Profile of a Profession: Cesspool Workers in Coastal Andhra Pradesh

Profile of a Profession: Cesspool Workers in Coastal Andhra Pradesh

By the IIC-ASCI team

It is mid-March in the town of Palacole in Andhra Pradesh’s West Godavari district where three cesspool workers, Mosid, Naganna and Sethi Babu prepare to desludge a local septic tank. These three workers have the critical, yet often times unsafe and unglamorous profession of removing and disposing of waste from septic tanks. The three of them drive their vacuum truck to a small house on the southern side of Palacole, where they park as close as possible to the septic tank to begin the emptying process.   

Palacole is located in the southern, coastal region of West Godavari district, surrounded by vibrant, green rice fields and coconut groves. Despite the idyllic surroundings, the town struggles with the challenge of how to effectively manage its septic waste. While many strides have been made over the past few years to improve sanitation and cleanliness under Swachh Bharat Mission, there is still significant progress to be made in improving fecal sludge management (FSM). Toilet coverage and usage has increased dramatically in Andhra, but the question remains of where does the waste ultimately end up. In the vast majority of cases, the septic waste still ends up in local water bodies and fields. Efforts are required to look further down the sanitation value chain, beyond toilet construction, to figure out how to ensure that waste is safely and hygienically disposed of. In this process of improving FSM, cesspool workers have an essential role to play.

After removing the cover from the septic tank, Mosid and Naganna use a pole, water and washing detergent to loosen the waste inside. Once the waste has been sufficiently liquefied, they insert a fifteen-foot tube connected to their vacuum truck and turn on the motor. It then takes about fifteen to twenty minutes for the truck to suck up the sludge. They perform this whole process without wearing any type of protective gear.   

In Palacole, there is one FSM operator with eight vacuum trucks, each with roughly a 3,000L capacity. There are also workers, drivers, and administrative personnel employed in his cesspool emptying business. In total there are twenty families in the town that are financially dependent on this enterprise. Three workers take part in each septic tank emptying job. Two of them do the majority of the cleaning work, and the third drives the vacuum truck. Depending on the size of the septic tank, they may need to make multiple trips to complete the job and charge accordingly.

The eight trucks in question were acquired only fifteen years ago. Before the trucks were purchased, the current cesspool workers made their livings as manual scavengers. Manual scavenging refers to the practice of entering drains, septic tanks or sewerage pits and removing the septic waste by hand. Needless to say, this practice had devastating consequences for workers, and in 2013 the Government of India passed the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act in order to outlaw it.

While major strides have been made towards improving the lives and human rights of these workers through the passing of this act, those who have made their professions as cesspool workers are still vulnerable to a range of health problems, alcoholism and abuse. The workers in Palacole do not use any sort of protective equipment, and often perform a desludging with bare hands while wearing shorts and chappals. These unsafe practices put them at high risk of contracting skin, gastrointestinal and other devastating health issues.  

Once the desludging has been completed, Sethi Babu, Naganna and Mosid drive to the outskirts of town to dump the waste in a nearby drain. Currently, there is no mechanism in place to facilitate the safe and hygienic disposal and treatment of fecal waste. As there is no treatment plant or prescribed method of disposal, the workers have no other option but to dump the waste they have collected in local drains or open fields. In Palacole, most of the drains surrounding the two towns eventually flow into the Godavari River, which provides a critical water supply to towns and villages downstream.

As they begin to dump waste in a drain along the sign of the road, an enraged resident arrives yelling abuse. The man is a buffalo farmer whose animals drink from the drain now filled with septic waste. He approaches the van and turns the switch to stop the emptying of the truck. The workers know better than to try and stop him, and they drive off quickly before the situation escalates any further. Too often in these situations the threats of violence become acts of violence and it is highly common for the workers to be abused and violently beaten. Another cesspool worker in Palacole was once beaten so badly that his skull cracked open. These workers receive no protection from the abuse they face and often do not have the financial resources to properly treat the injuries they sustain on the job.

Twenty minutes away by auto from Palacole on the banks of the Godavari River is a town called Narsapur. The fecal sludge management business here is run primarily by a woman named Venkatalakshmi. It is unusual to come across a woman in this profession, much less one who is in charge of her own operation. Venkatalakshmi started up her business in order to provide for her family once her husband became unable to work and her son-in-law left her daughter. Apart from one competitor, she dominates the FSM market in Narsapur and has purchased the rights to advertise her services in high trafficked locations throughout the town. Despite her own personal triumphs, her business and workers voice many similar concerns that Palacole’s FSM workers have, including the increased incidence of diseases, maltreatment and psychological hardship. Venkatalakshmi herself has been beaten several times. On one occasion the beating was so violent that she lost three teeth.

Another unfortunate outcome of working in the FSM business that can be witnessed in Narsapur is the high presence of alcoholism amongst workers. Venkatalakshmi’s husband used to be in the fecal sludge management business, until his alcoholism caused his business partners to remove him from their enterprise. Some of Venkatalakshmi’s male employees have said that alcoholism is common among cesspool workers due to the challenging and undesirable nature of the job. The emotional hardship of doing such a dangerous and thankless job has taken its toll on many. The effects of the physical abuse these workers sustain while disposing of the waste they collect also has an impact. The stories of the workers and operators in Palacole and Narsapur highlight just one example of the human cost of incomplete sanitation that comes with lack of regulations, limited community awareness and insufficient infrastructure.

It would be simplistic and misguided to suggest that there are easy solutions to the challenges and maltreatment that these operators and workers face, however, there are currently efforts underway to improve fecal sludge management practices, which has the potential to create a positive impact on their practice. Capacity building and government initiatives can work to ensure that operators have access to and use proper protective equipment and desludging methods to protect them from contracting diseases. The planned building of fecal sludge treatment plants in Palacole and Narsapur would provide a safe and hygienic way for workers to dispose of waste without polluting the environment or risking their personal safety. Moving forward in the goal to achieving a Swachh Bharat (Clean India), it is critical that interventions are developed and implemented keeping in mind the challenges facing so many of these unsung heroes in the sanitation sector.    

 

Link to desludging video: https://www.dropbox.com/s/2knhrdl254q2iri/FSM_Operators_V1.mp4?dl=0

Working with Management Information Systems: Three Learnings from Rajasthan

Working with Management Information Systems: Three Learnings from Rajasthan

By Jane Huber & Shriyam Gupta

Over the past few years, Rajasthan has made significant strides to utilize technology for better governance. The Education Department, in particular, has created several Management Information Systems (MIS), wherein data concerning all elements of the education system are uploaded, verified, organized, and managed, with the aim of using them to monitor progress and inform decisionmaking.  The possibilities of these portals are immense. Embedded in the Rajasthan Department of Education, as a part of the International Innovation Corps, we observed that there are several opportunities for the government to fully utilize these MIS. By drawing on examples from our last 9 months in the department, we highlight three main areas.

First, the difficulty in consistent datasets became evident when, while enrolling students in the Aadhaar system so they could apply for scholarships, we struggled to collect accurate data across districts. We aimed to collect data after every Aadhaar camp, requesting District Education Officers to report details based on their enrolment efforts. Acquiring this data required us to call District Education Officers personally and create  proformas to collect this information across districts, with countless follow-ups. However, data reported from DOIT, our proformas, and the Rajasthan MIS systems were showing wildly different numbers about enrollment in schools. For instance, while the DOIT data showed regular enrolment numbers, they was not reported with updates in the Education Department MIS. Thus, we did not know real student enrollment numbers, stopping the accurate identification of schools where camps were urgently needed for scholarship students. What we learned from that exercise was that, because there are several datasets pertaining to education and students, these datasets must be integrated effectively in order to ensure the most accurate information possible. Without this, it will be hard to find quality, “authoritative” data.

Second, we realized that, while there is often motivation and drive in the government, there is not always capacity to understand complex technological systems or how to use them by frontline users. The Litigation Information Tracking and Evaluation System - or LITES - is a good example. To manage the legal burden on the state, the Justice Department created an online portal to track and manage all the court cases to which government is a party. The Education Department, partly due to its size, bears one of the highest legal burden in the state. However, it has been unable to effectively utilize the portal’s functioning. Staff across the state lack training on how to upload/update the cases. Furthermore, there was no clarity on roles played by the Directorate and district offices regarding case management. To address this, we conducted trainings for staff across the Elementary and Secondary Departments, including both Directorates. We followed this up with regular calls to the district offices. In a short period we started to see increased traction on the portal. Technology in itself does not create transparency or streamline processes. Its impact is a direct product of the capacity and efficacy of its users. Unsurprisingly then, for truly transformative governance, technology must necessarily be accompanied by capacity building of its users.

Third, even when the government has good portals and competent users, collecting information is only as useful as the ways in which it is applied. When developing an online funding portal for the department, we utilized this sort of thinking by using data already gathered through the Department’s MIS. Instead of reinventing the wheel and developing new forms and systems to collect and collate data, we are able to channel information on school infrastructure needs, enrollment, and staff, among other data in the existing MIS. This information will be shared in an interactive way with a range of stakeholders in order to develop and fund various projects in schools across the state. Utilizing the MIS in this way will also allow for greater accountability and transparency as status updates of project implementation will be input into the existing MIS and reported on the new portal. It is key that we look to portals already in existence and channel them in creative ways to improve how the government is able to address their infrastructure and funding gap.

MIS are a tool with significant potential for transforming how an education department functions, but it is only through increasing their application to more facets of governance that these tools can begin to reach their full potential, changing the way that both the government and the public interact with data. The International Innovation Corps recently hosted a conference to share learnings from such efforts and put government officials in conversation with civil society and academia. A number of states - including Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, and Rajasthan - have already devised mechanisms to transform how such MIS are developed and utilized in the education sector.  While such developments have started taking place, learnings from these interventions have not been shared as much as widely as they should have. It is our hope that through sharing experiences and learnings, India can begin to truly transform its education governance and ultimately, the lives of its children.

Jane Huber and Shriyam Gupta are Project Associates at the International Innovation Corps, at the University of Chicago.  For more about the International Innovation Corps: http://www.iic.uchicago.edu/

Finding Impact in Unexpected Corners: Interviewing Government Exam Aspirants and OnlineTyari Users

Finding Impact in Unexpected Corners: Interviewing Government Exam Aspirants and OnlineTyari Users

By Alexandra Tate

When I first found out that my team, the International Innovation Corps’ Social Enterprises Team, would be working with OnlineTyari, an ed-tech startup that helps aspirants prepare for government exams in India, I was skeptical about the kind of social impact our team would be having, to say the least. My mind instantly jumped to thoughts about how we would be helping only the privileged and wealthy sections of society pass the most elite exams to get the highest paying and most prestigious jobs. After a year of working on trafficking issues in Jharkhand, helping the rich get richer and keep the best jobs was not my idea of social impact.

But there we were, cramped in my teammate’s apartment hunched over her laptop with endless tabs open of articles on government exam preparation in Mukherjee Nagar, a coaching hub for students in north Delhi. After a quick team meeting on how to structure our field visit and interviews in Mukherjee Nagar, we took off into the hot and sunny streets of a mid-September day. When I imagined a test prep hub, images of a buzzing college campus like in the U.S. came to mind, streets dotted with neatly dressed, peppy students heading to class. Of course, I knew it would be a bit different from a U.S. college campus, but what we found in Mukherjee Nagar was a far cry from my idle imaginings.

Our first and most important stop on our field visit was the Batra Cinema building. What was once an old cinema hall has now been converted into a venue for coaching center seminars as well as a meeting point for students. As we walked in through an unassuming doorway, accompanied by a stray dog, the air grew decidedly stuffier and mustier. The hall was narrow and dark leading to a retro looking elevator. Leaflet after leaflet dotted every available space on the walls of the hallway, advertisements for coaching center classes, tutors, and private libraries. Just as we were about to hop into the tiny elevator to go explore, the power clicked off. I vowed to take the stairs for fear of getting trapped in the elevator. As I walked up the stairs, students lined the steps. There were on break from their coaching center classes. Most of them were working furiously on what appeared to be late homework assignments others were trading study tips.

As we neared the first floor we finally got a glimpse into a coaching center. Class was in session. Desks were stacked side to side, in dense rows from the front of the classroom to back. It was unclear to me how anyone got in or out of a row or how students had enough room to flip a textbook page without whacking their neighbor in the nose. I unsuccessfully tried to picture myself studying in such an environment. As the bell rang, singling the end of class, we managed to blockade one of the less hurried students outside the door. Her name was Neha, and she was studying for the IAS exam. Neha told us that she had recently graduated and left her hometown of Lucknow, along with all her family, to come study at a top coaching institution. She shared a room with two other girls in a small flat nearby. Since the cramped living situation made it difficult to study at home, she also belonged to a private commercial library (basically a quite air-conditioned study room with Wi-Fi) where she would study after her coaching class. She reported spending about eight hours studying a day, including weekends, and expected to continue like this for as long as it took to pass her exam, perhaps around two years she guessed.

Her only time limit was the cap on her savings and the limit to how much her parents could support her. Rent and food was expensive here in Mukherjee Nagar, compared to Lucknow, and her parents could only afford to help her out for so long. Coaching classes in cities like Lucknow or Delhi can cost anywhere from 75,000 to one lakh rupees a year. Yet, clearing the IAS exam was her dream and she was determined to do whatever it took to enter the Civil Service.

We encountered many students like Neha in Mukherjee Nagar. Some had been living in Mukherjee Nagar for no less than six years, still tirelessly trying to clear their exam after several failed attempts. After devoting several years of their life to studying for this exam, many felt that they had nothing to go back to in their hometown. Giving up on clearing their exam would mean letting go of a dream that had become their life for the last few years. Many students worked part-time jobs to support themselves and a few were lucky enough to have help from their families. But this support comes at no small cost for many families. Some families resort to selling ancestral lands in order to support their children studying for an exam.

But what is it about a government job that makes so many willing to give up years of their life and, in some cases, even give up their birthright? Neha couldn’t really give us much of an answer, as she was late in meeting a friend at her private library, but the 50 or so other government exam aspirants our team interviewed started to give us more of a picture.

For the next couple of months, it was my team’s mission to interview government exam aspirants in cities across the Hindi Belt on their usage of Online Tyari’s mobile exam prep app. We interviewed aspirants from all over Delhi, Panipat, Jaipur, Patna, and Allahabad, most of them between the ages of 18-35 years and holding a graduate degree. Our goal was to investigate usage patterns, document user feedback, and map out OnlineTyari’s place in the exam prep cycle. However, my personal goal was to figure out the seeming obsession with obtaining a government job, at almost any cost.

One such exam aspirant was Anisa. After completing her Bachelor of Arts, Anisa participated in a teacher training course in Panchkula. While there, she would often observe the physical drills in the cantonment area. She soon fell in love with the uniform and decided she wanted to join the army or become a female police officer. Anisa believes that a government job will lead to a stable and honorable career path. Her parents support her decision and also think that a government job is the most secure path. In order to prepare for her exam, Anisa must commute 16 kilometers to Panipat, where her coaching classes are. She also participates in physical training drills at a nearby sports stadium in the afternoon. Although coaching classes are her main source of study, Anisa uses mobile apps, like OnlineTyari, during her commute to utilize otherwise downtime. OnlineTyari gives her access to free content, such as recent current affairs, she otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford.

It struck me how determined Anisa was to make use of every possible minute of her day, every possible free resource, how willing she was to give up everything to pass this exam. Like Neha’s parents, Anisa’s parents also bought into the dream of a better life through a government job and were determined to support her studying for as long as financially viable. They view her steep coaching center fees as a once in a lifetime investment for a shot at a much better way of life. 

Priyanka, from a small village in Haryana, is an exam aspirant also lucky enough to have her family’s support. Priyanka, who is recently married, is currently studying for the IAS exam. Priyanka left her new husband and family to move to Jaipur so that she could have access to better quality coaching centers. She currently lives alone in a girls paying guesthouse. She is the first in her family to pursue a government job. She believes entering the civil service will not just guarantee good working hours, job security and a nice financial package, but, more importantly, it will be a matter of great social prestige for her family.

The unsaid truth, however, is that incredibly few aspirants end up passing these highly competitive government exams. Some exams like the IAS are so competitive that your chance of passing is about equal to your probability of being struck by lightning. Last year, nine lakh candidates sat for the Civil Services Aptitude Test and less than 200 were selected. Of the few that do pass, the average age is now 28 years and most do not pass until their third attempt. Many of them are aspirants from the UP or Bihar, whose families struggle to support them. The growing number of candidates from Bihar and UP may point to a lack of other opportunities in these areas. Many of these aspirants believe that the power one can wield in a government position necessarily leads to wealth, but wealth does not necessary lead to power.

For those that never make the cut after numerous attempts and for those who have made passing the exam their life, it’s hard to give up. Many end up becoming coaches or private tutors for those still trying to pass. Although there are of course the random success stories of students that come from nothing and end up having an amazing career in the civil services, many that end up passing are from the most elite schools, with comparatively unlimited resources for private tutoring, and have family already in government or brothers/ sister that have already passed these exams.

The founders of OnlineTyari created their mobile study app to help level the playing field and provide middle and BoP students, unable to migrate to a larger city for coaching classes, with accessible, free or low-cost study material. The app is specifically designed to run on low-end android phones and is not currently available on iOS. Having seen the grit and dedication of these exam aspirants as well as the disparity of resources, I now understand the impact the founders of OnlineTyari wanted to make.

While I think OnlineTyari provides inspiration and exposure to study material otherwise inaccessible for those with limited resources, it’s one-step out of so many required to pass these exams. Every time we interviewed an aspirant, especially for exams like the IAS, I felt like there was an elephant in the room. Don’t you know how small your chances of passing the exam are? Do you really want to give up everything to take that small chance? It almost felt unjust that so many people and their families end up dedicating years of their life and scarce resources only never to pass. At the same time, the sheer determination and dedication of aspirants was incredibly inspiring and I was certainly in no place to judge anyone’s dreams. One thing is clear – as an outsider, it’s impossible to understand the almost mythical level of honor and prestige that many aspirants feel a government job will bring to his or her family. It is an aspiration deeply embedded in the culture and consciousness of the Hindi heartland.

*Note first names have been changed to protect interviewees’ privacy.

Corporate Social Responsibility and Government Policy

Corporate Social Responsibility and Government Policy

By the IIC SAST team

In our experience, before implementation, or monitoring, extending or modifying any government scheme, the first issue to address for any project is the problem of funding. Government funds alone are almost never sufficient for everything that needs to be done, so finding other sources of funding, or other organizations to fill in these gaps becomes important.

One of the first sources usually suggested is Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funding. When it was first suggested that our IIC team should investigate how to secure CSR funding for our organization, it was portrayed as a mystical source of funding that was just waiting to be used for government purposes. Through secondary research, informal interviews, and information-sharing with other IIC teams we have found that the reality, is a bit more nuanced and difficult than that.

Though many private companies have a long history of philanthropic work this practice has been formalized and regulated in India in a unique way. The 2013 update to the Indian Companies Act mandated that any company with a net worth of Rs500 crore, a turnover of Rs 1,000 crore, or a net profit of Rs 5 crore is required to spend 2% of its average net profit on CSR activities. CSR activities must take place in India, and are required to be ongoing projects or activities with a large multiplier effect, effectively ruling out “cheque-book charity”.

The Ministry of Corporate Affairs has clarified that in-principle CSR funds should not be used as a funding source for government schemes and should have a larger multiplier effect. That said, the CSR board is able to decide to supplement a government scheme if all other components of the law are complied with. This means that a company is not able to donate funds to a pool to fund government programs, but they are able to coordinate with government departments to develop programs which support a government scheme in some way.

From informal interviews on the topic, it seems that if a company is interested in allocating CSR funds towards a given project, there are generally three broad methods by which CSR funds can be donated and managed. The first method is for the donor company to both fund and implement the project by itself. Though companies do not necessarily have to use their own employees in this case, this is encouraged, to some extent, under CSR regulations which allow companies to count the cost of employee “volunteer time” towards requisite CSR targets. The second method is for a company to partner with a third party organization, usually an NGO, which implements the proposal on behalf of the company and sends them reports on progress. The third, and less traditional method is for money to be donated directly to a fund which the government organization uses in implementation of the scheme and is responsible for monitoring the effectiveness of the program and keeping the company donating funds apprised of the situation. For IIC teams working within the government, the advantage of this final method is that it allows the government control over implementation, but it comes with significantly larger administrative efforts to manage the project and the responsibility of monitoring and evaluating the project and updating the donor company.

In sum, while CSR is by no means a quick-fix for underfunded departments trying to make up the shortfall, it can be very effective at “filling in the gaps” in government implementation. While advising governments, we must first identify demonstrated gaps where public funding meets a shortfall and propose projects so that this implementation gap can be filled through CSR funding.  Increased coordination along these lines could enable government and private organizations together to make big strides in social development work.

Note: Special thanks to Dhruv Gupta for sharing his findings from a CSR conference

Community-led Natural Resource Management: Water Tanks in Telangana

Community-led Natural Resource Management: Water Tanks in Telangana

By the IIC Mission Kakatiya Team

Two years ago, in March 2015, the Government of Telangana announced a massive, rehabilitation program that would be undertaken by the state’s irrigation department over a five-year period. This  program - called Mission Kakatiya - was launched with the ambitious objective of restoring all minor tanks (small, man-made reservoirs) and lakes in the state of Telangana: all 45,000 of them.

The significance of this program stems from the value of these tanks in increasing the water supply in rural Telangana, especially as water availability becomes increasingly volatile in large part due to climate change. Tanks allow for the collection of rainwater, and also serve to recharge groundwater levels in adjacent areas. With the help of mostly gravity based channels, farmers use the water in these tanks to irrigate their crops.

While renovating these tanks is undoubtedly a monumental task, perhaps a harder challenge is identifying what comes next. Tanks are a particularly difficult resource to manage as they are what economists call ‘common pool resources.’ Common pool resources are non-excludable and rivalrous - on the one hand, it is difficult to stop someone from using them, while on the other one individual’s use of them reduces their availability for other users. In the case of tanks, individual users have a strong incentive to use as much water as they need. One user’s actions do not affect the tank as a whole. But since every individual faces this same decision-making calculus believing their use of the tank will have a negligible impact, all users try to use as much water from the tank as possible. This can lead to a situation where a tank is completely exhausted.

A relevant example in the context of India is the case of groundwater. Groundwater regulation in rural India is almost non-existent: the number of farm holdings is too large and the political incentives for providing a relatively stable source of water are too high for the government to decisively manage the use of the resource. Starting in the 1970s, the technology available to abstract groundwater has become far more efficient and cheaper. Concurrently, electricity coverage has increased dramatically across different parts of rural India, and electricity charges are free for farmers. This creates strong incentives for farmers to utilize large amounts of groundwater. After all, individual usage of tubewells is not going to affect the overall level of groundwater. However, when millions of farmers face these same incentives, we arrive at the present situation where close to 30% of the districts in India face a semi-critical or worse level of groundwater.

The challenges of the tragedy of the commons are of course amplified in the case of Mission Kakatiya where there isn’t just one common pool resource, but over 45,000 of them! Furthermore, these tanks are located in villages that vary on a number of dimensions, from social parameters such as caste composition, to ecological parameters such as rainfall availability, to basic administrative questions such as which people use these tanks.

Against such factors, having the government manage each of these tanks is almost impossible. There are simply too many tanks for the government to effectively monitor the situation at each tank. The task of the government is further complicated when one realizes that each tank usually has its own dynamics, where social factors like occupation and caste can play a crucial role in determining what the tank users think is a just distribution of the tank’s water.

There is therefore a critical need to devise a new mechanism to manage these tanks - one that doesn’t rely excessively on the government for the day-to-day management.

One promising solution is to create local, community tank management organizations that are headed by committees. These organizations are known as Water User Associations, while the committees are known as Managing Committees. WUAs are comprised of users of the tank. By virtue of their proximity to the tanks, as well as their constant engagement with it, users are best placed to decide what the tank needs and what it doesn’t, and to make decisions regarding its functioning. Logically, the next step is to determine how to harness that local knowledge into effective management. WUAs are a useful tool in achieving this step - they provide an outlet for community members to organize their knowledge and energies. The maintenance and management of the tank can be delegated to WUAs, with the government playing more of a supporting and supervisory role. In this manner, the government will be able to conserve precious resources, while also fostering a sense of ownership and accountability among users.

Community-based models of tank management have already been tried, and there are lessons to be learned from these experiments. The largest such pilot occurred in united Andhra Pradesh, with mixed results. Some tanks were better managed - most of the 100+ farmers we spoke to on the field said they preferred the WUA system to a government managed system. However, challenges along the way of the WUA programs implementation led to the de facto abandonment of the policy. Managing Committee members were elected. The election process meant that a lot of money was spent by candidates on campaigning or lobbying particular people to endorse or vote for them. Managing Committee members who were elected would then use their position to allocate themselves or their families maintenance contracts, in effect recouping their investment in the campaigning process (in addition to making a tidy profit). In order for future iterations of Water User Associations to be successful, alternative methods of selecting Managing Committee members need to be explored. Furthermore, in order for these WUAs to remain sustainable, they need to be granted the power to control their own finances - thus, they need to be granted the authority to collect water user charges from their users.

In a world with increasingly unreliable supply of water, a community-based approach ensures that all farmers are aware of the others’ usage, and also designates a set of individuals whose responsibility it is to manage the tank. This kind of approach, where collective decisions allocate resources and responsibilities, will help avert the tragedy of the commons, and provide valuable insights for managing common pool resources in the future.

 

 

IIC and IME Pioneer Water Quality Sensing Network in India’s Second Longest River

IIC and IME Pioneer Water Quality Sensing Network in India’s Second Longest River

An innovative combination of sensors in the water, networking in the Cloud, and change management on the ground promise potential solutions to age-old water quality problems along the 900-mile Godavari River. Text by Robert Reddy.

60 million people live within the Godavari River basin that drains into the Bay of Bengal on India’s east coast. The river’s water quality affects everyone, and the region stands to benefit from this first-of-its-kind sensor network installation and change management initiative. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has recognized the value of the research through a grant to support the Administrative Staff College of India’s (ASCI) program to provide city-wide sanitation improvements for urban populations in Andhra Pradesh. ASCI and University of Chicago experts will collaborate to deliver innovative systems to assess water quality, gage its impact on the local environment, and create more informed practices.

The project is a tale of two UChicago schools—the IME and Harris Public Policy—addressing a real-world problem through very different fields of inquiry and knowledge. Together they are building connections that will elevate the research initiative beyond science. The Institute for Molecular Engineering’s (IME) Professor Supratik Guha, a researcher in sensing technologies and cyber-physical sensing networks, has partnered with UChicago Professor of Law Anup Malani, who leads Chicago Harris School of Public Policy’s International Innovation Corps (IIC), a global fellowship program. They are investigating new systems for assessing, mapping, and positively impacting the water conditions at towns along India’s second longest river system.

By combining readily available, remote, in-the-water sensing technologies, with Cloud-based data collection and real-time mapping systems, the research and implementation teams intend to demonstrate the importance and value of detecting and anticipating pollutants that enter the river in the form of human waste, organic materials, and chemical contaminants. The uniqueness of this approach lies in its use of a boat-based mobile sensing platform that carries out streaming measurements, enabling water quality maps (graphical color representations of the data—known as heat maps) to be obtained in desired sections of the river. Instantly measuring multiple quantifiable parameters and using data analytics techniques, the investigators expect to identify trends in pollution levels that are not easily (or cheaply) measurable on-site, such as microbial content. The multiple parameter heat mapping should also enable them to pinpoint sources of pollution entering the river.

Guha describes the IME’s role in terms of innovative engineering and systems building: “We will use two-to-five commercial mobile sensor platforms installed on boats moving through various points in the river to map water quality with high resolution and over time. The platform will be configured with an array of sensors, a power source, an onboard processor, a GPS and a cellular link for data communications. With these sensing installations, the IME will survey a section of the Godavari River and develop a Cloud-based data curation platform with the ability to push data about river conditions to mobile phones using visualization applications, making the data about pollutants publicly available and more accessible.” Highlighting the novelty of this research, Guha continued: “Very little work has been done to date in this area, where large systems of sensors are combined with Big Data and physics models to create cyber-physical sensing systems for large water bodies. The work will be one of the first serious pilot programs to demonstrate the scalability, viability, and utility of this approach. The innovation will be in integrating this as an entire system.”

IIC Co-Founder and Faculty Director Anup Malani explains the IIC’s contribution: “We work to identify and implement scalable, sustainable, high-impact interventions that make great leaps in solving pressing development challenges. This water sensing project is a good example—leveraging top global talent here at UChicago and in India, and implementing the research through intensively trained IIC Fellows operating on the ground with the public sector in Andhra Pradesh. So this work is very much about connections—in technology and people.”

Five IIC Fellows working in the state of Andhra Pradesh are engaging with ASCI to channel the water sensing results through cultivated government and civic relationships to bring new and actionable insights to the attention of local and regional authorities, agrarians, health professionals, and social agencies. The collected, curated, and visualized data should help assess benchmark levels of contamination and inform regulatory measures aimed at mitigating the pollution. Understandings from the data will also be used by IIC Fellows to make evidence-based optimizations to the sanitation program and ensure citizens of Andhra Pradesh receive the maximum health and environmental benefits from interventions. IIC Fellow Priyank Hirani and Dr. Srinivas Rao Balivada, a water quality expert who has recently joined the project, are driving the local implementation of the water sensing research in Andhra Pradesh. This involves coordinating the technical aspects of the project for Guha while simultaneously advancing Malani’s vision of intervention—forming relationships and preparing the civic groundwork for meaningful change in local mindsets, water quality regulations, and infrastructure. Hirani enthusiastically views the challenge: “This river monitoring project puts in motion a set of steps that can have a real impact on the condition of populations residing in the Godavari River basin.”

In India, Professor Guha has enlisted additional help on the Godavari water sensing project, working with IBM Research where he was Director of Physical Sciences before joining the IME and Argonne National Laboratory. “IBM is a pioneer in the area of technologies related to the internet-of-things (IoT) and we are collaborating with a strong research group at IBM Bangalore who have been working in the area of analytics for water.” said Guha.

Toward the end of the project, the IME will also help evaluate the environmental impact of ASCI’s interventions and develop a prototype for more accessible water sensing technology. The project is scheduled to run through August 2018.