The ATM-style Dispensers Bringing Safe Water To Far-flung Communities In India
Ajay Piramal is leveraging technology to transform life for India’s poorest.
India’s economic growth over the last 30 years is astounding, but there is a way to go before the benefits filter through to the poorest in society. A number of major stumbling blocks stand in the way of universal economic growth and until these are overcome India will not truly fulfil its potential.
Nowhere is this clearer than with water. One in 10 Indians lack access to a clean water supply and there are 1,600 daily deaths owing to water contamination. On top of this, the average Indian woman who lacks easy access to a clean supply will spend some 700 hours a year collecting water.
One of India’s most famous billionaire businessmen, Ajay Piramal, is financing the countering of these issues by backing technology and social enterprise-led approaches.
Piramal’s is a classic story: he made his wealth by taking a limited textile enterprise and turning it into one of India’s largest industrial conglomerates with diversified interests across pharmaceuticals, telecommunications, glassmaking, financial services, property, and data and information.
Where he differs from many of his peers is in his philanthropy. Piramal supports the development of social enterprise to create market solutions for some of the largest barriers to India’s development — access to safe water, healthcare, education and youth leadership — and benefit 61 million unserved and underserved Indians.
Piramal’s solution to lack of clean water is technology-driven and market-led. He financed a start-up called Sarvajal (which means ‘water for all’ in Sanskrit), which delivers purified drinking water through a network of solar-powered, cloud-connected, pay-as-you-go ATM-style dispensers. Priced for those ‘at the bottom of the pyramid’, they currently have more than 377,000 daily customers across 15 states. In addition, they work within schools, offices and other public places, to ensure a continuous and safe supply of water. The machine is operated using a Soochak, a remote monitoring device that can be mounted on a water purification plant. This patented device captures minute-by-minute machine status on the technology backend, while its touch screen guides local operators on the daily functioning of the plant in the local language. It allows Piramal Sarvajal to sustainably bring affordable, safe drinking water to underserved communities in the most far-flung reaches of India. The goal is to boost the impact to one million customers a day by 2020.
Another technology-driven solution backed by Piramal’s foundation is Piramal Swasthya, a Hyderabad healthcare organisation. With the highest number of maternal deaths in the world, more than two million dying from preventable infection and vaccine-preventable disease, India has a compelling social need. However, with only 40 percent of the population currently being helped by India’s embryonic healthcare sector, it also presented a potential commercial
opportunity, assuming the major issues of delivery for a remote and rural population can be overcome. Piramal Swasthya works in rural areas of India using technology to deliver affordable healthcare. The 104 information helpline enables doctors, nurses, counsellors and trained operators to deliver virtual healthcare via a call centre. This is supplemented with ‘telemedicine’, which allows urban doctors and specialists to offer video-based diagnosis through local surgeries, while mobile health vans enable an entire doctor’s surgery to be deployed in rural areas for a limited time. Piramal Swasthya is now present across nine states with a 1,400-plus workforce comprising 150 doctors and specialists.
Ajay Piramal says he was inspired by his grandfather, Seth Piramal Chaturbhuj Makharia Piramal, who helped many of the needy in Rajasthan in the 1920s and 1930s. “[He] was an inspiration. He was not a wealthy man, but shared a larger proportion of his wealth than others. If you don’t share your wealth you are doing a disservice,” he said in an interview with Forbes India.
Spirituality and religion also helps to create a framework and philosophy for good deeds, he believes. “The Bhagavad Gita says that you are the trustees of wealth; it is not yours, you have to see that it is well used”, Piramal has said.
Piramal’s philanthropic philosophy has been passed onto the next generation, with his sons and daughters becoming involved in a number of his social endeavours, all of which emphasise the need for businesses that deliver a core social benefit as part of their fundamental mission.
His work also has a positive impact on his business interests, as well as the other way around. As he put it in an interview with Business Insider earlier this year: “The leverage that business and the foundation derive from each other is a huge strength of the Piramal Group. The symbiotic relationship between the two parts of the organisation builds an energy far beyond what each is capable of.”
This approach has ensured his continued personal interest in the projects and a growing commitment to support this activity: he currently spends around 15 percent of his working time on social projects. Furthermore, he can rest easy knowing that if, for whatever reason, he was unable to assist, these companies would continue to help, as social good is intrinsic to their operations.
“Wealth is just a question of adding zeroes. If we can put it to use, people will remember it,” says Piramal. With an impact on the lives of more than 61 million Indians to date, it’s fair to say that his approach has ensured millions will remember his wealth.
Peter Cafferkey is the CEO of philanthropy advisor Boncerto.