a cost of Rupees 10 to 12 lakhs, the space for the installation of these RO or iJal stations is mostly provided by the villagers while a local woman from an active Self Help Group (SHG) is chosen to operate it. These operators are provided training at regular intervals to maintain the plant. The consumers are given rechargeable water ATM cards.

Equipped with state-of-the-art water treatment technology, these plants are backed by a remote monitoring system using cloud technology. Once installed, these water stations are self-sustaining.

Women entrepreneurs and self-help groups

The initiative has helped several women in different states switch their role from water carriers to water managers. It has created a space for them to become socially and economically empowered.

Bandana Rajesh Kawale who operates the water station at Wadegaon village in Tirora block of Gondia district of Maharashtra has set up a WhatsApp group with all the families of her village. She uses this social media platform to raise their awareness, highlighting the harmful effects of the water with high saline content. Despite the COVID-19 restrictions, she was able to motivate 370 households to get water from the station. For her, the real challenge is to ensure all 600 households in her village opt for the water from the station.

“As about 200 families of this 600 belong to low economic background, it is difficult for them to pay even Rs 5 for 20 litres of safe drinking water. I am thinking of a solution to help these families afford safe water,” shared Bandana, a graduate and the head of the Aman Mahila Bachat Gat self-help group (SHG). A dedicated social worker, Bandana has been trying to help women become financially independent through her SHG for quite some time now.

The criteria for setting these stations in these semi-urban areas and cities is either the high TDS or contamination levels. The TDS level in the semi-urban region of Tirora in the Gondia district of Maharashtra was as high as 750. The private suppliers were charging anything between Rs 20 to 25 for 20 litres - unaffordable for many of the families. The plant was set up here five months ago.

The operator, Savita Anand Malelwar, who is also an Anganwadi worker says, “The TDS meter provided to our Anjali Mahila Bachat Gat helps me demonstrate the high TDS level in the bore water that people here have been drinking their entire life. I inform them how drinking this water can weaken their bones and have other harmful effects.” Four hundred families are already taking water from the plant and Savita along with others is trying to get the rest of the families to use this safe water.

People in Bhamati Trimurthi Nagar, a slum area in Nagpur was also facing similar challenges. “We had no choice but to pay through our nose as we were suffering from many water-borne diseases,” says Karuna Ravi Gayakwad, the president of the Pradnyashil Mahila Bachat Gat and iJal station operator. An active worker, she says that they began motivating people by giving them free water ATM cards worth Rs 100.

In addition to running and maintaining the water station, the SHG has been spending time, energy and money on COVID-19 related activities.

People maintaining safe distance while standing in a queue to collect water (Image: Safe Water Network)

Health benefits and livelihood generation

These water stations installed across the states of Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Telangana have started showing a positive impact on the health of the beneficiaries. “There used to be a number of cases of typhoid, diarrhoea and dysentery, but now these diseases have come down considerably,” says Malleshwari of Talema Gramaika Sangam SHG in Andole block of Sangareddy district in Telangana. Water operators and families from other regions shared a similar experience.

Locally owned and operated by social entrepreneur, women SHGs with approval from local governance, these iJAL stations have strengthened the livelihoods of 950 people, nearly one-third of them are women.

Vandana says the money she gets for operating the iJAL water station has helped her son continue studying in a private school. Malleshwari says that she has been able to save between 50 to 60 thousand rupees since she started operating the plant in her village.

The revenue earned by the SHGs by running these water stations is spent on paying the salary of the operator, maintaining the plant and sometimes financially supporting their group for managing other activities or projects.

Poonam Sevak, Vice President Program & Partnerships, SWN, says that their experience in setting up these water ATMs show that people now spend less on doctor’s bills as their immunity has increased. Speaking about the future, she said that they are working with the government on the Jal Jeevan Mission aimed at providing tap water connections to every household by 2024.

The SWN has so far installed 342 water ATMs benefitting 1.27 million people. It also manages 17 Water Knowledge Resource Center (WKRC) under the project SEWAH (Sustainable Enterprises for Water and Health) supported by USAID (including 2 of SWN) in 11 states which provide access to 70000 people.

(Charkha Features)