Tushar Kansal: Providing Safe Drinking Water and Institution Building In Rural Rajasthan

Fellowship, Programs, Progress Reports

SEPT 15, 2008 – MAR 15, 2009

Tushar Kansal, August 2008 Fellow
Sarvajal / Grassroots Development Laboratory

dsc05902Background and Project Vision

Through my living and working spaces, I’m affiliated with two entities, the Grassroots Development Laboratory and Sarvajal (which is itself the brand name under which Piramal Water Pvt. Ltd. operates).

The Grassroots Development Laboratory (GDL) was established in 2006 as a partnership between the Piramal Foundation and Indicorps in order to engage talented and committed young people to find solutions to some of India’s most pressing development challenges.  The GDL mandate is to work towards locally-appropriate solutions that have national relevance and the potential to be scaled. GDL takes an experiment-based approach that integrates innovation and best practices while promoting social enterprise and participatory development. The initiative is designed to be an incubator for disruptive innovations and to be a partnership with the local community to collaboratively improve conditions in Bagar. GDL’s vision is to become a premier center for social enterprise in the global development community.

The Bagar Drinking Water Initiative was initially piloted at GDL in response to health problems caused by fluoride contamination in the local drinking water.  In order to ensure a scalable model that would drive innovation and allow this disruptive intervention to spread across India, the Bagar Drinking Water Initiative became Piramal Water Private Limited in 2008, at which point the Sarvajal brand name (meaning “water for everyone”) was introduced.  Sarvajal operates on a social enterprise model in which our product is priced cheaply enough for India’s poor to afford and revenues are directed towards maintenance and expansion. Sarvajal’s vision is to provide clean, safe drinking water at a highly-affordable price across India.

Project Goals and Future Plans

I signed up for what was called the “Bagar Drinking Water Initiative” because I was excited to be part of a start-up trying to solve India’s water problems.  Over the past couple of years, I’ve become increasingly conscious of the long-term challenges that India, and the rest of the world, faces in accessing fresh water and the grave health consequences of drinking contaminated water.  I wanted to work in rural India finding solutions to these problems and I thought that I would be taking an initiative forward basically from scratch—my project description said that one outlet had been opened which was selling safe drinking water at a highly-affordable price (15 paise per liter) and that it would be my responsibility to take the project to scale.  The idea of participating in a project based on a social enterprise model—that is, an NGO model with an earned-income component that allows it to operate without (or with limited) charitable support and quickly go to scale—was very appealing to me, especially after I had spent two years writing grant applications for financial support for the nonprofit organization that I previously worked for.

Within a couple of days of my arriving in Bagar, I realized that the project had moved far beyond the project description that had been written eight months prior.  In fact, that very day that I showed up, my former supervisor here in Bagar, Shashank, took me to the opening of the company’s third outlet—one of the thirty-odd that we now have.  In addition, having come into a project without a defined role, I started working on whatever was given to me—including, three weeks into my time here, managing the Sarvajal outlet in Jhunjhunu, the district headquarters.  Perhaps most emblematic of the shift that occurred when I arrived here back in September, three or four days after I arrived here I found out that the organization that I had applied to work at as a nonprofit had since incorporated as a privately-held, for-profit company.

Walking into GDL, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.  For my first few weeks here, I spent time getting to know people and learn a little bit about the local community.  I didn’t regard GDL as a particularly important part of my life—more so, just as a place to live and from which to work on my main project.

Gradually, over the course of the past seven months, I came to define projects and roles for myself both within Sarvajal and at GDL.  Through the course of my managing the Jhunjhunu Sarvajal outlet, I came to see that many of the customers that drink our water are relatively well-off—not the company’s target demographic, and not the reason that I came to work in rural India.  I started thinking about the importance of quickly, and aggressively, pursuing poor and village-dwelling populations and trying to reorient the core of the business around these customers.  This is what I intend to focus on for the remainder of my time with Sarvajal.  With regard to GDL, I spent a significant period of time being disenchanted with the dysfunction that was prevalent at this organization, and thinking about ways to leave.  Over the past couple of months, Rahul and Pulkit, the two other Indicorps Fellows living here, and I have taken on increasing amounts of responsibility trying to mold a positive, productive culture here at GDL; building for the organization’s long-term future; and running day-to-day functions of GDL.  For the remainder of my time here, I will focus on continuing to build the culture of GDL, promoting community-involvement by members of GDL, and laying the groundwork for the organization’s future.

Project Implementation Progress and Future Plans

After spending a few months working on various operational responsibilities for Sarvajal and trying to figure out how I wanted to focus my own efforts this year, I began working on trying to “reach the Bottom of the Pyramid” (BoP)—that is, the villagers and poor people who are most marginalized from the resources of mainstream society.  While I am still involved in various other responsibilities for the company, including managing the Jhunjhunu outlet, I will be focusing my efforts for the remainder of this year on “Going BoP.”

I began my efforts in one local village, Kali Pahardi, where I had made some community connections through one of my employees in Jhunjhunu.  I started by meeting various people in the community, including the Principal of a school, a local-government employee, a retired District Officer, and various other eminent people in the village.  After pursuing this route over a couple of days, I decided that meeting with supposedly-important people wasn’t actually getting my initiative any further, as they mostly told me that my project was good for the village and that I should move forward.  However, no one had very good suggestions on how I should go about doing so.

After becoming somewhat discouraged and losing focus, I shifted my efforts to Ashok Nagar, another village nearer to GDL in which previous Indicorps Fellows had built strong relationships.  I began by introducing myself to Mira ji, a woman who became close to Radhika, a past Fellow.  I also started building a relationship with Modi ji, a local shopkeeper.  One Sunday, I went out to Ashok Nagar with twenty litres of Sarvajal water and lemons and sugar.  In the village’s main open space, I set up an impromptu lemonade and free-water stand.  Although not very many adults came by, a lot of kids did, and so I started a game of kho.  On subsequent visits, I’ve gone door-to-door demonstrating the benefits of Sarvajal to people and telling them about my plan to bring safe drinking water to their village; harvested mustard, barley, and wheat; visited families; and continued to play with kids.

My plan going forward is to start a distribution system in Ashok Nagar.  I’m currently trying to recruit a transportation-provider (either a jeep or a small truck, called a tempo), and find houses and stores from which water can be picked up by neighbors.  I’m hoping to have this system running within two weeks, at which point various operational obstacles will have to be addressed, I’m sure.  My intention is to try different models and refine my efforts in the twelve villages surrounding near Bagar over the next few months, including trying different outreach and awareness-generation activities.  By the end of July, my goal is to have a replicable model for distributing water to villages and other areas where limited demand precludes installing a filtration machine and a stand-alone Sarvajal outlet.  Concurrently, I’m hoping to experiment with different models, including subsidies, to allow and encourage poor people, including the urban poor, to drink Sarvajal water.

At GDL, Rahul, Pulkit, and I (the three Indicorps Fellows who are placed here) started taking responsibility for the organization’s functioning and future about two months ago.  I began convening and facilitating evening GDL meetings, which have become ingrained as part of the routine here at GDL and serve as a space for all members of the GDL community to come together once a day.  I am particularly proud that people have started contributing to these meetings of their own volition and that the meetings lack the tension and vitriol that they previously had.  The three of us also went through a process of creating a set of values for GDL that will underpin the organization and provide guidance going forward.  Recently, we have divided up our core areas of responsibilities and I’ll be focusing on creating culture and promoting community involvement.  In terms of community involvement, after brainstorming a list of activities that GDL members are interested in doing, I organized a process in which people gave their preferences for which activities they would like to participate in, picked four groups based on which activities were most popular, and let people join the group that they were most excited about.  Going forward, I’m planning to encourage these groups to stay active and push their projects forward.  If it turns out that these projects don’t move forward, I’m planning on finding other ways to promote pro-social community engagement by GDL members, both structured and unstructured.  For example, this past Thursday, I organized an evening outing to Ashok Nagar to visit an ashram and play with kids.

A personal goal for the remainder of the year is to immerse in the local community to extent that I find possible by my other obligations.  One of my goals for my year in India was to understand local people as much as possible, learn from them, and challenge my own thinking and grow as a result of this process.  I haven’t placed nearly as much focus on this goal as I would like for the majority of this year, and I am committed to doing so for the remainder of my time here.  Ideally, I would like to find a family to live with in Ashok Nagar and spend a month living with them.

Detailed Goal-setting & Implementation Planning

Over the next two weeks, I plan to:
•    Continue planning a “Going BoP” strategy
•    Work with local contacts to find a transportation provider and distributors for water in Ashok Nagar and begin distribution
•    Research methods that other organizations have used to get water to the BoP
•    Research strategies to make our outreach and awareness-generation work more effective
•    Move forward with my own GDL Community Team’s project (planting trees!)
•    Encourage other GDL Community Teams to move forward with their projects and promote informal community interaction
•    Continue spending time in Ashok Nagar to build relationships and learn from residents there about their lives


I have learned a great deal about topics that I didn’t think I would touch this year, such as managing employees, accounting, and the mechanics of reverse-osmosis water filtration.

I have also become better, I hope, at dealing with and working with people whose styles and values clash with my own and who think differently from me.  I have learned that safe drinking water is not a product that necessarily sells itself.

I have been able to try out, in the real world, a lot of concepts around group- and organizational-governance that I learned about last year or tried out in a protected bubble.

Personal Growth

I have become more patient as a result of my experiences this year.  I have been through an experience in which my expectations for how things “should be” were severely disappointed and I learned how to recalibrate my expectations and make the best of a situation by turning it to my advantage.  I have had to be highly self-directed and learn to create structure for my own work this year, which I’m slowly starting to do.  I have tried, as much as possible, to be proactive in how I lead my life this year, in how I make decisions, in how I spend my time, and in what I work on, as opposed to being reactive, which I think that I often have been in the past.

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