Serving the under-served in a sustainable manner

Regularisation of standards and decentralisation of water centers are some of the answers to India’s burgeoning water crisis, writes Malini Katta of Naandi Community Water Services Pvt Ltd. 

India’s drinking water problem
Globally, India has the largest number of people without access to safe water. Overall 75.8 million individuals1 are without access to safe drinking water and depend on other unregulated sources of water whose quality is perilously low.

India ranks at 120 out of 122 countries2 on water quality index and the impact of such low quality results in the following, annually2

* Water borne diseases: 35 million affected
* Diarrhea mortality: 1.5 million children
* Working days lost: 73 million
* Economic loss: Over US$5billion

Why is this problem still persisting?
In the year 2009, Government of India launched the National Rural Drinking Water Program (NRDWP) with an objective to provide safe and adequate water for drinking, cooking and other domestic needs to every rural person on a sustainable basis. Aim of NRDWP is to – provide safe drinking water to government schools and anganwadis, ensure 50% of rural population to have potable drinking water through piped water supply and 35% of rural households to have household connections; by 2017.

A total of INR 89,956 crore has been allocated for this project and over 90% (i.e. INR 81,168 crore) has been utilized until 2017.

A performance audit of NRDWP was conducted by Comptroller Auditor General of India (CAG) to assess the performance against the set objectives. The key findings of CAG4 report are as below.

* Coverage of rural habitations increased by only 8 per cent at 40 lpcd and 5.5 per cent on the basis of 55 lpcd during 2012-17 despite the expenditure of INR 81,168 crore.
* Only 44% of rural habitations and 85% of government schools and anganwadis were provided access to safe drinking water.
* Only 18 % of rural population was provided potable drinking water (55 lpcd) by piped water supply.
* Only 17% of rural households were provided household connections

While NRDWP aims to meet the larger set of targets by 2022, the CAG’s audit report findings till 2017 indicates that Government (both central and state) alone cannot solve the mammoth drinking water issues that are prevalent in the county today.

Though the state and central governments are drafting new water policies almost every year, they are unable to meet the set targets. CAG attributes the following as reasons for this:

* Slippage problem – where habitations once having safe drinking water facilities are slipping back to not covered either due to drying up of source or non-maintenance of infrastructure. (Between 2012 and 2017, 4.76 lakh habitations slipped from fully recovered to partially recovered state.)
* Lack of a bottom-up approach
* Failure of monitoring the program
* Inadequate community involvement

Under the current 12th five year plan, GOI has expended more than Rs.1,00,000 crore on rural water supply5 alone and this expenditure is likely to increase in the coming years. Despite this investment, the sector is still beleaguered with problems.

The strategic plan by Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation mentions that strengthening decentralized governance can become a strategic objective for the Government to ensure the policies implementation. This is where the Safe Water Enterprises (SWE’s) can play a vital role in bridging the gap through decentralized community based models by partnering with local institutes like village panchayats for effective community participation.


What is a Decentralized Community Based Model?

A decentralized model involves designing and operating a solution at local level to accomplish global goals. At a decentralized Community Water Centre (CWC) – a water filtration/ treatment unit is installed, operated and maintained with the involvement of the community or an entrepreneur from the community; to address their drinking water challenge. SWEs can set up CWCs by seeking grants from Government strategic initiatives or Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funds or by involving a local entrepreneur through franchise model.

The primary roles played by the SWEs in a decentralized community based model are:
1. Evaluating the need and feasibility: of installing and managing the CWC through bottom up approach and identifying the right location for the same within the community
2. Ensuring Community participation and ownership: Involving the community from initial stages of the project by ensuring their – contribution and support for the solution designed, alignment on crucial decisions regarding the CWC (location of the CWC, raw water source for the CWC, user fee etc.) and thereby increasing their ownership on their drinking water solution.
3. Capacity Building (Recruit, train and educate): Engage and train local resources on the aspects of daily operations & maintenance of the CWC by involving local Governing bodies (Panchayat at village level) and empower them to manage their drinking water solution.
4. Awareness Generation: Shall identify alternate sources of raw water, in case one source dries up to ensure continuous water supply.
5. Alternate business models : Work on alternate business models like door delivery through distribution to ensure the intervention reaches maximum population till last mile

While SWE’s can reach out to the last mile through decentralized community based models, there are challenges in delivering the same in a sustainable manner. To mention a few:

* Complex Environment: The portable drinking water segment in India lacks governance and regulation on quality standards and operating procedures. Between 2014 and 2018, India has seen a fourfold increase in the number of SWE’s from 12,000 to over 50,000. The need/ demand for safe drinking water, the uncontrolled quality standards and low scientific awareness in the communities has resulted in mushrooming and proliferation of many local players with substandard quality standards; who are our main competitors.

* Scaling up: Successful installation and management of a CWC involves alignment with multiple stakeholders. Replicating our model to scale quickly in this environment (detailed above) is a challenge. In addition to this, absence of sustainability parameters in the funding model and expectations of Corporates on short term impact etc. hinders continuous impact creation.

* Continuous Innovation: India is under high level of water stress and with the high rate of economy growth; priorities of consumers are also shifting. We need to focus on innovation, specifically on – water conservation, alternative energies, treatment process, cashless transactions, increasing convenience etc.; to stay relevant and create sustainable impact.


Safe Water Enterprises can contribute immensely in reducing India’s drinking water problems through the decentralized community water centers. However, for the SWE’s to sustain and continue to deliver impact on scale, an appropriate ecosystem should be created for their long term sustenance. Governments should regularize the rural drinking water sector by introducing standard quality parameters for potable water, to curb the proliferation of sub-standard alternatives that are available in the rural market. SWE’s should continue to engage and educate the communities to support and take ownership of their water center. Communities should be instilled with trust that decentralized community based models are a good alternative for addressing their drinking water problems.

For increasing the market reach and enabling growth, SWE’s should collaborate with the stakeholders within the ecosystem (like state institutions, other organized safe water enterprises etc.) through policies and partnership to innovate, learn, grow and co-create sustainable impact on scale.

Malini Katta is Manager, Projects with Naandi Community Water Services Pvt Ltd.  Naandi Community Water Services Pvt. Ltd. (NCWS) is a social enterprise established in 2010 with a mission to provide safe drinking water to the underserved communities in a sustainable mannerWith a decentralized community based model, NCWS installs and operates a network of Community Water Centers (CWCs) in regions in India where the current available sources of drinking water are either contaminated or unfit for consumption. NCWS has reached out to over 640 villages across 7 states in India, positively impacting the lives of over 750,000 individuals by providing them with safe and affordable drinking water (iPure). 



    1. Water: At What Cost? The state of world’s water 2016 – Water Aid
    2. Community Safe Water Solutions: India Sector Review 2014 – Safe Water Network
    3. Body Burden 2015 – State Of India’s Health – Centre For Science and Environment

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