‘Water ATMs’ deliver liquid assets in India’s capital
One of 24 ATMs being piloted across Delhi. The machine is located in Dwarka Sector 3 Resettlement Colony an unplanned neighbourhood that lacks public services such as piped drinking waterAnita Makri
The water begins its journey from this treatment centre run by Sarvajal, which means water for all in Sanskrit. The company gets no direct financial help from the government, but has been granted permission to use the land rent free for ten years and draw groundwater from this locationAnita Makri
Amit Mishra, Sarvajals operations manager in Delhi, explains that the poor quality groundwater in this location means it has to be left to settle for half an hour before being treated and even then, it needs twice as much filtration as a typical installationAnita Makri
The groundwater passes through filters (white containers), which remove odour, colour and the heaviest particles. Finer contaminants are filtered through membranes (blue containers). Reverse-osmosis process through a pump then removes disease-causing organisms, and any remaining are killed by ultraviolet treatment (silver tube)Anita Makri
The company effectively builds scaled-up versions of household filtering units from commercially available components customised for the conditions in each location. What it has added, and patented, is a remote monitoring unit that sends information about variables such as water quality to the operator at the plantAnita Makri
This is the control panel for the Soochak Sarvajals patented control unit named after a Hindi word that means giving information. It allows the company to monitor the quality of the raw and treated water, as well as potential problems with the treatment machineAnita Makri
A custom-made tanker carries treated water to nearby ATMs, of which there are currently 24 in Delhi. The tanker can hold 1,000 litres and can fill two vending machinesAnita Makri
The plant operator receives real-time information about water levels in nearby ATMs through automated text messages. Similarly, if part of an ATM needs replacing, the system notifies the operatorAnita Makri
The ATMs are 2.2-tonne, solar-powered concrete structures that are connected to Sarvajals server. Each can hold 500 litres of water. The company delivers water two to three times a day to five ATMs in the colony, serving around 2,000 familiesAnita Makri
A user scans a prepaid Sarvajal smartcard, which will enable him to find out his remaining balance, the water quality and how much water can be withdrawn. Water can be collected 24 hours a day with this card. Each costs 100 rupees (about US$1.60), 50 of which is a security deposit, and can be topped up at the treatment plantAnita Makri
People can bring their own bottles to fill with water, which costs 20 paise per litre, or a fifth of a rupee. To buy bottled water of this quality would cost at least 15 rupees. The company says it believes the service is reaching people in poor areas except the very poorest ten per centAnita Makri
Under a proposal being considered by the government, and piloted in the same area of Delhi as this plant, the company will be contracted to run government-owned ATMs that dispense municipal waterAnita Makri
Under this model, the ATMs and cards will carry the Delhi water board logo. Sarvajal will only be involved in the ATMs maintenance, with the government becoming responsible for investment but also keeping any profitsAnita Makri
By last November Sarvajal had convinced the Delhi authorities to collaborate in a pilot project, and 24 ATMs are now in place across the city. SciDev.Net visited one of the five ATM machines in Dwarka Sector 3 Resettlement Colony — an unplanned neighbourhood without any public services — to find out how the company is expanding its urban presence.
This image gallery shows how Sarvajal’s facilities treat water and supply the vending machines in the colony, where the water is sold for a fraction of the price of bottled water. Operations manager Amit Mishra takes us through the workings of the equipment that cleans the water, which is then delivered to the solar-powered, cloud-connected vending machines installed in the area. Savajal says the water it delivers through the ATMs meets WHO requirements.
Mishra also explains how the company’s work is evolving. In rural parts of India, where internet connectivity is intermittent, Sarvajal generally sells the filtering system to entrepreneurs who then sell the water through 20-litre ATMs. But in Delhi, Sarvajal manages both the filtering process and the supply to ATMs that each hold 500 litres of water. “Here we are doing the partnership with the government,” says Mishra. “Clients are directly connected to us in urban areas. In rural areas, the clients are connected to the entrepreneur.”
Even within Delhi, the company uses two public-private partnership models: one financed by Sarvajal and the other, a new arrangement still under consideration, financed by the government.
To set up operations in the city, the government has permitted Sarvajal to use public land rent free for ten years, and to draw the water at each location. I ask Mishra if it was difficult to convince the authorities to get on board with the project. “Initially yes,” he says. “That’s why we have a pilot project for two years.” The government wanted to check whether this model was going to be financially viable for it or not, he explains, and how people would react to the idea of paying for water.
Under the current model, Mishra explains, the company is financing the entire project and also collecting all the revenue. Under a new model being considered by the authorities, the government would pay to install ATMs that the Delhi water board would own. Although Sarvajal would maintain them, the idea is to fill them with municipal water rather than water treated and monitored by the company. Ten dispensing machines operating under this model, and carrying the Jal water board logo, are already up and running in the city. Under such an arrangement the partnership will bring a financial return for the government, according to Mishra; hence the need for a pilot phase.
In parts of the city like this colony public services struggle to keep up with rapid urbanisation. “There is no proper piped infrastructure,” he says. “That’s why we have been invited to at least provide potable water. We are being given permission to operate our plants wherever there is no fixed pipeline framework available. We are doing that job and we are filling the gap.”
Sarvajal is part of the philanthropic foundation set up by the Indian multinational company Piramal Group.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's Global desk.