Social Enterprises for Water, Indian Diaspora Initiative

It was February 2003. I had just acquired the intellectual property rights from the Eastern Virginia Bankruptcy Court for my defunct health informatics company’s technology. With the dotcom bust, investors pulled back and the company ran out of money. Knowing how tight the capital market had become, I sought investments from my trusted colleagues, most of whom were successful high-tech executives.

That night I hosted a handful of my Indian-American colleagues at my home for dinner. In between bites of samosa, we indulged in our favorite pastime: solving India’s societal problems such as corruption, urban slums, and the lack of access to clean drinking water. We each bragged about the donations we had made over the years to support social causes in our country of origin.

Suddenly, a colleague thumped the coffee table and asked, “What difference would it make, even if we were to give $100 million to India?” The conversation came to an abrupt halt; the silence was deafening. Soon, consensus emerged, probably not much. Then, what will make a difference? That question ignited a fierce debate. We concluded that a systemically sustainable model for providing drinking water was needed.

Our conversation that night changed my life forever. It marked the birth of Aakash Ganga (“River from Sky” in Hindi), a domestic rainwater harvesting scheme, and my own transition from commercial to social ventures.

The organization born that night is not simply a philanthropic initiative; rather, it is a pioneering social enterprise that is systemically sustainable. Aakash Ganga is sustainable economically, culturally, socially, institutionally, operationally, ecologically and technologically. We achieve systemic sustainability by employing a variety of innovations and technological ingenuity, and by modernizing ancient practices of rainwater harvesting.

Within a matter of months, I had secured seed funding from the New York-based Rajasthan Association of North America (RANA), a group of Indian diaspora with ancestral roots in Rajasthan, to realize our Aakash Ganga vision. In 2006, the World Bank Development Marketplace awarded us $200,000 to demonstrate Aakash Ganga and its systemic sustainability, social innovations, and public-private-community partnership (PPCP) model.

Realizing that it would take a lifetime commitment for Aakash Ganga to reach all of Rajasthan’s 40,000 villages, I founded Sustainable Innovations (SI) in 2007 to harvest innovations for people. These innovations won awards and recognitions from the Lemelson – Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Energy Globe Foundation, the Government of India, and the World Economic Forum.

With World Bank funding, Sustainable Innovations and our India-based partner Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS) piloted Aakash Ganga in six villages in Rajasthan’s Jhunjhunu and Churu districts. Under the program, Aakash Ganga acquired rainwater harvesting rights from homeowners by renting rooftops, analogous to the utility industry’s acquisition of passage rights for a fee. The concept of ‘rooftop rental’ is easily understood by the villagers and enables them to be part owners of the rainwater harvesting infrastructure. Rooftop rainwater is channeled through gutters and drainpipes to a network of underground reservoirs.

A portion of the rooftop rainwater is stored in the house-attached reservoir (shown below left). These reservoirs are constructed of brick masonry; measure 8.5 feet wide and 14 feet deep; and they can store up to 25,000 liters of rainwater. Built in the courtyard of a house, these reservoirs are meant for the exclusive use of the homeowner. During the pilot phase Aakash Ganga built more than two hundred house-attached reservoirs across six villages.

The remaindor of the rainwater flows to the shared or community reservoir (shown above right) for the use of villagers who don’t have large enough rooftops and for generating sustaining revenue for the project. The shared reservoir is built on land provided by the Panchayati Raj Institutions, a village-level government, and is constructed of brick masonry. This type of reservoir is larger, holding up to 400,000 liters.

This rain-sharing arrangement is the essence of the PPCP model: it assures socially equitable distribution of water; pays for post-implementation upkeep for the life of Aakash Ganga; and enables the private sector, communities, and governments to be the co-owners of Aakash Ganga’s rainwater harvesting infrastructure. While our organization receives funding from government agencies, Panchayati Raj institutions, and diaspora philanthropists, we also earn revenue by using part of the harvested rainwater to support horticultural projects. Aakash Ganga’s earnings from horticultural projects cover our operating costs and provide a return on our social investment.

Although I had been devoted to Aakash Ganga since the 2003 dinner party, it was not until four years later that I fully grasped the meaning of water scarcity and systemic sustainability. In 2007, my daughter, Nilam Agrawal-Desai, an NBC journalist, traveled with me to India to experience water scarcity first hand. On our way to Lasedi, an Aakash Ganga site, we stopped in Sardarpura, a village approximately 150 kilometers southwest of New Delhi. We arrived in Sardarpura just as a water tanker was pulling up. It took only two weeks to come. Children ran in Sardarpura’s dusty streets yelling “Water has come! Water has come!”

Women wrapped in vibrant colors rushed with their matkas, large clay pots, resting on their waists – to join the other women who had already gathered in the village square. They all tapped their matkasand hummed the bride’s lament:

Oh, Beloved! In your land, Wine is plenty Water is scarce. Brides fetch water from miles. It is hard to survive but for your love.

Nilam set up her film equipment. Immediately women flocked to her with their pleas for water. She turned to me to translate her questions into Marwari – the regional dialect, “How scarce is water here?” she asked. A woman answered “Why ask? Just count the bachelors.” She was puzzled. What was the relationship between water scarcity and the number of bachelors? Another woman explained, “No father or brother wants to marry off his daughter or sister in this village, because she would then have to spend all day fetching water for her new family.”

Having successfully implemented its water harvesting program in six villages in rural Rajasthan, Sustainable Innovations is about to embark on an expanded pilot program that aims to provide safe drinking water to 250,000 people in approximately one hundred additional villages. Should this pilot program succeed, the Government ofIndiaand the state governments of Rajasthan and Gujarat have expressed interest in scaling up the program nationally.

The pilot phase results were shared with the government of India and the state governments of, Rajasthan and Gujarat. Each expressed a strong interest in co-funding an implementation of Aakash Ganga at large scale if (a) SI can demonstrate success of the PPCP at a small scale (approximately one hundred villages), and (b) if SI can provide a feasibility assessment and project plan for up to an additional one thousand villages demonstrating that the model can work on a large scale.

Regardless of what happens next, we are proud of the positive impact that Aakash Ganga has already had on livelihood, children’s education, and health:

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