cover story

A flood of solutions

The Tata Water Mission has taken the collaborative route to reach the most precious of resources to people and communities in dire need

Aregular supply of water is the big reason for the ready smile and positive attitude with which Devibai Grasiya greets visitors to her modest dwelling in Gharat, a village in Rajasthan’s Sirohi district. “I’m happy with what has happened in my hamlet,” says the 55-year-old tribal as she settles down to explaining the difference a tap at her doorstep has made to the everyday lives of her family.

“Till about a year back, I would spend three hours every morning fetching water,” says Ms Devibai, who had to depend on two erratic sources for the elixir: a hand pump about a kilometre away from her home and, when that ran dry — which it frequently did — a distant well. “There were constant fights over water and we barely had enough for a weekly bath. I had to send my kids to school unwashed and the schoolteacher was constantly asking them why they were so dirty. It upset me no end.”

The drudgery and distress of those days have been pushed into the past ever since Ms Devibai and others in her village became part of the Tata Water Mission (TWM), an inclusive, comprehensive and extensive programme that has covered in excess of 3.5 million people spread over 4,000 villages in 12 states across India.

Women are at the heart of this initiative, a fact Ms Devibai is keen to highlight. “When the water scheme was mooted, the women of the village were the most enthusiastic about it, simply because we were the ones bearing the burden. We got together and pressed for it to be implemented.”

The word ‘mission’ is an appropriate descriptor of what TWM truly represents, in execution as much as ambition: an idea to help craft a healthier future for India by providing underserved communities with easy access to clean drinking water, by improving sanitation practices and by promoting better hygiene.

The partners

  • The Indian government
  • State governments
  • Charities and foundations
  • Nonprofit organisations
  • Village communities

The agenda

  • Delivering access to safe drinking water
  • Assuring supply and protecting water sources
  • Enabling sustainable sanitation facilities and services
  • Driving behavioural change for better hygiene

The approach

  • Building and enabling community-centred institutions
  • Promoting the use of innovative technology solutions
  • Ensuring economic viability and sustainability
  • Improving water quality and availability
  • Crafting an inclusive social development process

Collaboration is the essential ingredient in the approach of the Mission, which blends water schemes and projects in close association with the central and state governments, philanthropic foundations and an array of nonprofit organisations.

The Mission is a leap of faith for the Tata Trusts and a potent example of what can be done to alter the alarming narrative on India’s wretched water woes. There is no debating the absolute need for immediate, even radical, answers to the country’s water crisis.

The complication lies in finding a suitable mix of means and methods to accelerate the pace of change.

The effort to seek out dynamic solutions in water, sanitation and hygiene (or WaSH) was what led the Trusts to setting up TWM in 2014. The intent of the Trusts, right from the beginning, was to get involved directly in implementation, with ears to the ground and feet on the move. Being a passive supporter has its merits but not for a programme such as this, where scale and depth are critical.

The shift in perspective was a necessity given India’s dire scenario on water. “Our focus previously was on investing in infrastructure for the community, but gradually we realised the limitations on that front,” explains Divyang Waghela, who heads TWM. “With the Mission we are playing the role of facilitator while helping create an ecosystem where multiple stakeholders — most crucially the government — can come together and run in a common direction.”

Government is the key

Mr Waghela points to the capital-intensive nature of programmes in the WaSH sphere to underscore the importance of having the government as torchbearer as well as principal participant. “We work closely at the central and state levels to try and utilise mainstream resources for interventions at scale.” The use of technology to address, in particular, issues of water quality and contamination — rampant all over India — and behavioural change communication are two other aspects of the Mission’s work.

We are playing the role of facilitator while helping create an ecosystem where multiple stakeholders — most crucially the government — can come together...”

Divyang Waghela , head, Tata Water Mission

Community mobilisation is central to what TWM has been able to accomplish. That’s where the Mission’s endeavour starts and that’s how it is sustained. The sequence in every WaSH programme’s unfolding is the same, no matter the composition of a target area or its challenges: the influencers among the village women are indentified and motivated, water committees are formed and plans frozen, money for infrastructure and other expenses is collected, and then the implementation kicks in. The pattern on outcomes follows a similar trajectory: piped water at the doorstep, a properly built latrine, and an education on the health benefits of hygiene.

Convincing villagers to contribute money for infrastructure cost — 10% is the standard for a household — is a surmountable issue when it comes to ensuring a steady, clean and nearby source of water. With sanitation, the storyline has to accommodate twists and turns. Any number of reasons have been advanced for India’s lacklustre performance in the building and use of toilets, from lack of resources, policy failures and illiteracy to culture, religion, social norms, even the effects of colonial rule. The behavioural change component in TWM is aimed at hurdling over such barriers.

‘Clean’ revolution

“The day every one of us gets a toilet to use, I shall know that our country has reached the pinnacle of progress,” said Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister. The Narendra Modi government has stretched its sinews to translate that sentiment into reality through the remarkable Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM). Launched in 2014, the Mission’s goal is to end open defecation in India by 2019 and it has unprecedented political backing and splendid support from the private sector and civil society. It is estimated that upwards of $25 billion (about 1.8 trillion) has been spent on making the Mission a success and, as of november 2018, nearly 87 million toilets have been constructed under the initiative.

Building a toilet is one thing, getting people to use it quite another. The changing of mindsets becomes vital in the context and TWM has concentrated on this facet in its operational zones and elsewhere, too, notably through the Zila Swachh Bharat Prerak programme, a pan-India effort that provides young professionals the opportunity to spur social development in rural India. The 500-odd preraks (or motivators) in the project are sanitation warriors, as TWM terms them, and they work with district administrations in the design, implementation and monitoring of SBM interventions.

For Kanchanbai Solanki, a 47-year-old mother of two who lives in Old Kotda village of Junagadh district in Gujarat, awareness gained from the behavioural change campaigns conducted by TWM has gone beyond water and sanitation, and so has she. “I hardly stepped out of my house before I became associated with this project,” she says. “I have learned so much from it. I joined the water committee, then the local women’s federation, and I got the chance to go to Delhi to collect an award [after Old Kotda finished second in a competition to select model villages].”

Gujarat has been an unalloyed success for TWM. Operating through the Coastal Salinity Prevention Cell, a partnership with the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) and the Ambuja Cement Foundation, the Mission has reached more than 450 villages. It has tapped into government schemes and connected well with village bodies and the Water and Sanitation Management Organisation, a state institution working for community welfare.

Awareness first

“We conducted a lot of awareness programmes — street plays, video shows, village meetings and the like — we built capacity in the community and made them capable of implementing, managing and sustaining their WaSH projects independently,” says Ketan Hingu, a programme manager with the Mission. The challenges have been plenty, though. “Getting the community to contribute money was not easy. The question we kept getting asked was: ‘Why do we have to pay for something as basic as water? Isn’t that the government’s responsibility?’ Our answer was that the community had to take ownership. The women of the villages came around to our point of view and took the lead.”

The WaSH ride has been rougher for the Mission in Rajasthan, where tribal communities comprise the majority of beneficiaries. “Initially there was a lack of belief in our people and in our organisation,” says Pankaj Papnoi, who oversees the programme in the state. “The most difficult part was getting the community to put up their 10% share of the cost. We persevered and it has paid off; reluctance has given way to acceptance. Making them understand that they are the owners of the system has been the key.”

The time Mr Papnoi and his team have spent on community mobilisation has been worth it for the Mission in Rajasthan, where interventions cover about 70,000 people in 250 villages through the Centre for microFinance, an associate organisation of the Tata Trusts. “In my experience, it’s easier to work in tribal regions,” says Mr Papnoi. “Once the community’s suspicions disappeared, we were able to swing the balance.”

TWM invested in technology for the sanitation part and in mason training to construct toilets. Most importantly, it devoted attention to driving home the WaSH message in a novel manner.

‘Social art’ was the chosen medium of communication and it proved a huge hit with the target audience. Folk forms of theatre and music were combined to mount night shows that attracted crowds of up to 3,500 enthralled villagers. Staged by professional artistes and performers, these thematic shows were part entertainment, part education and they focused on sanitation and hygiene.

The inspiration for the social art tack came from One Drop, the Canadian charity that partners TWM in Rajasthan. One Drop was established by Guy Laliberté, the co-founder of Cirque du Soleil circus, famous all over the world for its flamboyant and cinematic productions. “One Drop pioneered the ‘social art for behaviour change’ approach,” says Marie-Anne Tawil, the charity’s chief executive. “Cirque du Soleil engages the audience in a story with imagery, songs, dance — and very few words. It is the main source of this approach, which integrates a systematic and evidence-based process that takes into consideration the community’s cultural and artistic references to create social art interventions.”

Collaborations of the kind with One Drop are the backbone of TWM’s multi-pronged methodology, and it takes loads of effort to calibrate them to everybody’s advantage. “It has been very difficult to craft a long-term partnership like this,” says Apoorva Oza, who heads AKRSP. “You have to curate such institutional relationships because in a partnership many things can go wrong. Our tie-up with the Trusts is growing and doing well. What I appreciate is the space and respect the Trusts have given to its partners. That calls for humility and mutual respect.”

Phoolaram Khumaji of Jhadoli village in the Sirohi district of Rajasthan has benefitted from a rooftop rainwater harvesting scheme implemented under the Mission

Uniting to thrive

Mr Oza emphasises the need to concentrate on the transformational rather than the transactional in the social development space. “There is too much money going for transactional work,” he says. “We have to somehow get the state and corporate entities to invest in transformational processes. We need to be ambitious and partnerships allow us to do that. There is so much to do in a village and, on your own, you can know only a few things, not everything. You can have resources for only four things, not 40. There is no choice but to collaborate.”

Coming together, in the circumstances, is an imperative, not an option, and Mr Waghela understands that. “We see ourselves as the pivot for such a joining of hands; it’s critical to achieve scale,” he says. “But the biggest challenge is sustainability, in institutions, finances and systems.”

The 150-member team behind TWM has a 2020 deadline to achieve its objectives, and an ever-expanding list of tasks to complete by then. There’s water security, waste management, menstrual hygiene, technology solutions to tackle water contamination, linking water to themes such as livelihoods, education and health, policy advocacy, and more.

Every human society has been shaped by its relationship with water, a resource that is becoming more precious with every passing day. TWM, which expects to touch the lives of 6 million people in 7,000 Indian villages over the next two years, will have a role to execute in protecting this resource and in making it available to those who need it most.

Easy access to clean water has brightened up the lives of these kids from Kundal village in Rajasthan’s Sirohi district

Stories from a new world of water

Rengibai Grasiya, 38 years, Kundal village, Sirohi district, Rajasthan

Getting water was always women’s work. In my family it’s me or my girls who did it; never my boys or my husband. I would go three-four times a day to fetch water from faraway wells and it took two-three hours. It was a backbreaking task but there were no options.

Previously, we had a few hand pumps in our village but you had to wake up early in the morning to secure your share. Be late and the water would slow down to a trickle. There were always too many people at the pumps, there were constant quarrels and the situation worsened in the summer months.

When the Tata Water Mission people first came here, the villagers used to say these are outsiders, that they would take our money and disappear. But slowly we were convinced. Putting up 3,000 of our money was tough, but the benefits were so obvious. We would get water at our doorstep and that was a big, big thing.

The toilets were a different matter. Going out at night to the fields is dangerous around here; there are snakes around and even otherwise it’s not always safe for women. You had to go with someone else; never alone. We had to go before sunrise or after sundown. Sleep was a luxury.

Water at the doorstep of our house has been a boon in every which way. I used to take a bath once or twice a week; now I can bathe twice a day. My children don’t fall sick as frequently and I have some spare time for myself. I cannot imagine how I managed in days gone by.

Kanchanbai Solanki, 47 years, Old Kotda village, Junagadh district, Gujarat

We didn’t have any drinking water in our village before the water project reached us. It used to take me three hours a day to bring water to my house and that left me with no time for myself or my children. I guess I just got used to it.

Initially the women in the village were very reluctant and very sceptical about joining the proposed water scheme. I was educated so I understood what they were saying and I explained to the others that it sounded good and that we should do it. The benefits were so obvious, especially for us women.

We formed a water committee and I was part of it. That’s when I began being exposed to the world outside my home. It was liberating. I began teaching at the village anganwadi (child-care centre) and I joined the district women’s federation.

Best of all, I completed my graduation [BA arts] three years back. I gave the exams along with my son and I was the oldest person in the hall. I would always finish answering my papers before the girls in the room. My son got 75% and I got 73%.

I was invited once to give a guest lecture to a bunch of about 50 fellowship students. Obviously, I had never done anything like it and I was nervous. But I pulled it off and I got several questions from the audience. There was another woman who spoke and she did not get a single one.

I enjoy working for the village. I wouldn’t mind joining politics, maybe become the sarpanch [head of the local self-government body]. Why not?