Innovative government-NGO partnerships for development

The partnership between the NGO SEWA and Gujarat Water Supply and Sewerage Board is an important policy shift that signifies NGOs can be competent providers of public services.
Trained and organised by SEWA, the women who repair hand pumps are called barefoot mechanics. (Photo by Amruta Mahakalkar) Trained and organised by SEWA, the women who repair hand pumps are called barefoot mechanics. (Photo by Amruta Mahakalkar)

Sari-clad women handling tools with alacrity while fixing water hand pumps is a common sight in the Sabarkantha district in north Gujarat.

Bayad and Dhansura subdistricts in Gujarat.

Trained and organised by the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), an Indian NGO known for their work in the unorganised women’s sector, these ‘barefoot mechanics’, as they are commonly referred to, are hired by the Gujarat Water Supply and Sewerage Board (GWSSB), the local water authority.

Using end-user household survey data collected from two subdistricts of Gujarat, our research concludes that the quality of services provided in maintaining and repairing community hand pumps when the state water authority enters into co-management contracts with NGOs (such as SEWA) to provide repair services is better than services provided by private organisations.

We collected the data for this study in Bayad and Dhansura in December 2013. Bayad and Dhansura are adjacent subdistricts that administratively fall under the jurisdiction of the Sabarkantha district (Figure 1). While village-level governments are formed to overlook the day-to-day work, key policy decisions pertaining to agriculture, infrastructure, industry, health, education, and social welfare are taken by the district- and state-level governments. Therefore, the subdistricts are exposed to the same policy decisions.

 The barefoot mechanics of Gujarat

Providing adequate access to water in rural communities remains a challenge across much of India. Only 35 percent of rural households have access to drinking water within their premises. About 43 percent have access near their premises (within 500 metres) and 22 percent have access away from their premises (beyond 500 metres) (Census of India 2011).

In the arid and semi-arid regions of Gujarat, including the Sabarkantha district, surface water is scarce and households largely depend on groundwater. Community hand pumps are commonly used as most households in the district do not have piped water connections. To alleviate water shortages, particularly so in the dry season, the state water utility, the GWSSB installed nearly 10,000 hand pumps across the state to improve the access of the villages to water. However, these pumps need regular maintenance and they break down often in the dry season when they are needed the most to draw out groundwater.

Given that it is logistically difficult for the GWSSB to service these hand pumps with the frequency required, the board has chosen to outsource this activity.

SEWA is a trade union of self-employed women established in 1972 and currently has about 600,000 members in the state of Gujarat. As part of its ‘Women, Water and Work’ programme, SEWA has been participating in the GWSSB bids for hand pump repair since 1998. SEWA bids for these contracts through a trust, specifically created for this purpose, called the ‘Khedut Mandal’ (Farmers’ Association). The GWSSB invites tenders from contractors and awards annual contracts to the most competitive bid, that is, the lowest price.

To make the programme economically attractive to the participants, SEWA has to limit the team size of women who get a repair job to typically 12-15 women. The GWSSB provides the spare parts and tools but the cost of training and transport is borne by SEWA.

Sari-clad women fix hand pumps in Sabarkantha district in north Gujarat. Specifically, the SEWA service significantly reduces time to collect water in both the dry and wet seasons and reduces the time to attend to pump breakdowns, further reducing the imposed cost of water collection. In addition, there is a significant reduction in repair time for hand pumps used by lower caste households in SEWA serviced villages suggesting that contracting out services to NGOs may indeed bring about equity in access to public goods and services.

Co-management of government services

This is a significant policy shift. Governments routinely contract out public services such as sanitation, public infrastructure maintenance, healthcare and social services. In recent years, government contracts with NGOs have increased in both developed and developing countries. The NGOs, which used to be called upon primarily to remedy government failures, are now seen as competent agents and providers of public services.

As governments increasingly rely on non-state actors to provide public services and achieve public policy goals, hybrid models of contracts are evolving, especially so in the domains of environment and sustainable development policy.

Co-management is one such hybrid model in which government and civil society actors aim to achieve common objectives, supply public services jointly, or manage common pool resources through formal contracts or agreements.

From a public policy perspective, our findings imply that it is not only important to expand infrastructure to reduce the burden of collecting water on rural households, but equally important to ensure that the infrastructure is properly maintained through innovative government-NGO (or state-non-state) contractual relationships such as co-management.

The GWSSB’s efforts to contract out the maintenance and repair of village water hand pumps to an NGO such as SEWA is a positive step in this direction.

Namrata Chindarkar and Yvonne Jie Chen are assistant professors at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. Dennis Wichelns is a senior research fellow at the Stockholm Research Institute, Bangkok (Thailand) and a former director of the Institute of Water Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

This article has been republished with permission of, and was first published here. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of India Water Portal.


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