It’s a dull reality that the state of water in the urban slum of Lalbagh near Azadpur in north Delhi was awful till a few years back. Hoards of people would queue up to get water from the public taps or the tankers along the road. Life was tough here and people got access to piped water supply only recently. Paying for clean water from private companies was unaffordable and people often depended on sources that were polluted and unsafe to drink. Women and children had to bear the burden of water collection and this cost them a lot in terms of time and energy.
Realising this, a group of students from the Sri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC) decided to take up an initiative at Lalbagh in 2017 to provide clean and affordable drinking water for the area. They helped set up a reverse osmosis (RO) plant in the locality by 2018. With this plant, they were able to impact over 3100 lives on a daily basis.
Not just that, they have also empowered Sulekha Singh and Sarita, two women entrepreneurs to manage the plant.
Sunita, a resident of the area is happy that she and her neighbours — over 600 households who stay here now have access to clean water in their own slum for consumption. “Over the last two decades, we have faced lots of problems in getting water. We had to go a kilometre away to collect water for our consumption and other daily uses,” she said.
“This custom-fit approach helps deliver clean drinking water to rural households and urban slums based on the type of contamination present in the water,” says Ena Robinson a student of SRCC, Enactus-Project Asbah.
Asbah means purity in Urdu. “Through Project Asbah, water is provided at highly affordable rates of Rs. 4 for 20 litre and Rs. 2 for 10 litres through contaminant specific filtration mechanisms,” adds Robinson. Earlier people had to make do with the contaminated water or purchase water at rates as high as Rs. 35 for a 20 litre can.
The approach used by Project Asbah involved setting up of the community RO plant (backend) and dispenser (ATM) at a cost of Rs. 4.5 lakh. This capex cost was provided by Enactus, without which the project would not be viable.
“Local water problems need to be solved and we achieved this through community water ATMs," says Shruti Rathi, also from Enactus-Project Asbah.
The water was tested at certified laboratories such as the Shree Ram Labs and Delhi Jal Board before choosing the suitable technology. Management of the residual water is a concern while using RO technology as about 65 percent of the water gets wasted.
RO plants are known to remove the good with the bad. Iron, calcium, manganese, and fluoride are a few of the beneficial chemicals that are removed. “We opted for a RO plant at Lalbagh as the water had high amounts of heavy metals and total dissolved solids (TDS). The TDS was more than 1000 milligrams per litre (mg/l) even going up to 3000 mg/l during monsoons,” says Rathi.
Otherwise, the Asbah purification solution is used to disinfect water and to kill majority of the pathogens in the contaminated water. Nanotechnology is used in areas with physical, chemical and bacterial contamination and ultraviolet technology at places with bacterial contamination. The project has also used newer technologies, which eliminate contamination and reduce the wastewater generation to just 1 percent.
The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has given specific directions following a report by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) and the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT-Delhi) which pointed that RO process leads to enormous wastage of water. “So, in Lalbagh the water from the plant is reused for purposes such as washing utensils, gardening and other odd chores. Also, some of it is used in the nearby toilet complex for flushing,” says Rathi. This way over 60 percent of the water released by the RO is used again.
“We also connected with the MLA of the area and the leaders in the locality to understand the situation better and to get the permission for the land on which the RO plant has been set up. We had to also ensure that there was a water source nearby,” says Robinson.
A local NGO with an established presence in the slum was roped in make the system sustainable. The model of engaging women entrepreneurs was viable and was taken up as a self-sustainable enterprise. Partnerships were crucial and Enactus forged tie-ups with local agencies like Delhi Jal Board and DUSIB to set up the RO plant.
“The availability of potable water in our locality has greatly reduced the incidence of waterborne diseases yearly. Every monsoon, we faced a disease outbreak as most of us could not afford highly-priced filtration mechanisms. Here, I can get my card recharged from the operator who runs the plant. I can manage with 5 litres a day in winters and 10 litres a day in summers. It costs me at the most Rs. 60 a month,” says Sunita.
“All the 600 households in the locality have been provided cards and they recharge it as per their needs,” says Sulekha Singh (35), one of the entrepreneurs who operates the community reverse osmosis filtration plant.
The women entrepreneurs get a salary of Rs. 5000 a month for running the plant in two shifts from 8 to 11 am and 3 to 7 pm. Working as an entrepreneur has improved their confidence and helped them contribute towards the household’s earnings.
The sale of water accrues revenue of Rs. 25,000 during winters and Rs. 35,000 in summers. The operating expenses per plant ranges between Rs. 20,000 and Rs. 25,000 per month, including the operator's salary.
“We need continued operational investments as due to the high TDS, the membranes of the RO get corroded quickly and filters need to be replaced frequently," says Singh.
“The students conducted a number of awareness campaigns, meetings and street plays for the people to understand the issues related to water quality and health,” says Singh. The improved water quality has reduced the incidence of stomach ailments considerably.
A UNESCO report says that in cities, rich homes with piped water tended to pay far less per litre, while the poor in slums often had to buy water from trucks, kiosks and other vendors, shelling out 10 to 20 times more.
While, the RO plant sets an example of a sustainable model for accessing safe drinking water, safe clean drinking water and sanitation are human rights, and the state needs to provide access to it.