Vasu Padmanabhan, CEO, Piramal Sarvajal: Water ATMs making a splash in India

Date of publication: 05 February 2017

A counter on the Piramal Sarvajal home page reads: “526,249,650 litres served and counting…” That’s a tally of over half a billion litres of pure drinking water served to the most disenfranchised areas of India.

Water is a basic need for human existence, but some 150 million underserved Indians lack reliable access to safe drinking water at affordable prices. In 2008, the Piramal Foundation – the philanthropic arm of the Ajay Piramal-led Piramal Group – started Sarvajal (meaning “water for all” in Sanskrit) as a pilot project in Bagar, Rajasthan. The aim was to provide affordable safe drinking water through the introduction of technology and pure drinking water solutions.

Problems of poverty are, on most occasions, Inextricably linked with those of water – its availability, its proximity, its quantity, and its quality.

United Nations’ World Water Report, 2015

Operating in areas with significant health challenges caused by contamination, Piramal uses a franchisee network to sell purified water at an affordable price in both rural villages and urban slums. CEO Vasu Padmanabhan aim is to “resolve issues that are critical roadblocks towards unlocking India’s economic potential.”

Centralised systems of water treatment via pipelines are often costly and don’t make sense for dispersed populations. “Transporting a heavy substance such as water takes affordable purification out of the reach of the poor,” Padmanabhan explains. “Sarvajal’s solutions are pioneered on a model built around decentralised water-filtration plants, supplying water to further decentralised ‘Water ATMs’ located throughout the community that are not currently connected to the municipal water supply.”

Solar-powered, cloud-connected Water ATMs are exactly what they sound like. Found in densely packed residential areas in busy streets, stores, schools and hospitals, the kiosks dispense water instead of cash.

Customers purchase a ‘water balance’ on prepaid rechargeable cards. Easily topped up using a mobile phone, swiped cards give 24/7 access to water that is cheaper than any other outlet. The dispensed water has been purified at localised plants to remove germs and to make sure that minerals, such as harmful fluoride, are kept within recommended levels. Vending machines allow people to fill their containers and give credit balances and information about water quality.

Water ATMs are an attractive business opportunity for franchisees who act as community water stewards, pre-paying Savarjal for the technology to filter water locally and sell it on – and the franchising model works for Savarjal as it allows them to penetrate local markets. Village level entrepreneurs are trained to operate water treatment systems and provided with water purification technology, maintenance and marketing tools. A cloud-based programmable logic controller device called the ‘Soochak’ is installed on each of their treatment plants to monitor quality, litres produced, machine health and the amount of wastewater created.

Much to Sarvajal’s surprise, uptake was rapid, because although people weren’t used to paying for clean water, they understood its link to health. Currently over 180 Water ATMs serve 300,000 people daily across 12 Indian states. And the new technology is alluring ‘tech-savvy’ men, who see collecting water from the water ATMs as a way to show their ability to earn – and learn. Water-fetching and carrying duties have traditionally fallen to women and girls, so the gained time can be used for other income-generating opportunities.

The idea of dispensing water from automated machines is now being copied around the world. “Market-based models have a great replicability potential and that makes the journey from innovation to enabling many more people very exciting and fulfilling,” adds Padmanabhan.

On receiving last year’s ‘Corporate Trailblazer’ award from Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Piramal, who was recently named No.35 on the India Rich List, said, “This award for Piramal Sarvajal is a recognition of our efforts and vision for the year 2020 to expand from 300 locations to 1,500 locations and provide safe drinking water to over one million people every single day.”

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