India Interior

Water carriers turn ‘waterpreneurs’

Taru Bahl | Updated on May 15, 2020

Ijal water station installed in Medak district of Telengana and of women SHG members being given a demonstration on their use

Rural women in Telangana are spearheading a revolution led by the ‘water aunties’

Jammikunta village of Medak district of Telengana has been at the centre of a water movement that has empowered its women, reduced their drudgery of carrying heavy loads of water, minimised incidence of waterborne diseases and eliminated their hoarding of second-quality plastic containers.

Their story goes back five years. As part of the Safe Water Network’s iJal Women’s Empowerment Programme, local self-help group (SHG) members were invited, in 2016, to set up Small Water Enterprises (SWE). Safe Water Network is a voluntary organisation that was set up by actor Paul Newman and other civic leaders in New York in 2006. The India chapter has been working with rural communities on water-related issues ever since.

Affordable water kiosks that functioned like 24x7 water ATMs were presented as iJal (my water) stations that could be owned and managed by women.

Water is a prized commodity here. Anyone who has and can bring access to clean and safe water is a much respected member of the community. Due to the high flouride content, salinity, nitrates and iron contaminants in the groundwater, generations of children and adults have suffered multiple health issues. Weak bones, joint pain and skeletal deformity, spine binding and crippling have been common afflictions, not to mention diarrhoea, skin and bacterial infections that drain the savings of families forced to make frequent trips to the doctor’s clinic.

Clueless but enthusiastic

Bhoolaxmi, Suvarna, and Saraswati are fondly called “Water aunties”. As members of Manikanta SHG in Medak district they were the first set of waterpreneurs in the area. Their enthusiasm was infectious. Although clueless about running a business venture, they were excited to learn and make a success of it.

The first thing they had to do was generate demand for safe water by changing the old ways of thinking. The challenge was that people were used to having free water and reconciled to it being contaminated, accepting it as an inevitable part of life and their destiny. To pay for water, even if it be treated and safe, was not something they were okay with.

They launched an awareness programme to educate villagers on the need to consume safe drinking water. They went through a rigorous training programme on plant operations and water purification processes and began to effectively communicate with other residents of the village.

The trio started conducting electrolyser demonstrations with door-to-door campaigns and specialised programmes for pregnant women, at village meetings, schools and anganwadis. They even adopted a marketing strategy to attract more regular consumers to their iJal station, making available safe drinking water, free of charge, during festivals and village meetings.

Within seven months, they attracted a base of 450 families, who presently buy anywhere from 100 to 120 water cans, of 20-litre capacity each. Being environmentally sensitive, people were asked to use the rejected water that the iJal station produced as a byproduct to clean toilets and to water the gardens at the local government schools.

A lighthouse initiative

The water aunties were elated at their new-found management and social skills, which increased their confidence and brought them respect in the family and community. “Everybody in the village knows us now whereas, earlier, we were just housewives,” says Suvarna.

The iJal station at the Medak Hospital became a “lighthouse” initiative with many more iJal stations being set up. An increasing number of women were getting transformed as they became active leaders in the iJal value chain as entrepreneurs, operators, field executives and mobilisers, providing safe water.

According to Poonam Sewak, Vice-President, Programmes and Partnerships, Safe Water Network, “Social and cultural barriers that have largely prevented women from availing job opportunities are being broken. There is a kind of gender mainstreaming in the water sector that seeks to balance differences between men and women in different aspects of their lives, from gaining access to information, controlling resources, being included in decision-making, and contributing to the domestic economy.”

With strong participation from State lawmakers, district administration and local government, mainstream participation of women was encouraged and female entrepreneurship and livelihoods promoted. The programme was developed with inputs from women SHGs and lessons from experience in the field.

Within a span of 14 months, 49 SHGs were set up with 170 women entrepreneurs actively managing stations in the operational cluster in Medak. These decentralised and locally-owned community water purification systems provide affordable, reliable and safe off-grid drinking water access to over 5,10,000 people in the community.

They are generating enough revenue from daily water sale to cover local operating and maintenance costs. The iJal stations are supported by a local Field Service Entity (FSE) for maintenance and repair to ensure reliability of services.

The District Collector provided the official contribution as infrastructure (land and building). Existing SHGs with 12-18 members were identified in each village. They were trained to advocate the importance of safe drinking water throughout the community.

The district administration coordinated and facilitated meetings and discussions with women, local governance and village elders and also attended the launch of new stations, which was critical for normalising the SHGs’ role in water supply and system management, and driving initial consumer enrolment and penetration.

While the technical input and trainings were provided by the Safe Water Network, the funding came from Honeywell Hometown Solutions India Foundation.



Maharashtra takes the cue

According to Dr Akshay Bellare, President, Honeywell India, “Women in Telangana have shown the way by embracing technology and taking on management roles, moving away from traditional livelihoods centred on agriculture and artisanship. They have changed the traditional top-down patriarchal approach to water provision, opening up opportunities for women’s participation in income-generating roles as SWE entrepreneurs, operators, managers, mobilisers and field functionaries.”

Buoyed by the success of the project in Telangana, Honeywell and SWNI are now commissioning a network of iJal water stations in Maharashtra. The plan is to set up 30 stations across Chandrapur, Gadchiroli, Gondia, and Bhandara districts, with women self-help groups owning and managing many of these stations.

Published on May 15, 2020

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