Rahul Suresh: Bagar Drinking Water Initiative

Fellowship, Programs, Progress Reports

SEPT 15, 2008 – MAR 15, 2009

Rahul Suresh, August 2008 Fellow
Grassroots Development Laboratory

dsc05818Background and Project Vision

For the past seven months I have been living at the Grassroots Development Laboratrory (GDL) in Bagar, Rajasthan and working with a social enterprise start up called Sarvajal. GDL was established in 2006 to bring together young people and foster innovative, scalable solutions to development challenges facing India. Sarvajal, originally called the Bagar Drinking Water Initiative, is one of a few successful initiatives spun off by GDL. Although I came to Bagar expecting to work solely with BDWI, My multiple identities as an Indicorps Fellow, a GDL volunteer, and a Sarvajal staff member have compelled me to accept a far more diverse and richer set of roles and responsibilities.

Primary project:
Sarvajal Franchise Development :
Sarvajal’s mission is to make access to clean, safe drinking water available to everyone, focusing on those who currently can’t afford or don’t have access to clean water. To realize this mission, Sarvajal employs a franchise model in which local entrepreneurs are leased a reverse osmosis machine and supported by the company to provide water to their communities. Water is priced at a very low cost of 25 paise, and the revenue that comes from water sales is shared between Sarvajal and the entrepreneur.

Sarvajal operates in a region where household incomes are low and water is traditionally not sold. Consequently, we face tremendous challenges in encouraging consumption of clean water, especially among poorer communities. In addition, working in rural Rajasthan, it has been difficult to find and train dedicated, skilled employees and franchisees. As a Sarvajal team member my role is to support and develop our young franchises so that they can achieve their potential to reach those in need of clean drinking water.

By creating a strong, vibrant network of capable and committed franchisees and a system that supports them, I hope that I can help lay the foundation for future efforts to scale across Rajasthan and across India.

Secondary Projects:
Bagar Ultimate:
While classroom learning instills book knowledge, team sports have the capacity to build valuable life skills such as responsibility, leadership, self-discipline, sportsmanship and team work in addition to nurturing a lifelong love of fitness and exercise. However, most local youth lack access to organized team sports despite the abundance of schools and colleges in the Bagar area. The novelty value of frisbee, its focus on fairness and team play, and the initial equality it provides to players as a foreign sport make it an ideal team sport to experiment with. Within the next few months, Pulkit, another Indicorps Fellow at GDL, and I intend to create a frisbee league with teams from the local communities and hold practices and tournaments that promote the game. By the end of our tenure, we hope to have a self-sustaining system that is run by local coaches, that promotes the game and the values that its built on, and gives dedicated, energetic individuals an opportunity to compete nationally.

Bagar Sanitation Program:
Like much of rural India, Bagar lacks access to proper liquid and solid waste disposal systems and facilities. However, there is an earnest desire among community members to find a solution to the ever present sewage and garbage that cover the streets. Trying to tap this desire for change, I have collaborated with some of the more dedicated and outspoken individuals from one of the local neighborhoods to design a system to collect trash, find resources to build liquid waste disposal pits, and organize the community to take action. We hope that by engaging the community and implementing a working system, we can create a model that can be scaled to accommodate the needs of the larger community and inspires those who want to promote better sanitary practices.

GDL Leadership and Development:
GDL’s potential to inspire young people to make an impact and drive innovation is limited by the clarity of its vision, strength of its leadership, and the quality and dedication of its volunteers. Lack of one one or more of these have been causes of turmoil and disturbance since the organization’s inception. To put in place longterm solutions that would address these issues, the two other Indicorps Fellows and I took up leadership responsibilities at GDL. We have reformulated a set of values for the organization that will help us set organizational culture, conduct outreach, recruit volunteers, and build stronger relationships and collaborations with the local community. Ultimately, we would like to see GDL reach its potential to inspire and encourage a whole new generation of young people to dedicate their time, energy and talents to creating tangible change in India.

Project Goals and Future Plans

Primary project:
Sarvajal Franchise Development:

•    Sales, Marketing, and Awareness generation
- Determine a strategy to encourage franchisees to focus on residential customers (instead of store owners)
- Find ways to improve the effectiveness of current sales strategies and identify new ones to make it easier for franchisees to build their residential customer base.
- Encourage franchisees to conduct awareness generation activities to promote the use of clean drinking water, especially amongst the poor and disenfranchised

•    Daily Operations and Best Practices
- Help franchisees streamline their daily operations to be able to serve more customers and reach a larger percentage of the population
- Implement systems and processes to maintain business discipline, quickly identify problem areas and address them, and provide quality service to our franchisees

•    Franchisee Welfare
- Develop a training program that instructs franchisees on how to properly run a water oultet including everything form daily operations to image building
- Give franchisees an opportunity to network with each other so that they can share successful practices, get motivated by each others’ work, and build a stronger sense of community
- Create a feedback system for franchisees that provides them an avenue to air their grievances, questions, and comments to the company

Of the things in the above list, my priorities are to institute a long-term training program that allows us to connect and interact with our franchisees on a monthly basis and to standardize the basic marketing and awareness generation activities that all franchisees need to perform.

Secondary Projects:
Bagar Ultimate:

•    Run a promotion campaign in Bagar and surrounding areas to raise awareness about frisbee
•    Hold practices on Tuesday and Thursdays for those who are interested in more advanced skills identify ways to develop youths’ soft skills
•    Plan a local tournament between teams from different hamlets (end of April)
•    Organize youth into teams according by their hamlet
•    Organize an interstate tournament with Indicorps frisbee team (early July)
•    Identify 15-20 youth who are highly dedicated and enthusiastic and who want to attend an interstate tournament
•    Identify coaches and captains that can carry the league forward after Fellows departure

Bagar Sanitation Program:
•    Identify the resources necessary to build a soak pit (simple liquid waste disposal system)
•    Get funding for soak pits with focus on contribution from the community and the Nagar Palika (local governing body)
•    Build soak pit and use event to get community buy in into sanitation program
•    Identify and implement a system to collect trash from houses and to dispose off in land fill
•    Raise awareness about these activities among rest of Bagar community to encourage adoption of these practices
•    Slowly transfer responsibilities of implementing this program to Gauri Shankar to make this project sustainable and to build his leadership capacity

GDL Leadership and Development:
•     Establish GDL’s outreach and brand building protocol
- Redesign the GDL website to streamline the interface between GDL and potential volunteers, sponsors, and peers in the development field
- Redefine GDL’s strategic vision and platform to better recruit highly qualified international volunteers

•     Develop a program for volunteer recruitment, management and assessment
- Figure out best way to recruit highly qualified, energetic individuals for current initiatives
- Determine how to manage and support them to help them reach their potential
- Identify documentation protocol that could help foster a culture of self-reflection and self-accountability

•     Increase community involvement of GDL members and grow collaborative community efforts
- Identify ways to inspire GDL members to engage with the community outside their projects
- Encourage collaborative side projects with the community that increase interaction between the two communities
- Increase awareness about GDL’s purpose, vision, and current projects amongst local community
- Determine an effective way to disseminate information about GDL activities to the local community

Project Implementation Progress and Future Plans
Primary project:
Sarvajal Franchise Development :
During my first few months in Bagar, Sarvajal was going through growing pains that were part of the expansion process. Although Tushar and I were brought on to the project to resolve some of these issues, a lack of sound, consistent leadership meant that our talents and energy were underutilized. Both of us struggled to find our niche and understand the intersection between service and social enterprise. There many days during which I would vacillate between spending my time in the community engaging in the sort of grassroots service that I came for and in the office firefighting, creating documentation and processes, and managing employees.  I wanted to contribute to the company’s success but didn’t want to sacrifice such an important part of my fellowship experience.

In December Tushar and I were forced to take a more central role in operations and business development when the head of Rajasthan operations transferred to the Ahmedabad office. Since our interests were in helping the company make a social impact we were given roles that accommodated these goals. Tushar was to develop strategies to reach poor, base of the pyramid customers while I was to be in charge of franchise business development (FBD). In addition, we were each made responsible for implementing the systems and processes that the main office in Ahmedabad developed.

Initially I struggled a lot with my new responsibilities. Prior to coming to India, I had never even been interested in business let alone study it, yet here I was trying to run the business development wing of the regional operations. One of my first tasks was to manage the local marketing field worker. However, iinstead of managing him, I ended up working by his side in the field. As we started expanding, the pressure grew for me to do more. I became responsible for developing strategies to reach rural customers, helping our franchises increase their sales, and determining how to streamline their operations. Yet, the entire time I had neither the experience nor the guidance to be effective. I felt inadequate and at times wanted nothing more than to just walk away.

It was also a daily struggle trying to balance community immersion with my commitments to Sarvajal. I hated sitting in the office. I wanted to take advantage of the opportunities that I had to learn about Rajasthani culture, to try work with the poor, to enjoy the music, dance, and food at the homes of my new found second families and the million other things that community immersion offered. However, I also cherished the tremendous personal growth I experienced in my new role. I found it utilized my strengths while pushing me beyond my comfort zone. This creative tension never felt right; it seemed like there had to be an ideal balance. Despite my best efforts I could never think gray, could never accept that there may not be a “right” balance.

More recently, as I’ve developed a better understanding of the challenges we face and managed my expectations better, things have slowly started to fall in place. I’ve broken down FBD into franchise sales and marketing strategy, franchise daily operation and best practices development, and franchisee welfare which includes training and establishing feedback systems. This has helped me get a better idea of what the priorities are and how they are interconnected. For example, I’ve realized that most of my work to date has been in marketing and sales. As a result, I’ve refocused my efforts on identifying and implementing best practices, on creating better recording keeping documents and developing a training program. On a personal level, I’ve stopped second-guessing myself. In the beginning, my inexperience played on my mind frequently. I wouldn’t trust any of my decisions, and that in turn inherently made me a bad decision maker. So I’ve tried to be less self-critical, and make the best decision I can with the information I have.

To an extent, I’ve also come to terms with the creative tension between community work and Sarvajal work. When I started the fellowship, I brought with me a full baggage of expectations. Despite being warned during orientation, I failed to manage those expectations and allowed them to set the tone for the year. I’ve since learned to adjust my expectations to the ground realities while maintaining a healthy level of ambition. I’ve also embraced my Sarvajal responsibilities, identifying ways to contribute while engaging local communities. I’ve abolished my negative perceptions of office work, accepting that it is a necessary part of my experience that just needs to be adequately moderated. Most importantly, I have found ways to work with the Bagar community through secondary projects outside of Sarvajal work. Since finding this tentative balance, I’ve been much happier, motivated and productive.

Going forward, I am really excited by the opportunity to shape company culture and to play a significant role in the development of our franchises. I hope that I can utilize my talents and skills to not only help our franchisees succeed but to support and encourage them to become socially responsible leaders.

Secondary Projects:
Bagar Ultimate:
When we started Bagar Ultimate, it was just an hour long throwing session in the evenings outside of the GDL compound. Since frisbee was a completely foreign sport, we had no idea what type of turn out to expect. Although it started with just the two of us, by the first week we had 15 regular players. We began keeping a roster and holding formal practices with drills and exercises. It was amazing how quickly the kids learned. Within a month they became proficient at throwing forehands and backhands, at pivoting, at defending, and had learned the basic rules of the game.

By the time Indicorps workshop rolled around the first week of March, we were ready to increase the intensity by holding a small tournament. When we approached the kids about the idea, we were told that none of them would be able to come because of year-end exams. When we returned from workshop, we tried to continue holding practices, but only two, three kids would show up. A bit deflated, we decided to stop the practices until exams were over.

Over the break we reformulated our plans and formalized the program by setting goals and benchmarks and scheduling regular outreach activities and practices. Our hope is that a formal structure will allow the sport to expand its interest base even after we leave. Going forward we will be holding biweekly practices on Tuesdays and Thursdays and marketing the sport in local communities on the weekends. We hope that by immersing in the community we can get a wider range of people than by playing at the school. With enough players, we would like to form teams from each community and hold a tournament to promote competition and goal-setting.

Ultimately, by the end of my stay, I would love to be able to take a small group of the best players to Ahmedabad for a tournament against the Indicorps team. I think the kids would really enjoy the experience and learn a lot about what competitive frisbee is all about. More importantly, I want our kids to become ambassadors of the game, by taking leadership as captains and coaches, by show casing their talent, and by displaying qualities such as integrity, team-work and sportsmanship that are the core principles of the game.

Bagar Sanitation Program:
In early October, GDL held a two-week sanitation drive to clean up Bagar in preparation for the all important Indian festival, Diwali. The drive was very successful and well publicized, eliciting involvement from a large number of community members while significantly reducing the amount of street trash. However, the one complaint that the community had with it was that it wasn’t sustainable. Since that event, I have been approached many times about putting in place a long term solution. Local community members have a latent desire to clean up their streets. What they lack is solid leadership and someone to drive the effort. So nearly three months ago, I approached one of our local staff members, Gauri Shankar, about cleaning up his ward. He loved the idea and together we created a plan of action.

In the intervening three months, not much else has happened. Our plan of action was to create a model system out of one of the neighborhoods of Bagar. We wanted to address both liquid and solid waste. For liquid waste we were planning on a building a soak pit, a shallow well (20-30ft) that recharges waste water into the ground. For solid waste (trash), we wanted to collaborate with the local government body (Nagar Palika) to use their trash collectors to pick up household trash. One reason for the delay has been waiting for the Nagar Palika to grant permission to build the soak pit and to approve the use of their trash collector. Another reason for the delay has been our inability to properly research soak pits and identify a design that meets our needs. We have also have had to put off applying for funding as a result.

Going forward, we are looking to understand more about soak pits and apply for appropriate funding. One of the nearby villages has recently been awarded the Nirmal Gram Puruskar prize, a national government-sponsored sanitation award, for being one of the cleanest villages in the country. I paid a visit to the Sarpanch (head of the local governing body) that has been responsible for the transformation and have convinced him to show me some of the soak pits they have built. I have also spoken to the GDL CEO about getting internal funding. I hope to have both the research and funding sorted out by mid-April and the soak pit built by the end of the month. Once the soak pit is done, Gauri Shankar and I will begin a larger awareness campaign to generate interest in this model and to help scale it to the rest of the community.

One of the main concerns that is yet to be fully addressed is the long-term sustainability of this project. Although building a single soakpit is helpful for the respective neighborhood, it doesn’t directly impact the larger Bagar community. Our purpose in building this soak pit is to demonstrate that we are serious about fundamentally changing sanitary practices. Many past projects, sanitation or otherwise, have failed to come through on their lofty promises, so people tend to be extremely skeptical of initiatives with large-scale plans. I’ve heard from several local community members that taking action on these types of long-standing problems tends to generate excitement and will inevitably lead to greater community involvement. In that vein, I am hoping that building this soak pit will pave the way for getting community buy-in and participation, while putting us on the path towards a model neighborhood.

GDL Leadership and Development:
When Tushar, Pulkit and I took over leadership responsibilities we were excited by the immense potential that GDL had to bring together people like ourselves, who were searching for the support and resources they needed to apply their talent and energy to make an impact. We believed that if we could put in place a collaborative, community oriented organizational culture, the appropriate support systems for volunteers and staff, and filled the place with high energy, well qualified people, we would have a special program on our hands.

In the three months since, progress has been slow but consistent. GDL was a place with a dysfunctional community atmosphere in which people would regularly squabble, arguments would break out spontaneously, project groups didn’t collaborate, and rules and policies were frequently disobeyed. Since coming on, we have been able to address some of the core grievances that inhibited the collaboration and cooperation that everyone desired. In doing so, we have put in place new policies, lead by our actions and taken responsibility for things that others weren’t willing to do. For example, at GDL it is our policy to have a daily meeting in which every project and every individual share their daily accomplishments and challenges. When we took over, the meetings weren’t even happening. People thought they were a complete waste of time. After listening to and addressing people’s issues with the meeting, we instituted a new meeting style. At first it wasn’t popular and was seen as another attempt to impose culture. However, we began making meetings fun by doing activities afterwards, everything from academic presentations to team games. Now meetings are attended regularly by everyone, and more importantly, people share their ideas freely and enjoy themselves while doing so.

Despite such successes, we still have a long way to go. In order to make these cultural practices sustainable we are creating a handbook that discusses the values that GDL espouses and lays out the policies that come out of those values. That handbook was supposed to be done by March, but it still isn’t even half done. Similarly, we were supposed to have posted project descriptions to recruit new volunteers by the end of February, and they still haven’t been posted. Part of the problem has been that we have all been working on everything, making us unproductive and inefficient. Recently, the three of us, Tushar, Pulkit and I, convened to redistribute our responsibilities so we could better use our time.  Another issue is sluggishness on the part of the GDL CEO, who has to briefly check and approve many of these measures that we want to implement. We have little control over this, so we hope that we can push him to expedite the completion of these tasks.

Looking forward, I have faith that before we leave we will recruit a new batch of exciting young people, build a culture that they are happy to be a part of, and make the community stakeholders in GDL’s success. Nothing would make me happier than to see this place grow and thrive to provide my peers the opportunity to learn about themselves and India while making a positive impact on the lives of others.

Detailed Goal-Setting & Implementation Planning

Plans for the upcoming two weeks:





· Figure out how to do marketing/sales in future

· Figure out if we need to do customer surveys

· Deepak has now has visited all the franchisees at least once. Need to figure out what value he can add in the future.

· Need to figure out how surveys fit into larger marketing plan

Operations/Processes/Best Practices

· Figure out how I want to determine best practices – potentially visiting franchisees

· Working on a new delivery system

· Hoping to do day visits to franchisees to assess challenges, to note best practices, and get their opinion on a training program

· Hope to have delivery system in place by next report

Franchisee Training

· Need to develop a training program for franchisees

· Hope to have completed the first training program and have the structure and content of future programs planned out by end of April

Sales Team Training

· Create a training program for Shiv and Nalin

· Want to start becoming more selective in choosing franchisees, and in order to do so, sales guys need to be trained


Volunteer Recruitment/Mangement

· Finalize GDL project descriptions and post

· Figure out what needs to be done for VR/M

· Need to figure out where to post

· Plan out VR/M process w/ lots of detail and delegate tasks to GDL admin


Frisbee League

· Do outreach at least 4 times in the next two weeks

· Have at least 4 practices in the two weeks

· Both need to happen so we can get on a regular schedule

Bagar Sanitation Program

· Research soak pits

· Write proposal

· Do more internet research and talk to ESI staff

· See if Anand actually wants a hard proposal and how much money he is willing to provide


Personal Workshop

· Confirm trip to WaterAid in May

· Confirmed with WaterAid, will be there from May 4th to 6th learning about their low-cost latrine initiative and social marketing techniques at their rural and urban NGO partner site

Understandings & Personal Growth

I have stepped far outside my comfort zone this year. I have coached a group of kids I can hardly communicate with; I have managed a man older than myself in a field I had no experience with; I have helped run an organization and lead a group of people older and more experienced than myself; and I have tried to motivate a community to help themselves with what they perceive as intractable problems. These are all challenges that I never expected to encounter when I lived in the US. I probably would never been a coach, a manager, a team leader or a community organizer. Yet, in just seven months, I have had a chance to do all those things.

When I look back on these experiences it is clear that I struggled, but it is also clear that from that struggle I emerged a more confident and entrepreneurial person. I now better understand my own strengths and weaknesses, my own limitations, my passions, and most importantly my potential for leadership. It is this potential that I believe will have the most impact on my post-fellowship journey. I no longer see myself as a static participant of events in my life but rather as the dynamic initiator. I now feel empowered to blaze a new path, be entrepreneurial, and to inspire others to do the same.

I am by no means an adept leader. I don’t speak eloquently,  I am not a charismatic personality, and I definitely don’t have the most intriguing of backgrounds. What I have learned though is that it doesn’t take outstanding personal qualities to inspire  others. To help others reach their potential, which is what I believe is the true value of a leader, you just have to have a vision that speaks to them, the passion to carry through with that vision, and the willingness to accept and deal with setbacks. I am certain I possess those qualities and am as eager as ever to apply them to the opportunities that await.

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