Atms for the thirsty

Atms for the thirsty

For Piramal Foundation, the inspiration was the money-dispensing ATM. If it can dispense money, why not water, especially in the rural areas where water is a premium commodity?



Water – the life-source on which all living beings survive.

And yet, today’s reality is that many people do not have access to clean, potable water. In many places in the world people have no access to water – clean or unclean. In fact, providing safe drinking water is one of the United Nations’ millennium development goals.

India, which was once considered the land of rivers, also has places where people face a similar plight. There remain several Indian villages where women walk many miles to fetch water which sadly is insufficient and often times, unhealthy. For Piramal Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Mumbai-based Piramal group, this was a reality check. When the foundation began its work in rural India to provide healthcare solutions, it found that water-borne diseases were most common.

“We provide primary healthcare services to villagers as well as address causes for health issues. We found that water-borne diseases were very common in the villages and this prompted us to provide clean drinking water,” explains Paresh Parasnis, CEO, Piramal Foundation.

Finding a solution

Piramal Foundation runs a grassroot development laboratory at Bagar in Jhujhunu district, Rajasthan, to develop innovative solutions for India-centric problems. And in the course of interaction, it found that the villagers were suffering from several diseases to the bone and the teeth due to the high fluoride content in the water they used.

In 2008, the Sarvajal project was initiated by Piramal Foundation, to provide villagers with pure, safe drinking water. While there are some standardised processes like reverse osmosis and UV treatment of water, taking the same to the underserved rural areas which had no access to piped water was the first question that needed to be addressed. Only 17 percent of the population in the country has access to water pipes; the remaining make do with bores, ponds, lakes and the like. Testing the quality of the water in these sources was also not possible. The organisation was faced with the challenge of decentralising the solution so that the last mile did not become a hurdle.

The development team came up with a filtration plant measuring 6×7 feet that could be set up within a week in a 10×10 room near any water source with access to power. This would address the need of small communities. However, it also knew from the experience of other players in this segment that there needs to be constant monitoring and maintenance to ensure the plant did not become dysfunctional. A remote sensing technology that works on RFID (radio frequency identification) accessed through cloud computing was enabled so that the technology team sitting in Ahmedabad or Mumbai could ascertain the health of the plant and provide maintenance solutions. This immediately also brought down the cost of maintenance and the team is able to help franchises who run these plants remotely. This technology is awaiting a patent.

The last mile

The technology used by Sarvajal project has passed the proof of concept stage and 150 units are working well across Rajasthan, northern Gujarat, parts of Madhya Pradesh, western Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. But Piramal Foundation noticed that women still had to walk some distance to access the plant and decided to address this issue.

Bank ATMs – standalone, modular, money-dispensing units, offered the solution, or rather the idea to spur the foundation to create a solution. Piramal Foundation set up 18 water ATMs that run on solar power. The franchisees load a truck with water and fill overhead tanks after flushing out the old water, from which the villagers can take water after swiping a prepaid card. To ensure quality, a quality meter that cannot be rigged has also been affixed to the ATM.

The water from the plant is priced at 30 paise per litre and at the ATMs, at 50 paise per litre to cover the franchisees’ transportation charge. By levying a fee, Piramal Foundation hopes to make the project self-sustaining and encourage franchisees to take it up as a business. The swipe card can be topped up through a mobile phone. The user punches in the required number of litres and swipes the card. This automation assures quality as well as avoids overpricing.

Now that the solution is ready to roll out, the organisation is looking to reach it to the rest of the country through any means that works well for the user community, the vendors and the Piramal Foundation. Taking the practical way, Paranis says, “We have some co-owned plants, many are through franchisees, all funded by Piramal Foundation, since they were only at the demonstration stage. But now having established the proof of concept, we would like to collaborate with communities, local businessman with reputation and a client base and other NGOs interested in taking safe water to the villages they are working in.” Piramal Foundation is also looking to work with a municipal corporation to put up 100 ATMs and two plants in a large slum so that they have access to water 24 by 7. It expects to work on a revenue sharing model, with a 20 per cent share to cover the maintenance costs.

Overcoming a mindset

Despite the crying need for such solutions, convincing the local beneficiaries is not a cakewalk, especially since there is a cost attached to it. Therefore, one of the activities Piramal Foundation undertakes is to create awareness and highlight the health benefits and the cost saved on treatment and other medical expenses. It also provides the card free for a month or so for the villagers to see the difference and buy it, if convinced.

“A limited study showed that a family spends Rs 2,300 a year on medical expenses.  Of this, they can save a great portion if they drink safe water,” points out Parasnis. A glass of tea costs Rs 5, whereas they get 10 litres of water for the same amount. Such details are pointed out and over time, Piramal Foundation has seen the transformation happen.

Education, health, empowerment

Piramal Foundation’s other core activities, besides running the Gopi Krishna Piramal Memorial Hospital in Lower Parel, Mumbai, and running health camps, mobile units and telemedicine centres for the National Rural Health Mission, are education and empowerment of youth and woman. It has a 1,000 strong team, 90 of whom work in the laboratory.

It has also initiated a third party assessment of its projects to study the impact and fine-tune where needed to make its programmes more effective.

Its future plans include strengthening and scaling up in the areas of education, healthcare and empowerment through collaborations. “Only through scaling up can we make a large impact,” Parasnis points out. But with scaling up, sustainability will also be a focus Piramal Foundation will find a way to make that happen. It will also continue to encourage others to give back to the society by helping people identify their areas of strength and interest and providing them with the requisite training and exposure.

At the heart of Piramal Foundation is the desire to not just do good, but do it in such a way that the change leaves a lasting impact.


Piramal Foundation

Funded by: Piramal Group

CEO: Paresh Parasnis

Core focus: Education, healthcare, empowerment 


Concept in brief: 

The constant drying up of water sources and an absence of infrastructure development in villages has made water a precious commodity for most of rural India. The available water that has to be accessed after a long walk is not safe. But the villagers are many a time not even aware of the health impact and have no means of finding a solution. Piramal Foundation has set up filtration plants and water dispensing ATMs to clean the water as well as make it available within a short distance. There is a nominal cost attached and the health benefits far outweigh the fee charged. The technology used in the Sarvajal project is awaiting a patent. Meanwhile, Piramal Foundation is ready to roll it out across the country and is looking for collaborators with whom it can enter a revenue sharing agreement.

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