KOLKATA: “What more could one ask for. We have a reliable source of drinking water, which is clean, safe and, most importantly, adequate,” remarks Rinki Shaw, 20, of No. 3, Kallikapur slum, located on the Eastern Metropolitan Bypass in Kolkata, the state capital of West Bengal. Shaw is among the many women in the area who have been using a smart card for around two years now to collect 10 litres of potable water every morning for the entire family from an automatic water dispensing machine.

In fact, the slum dwellers of Ward Numbers 108 and 109 in Kolkata have gone high-tech with a vengeance. They all expertly use their smart cards to pick up their quota of free water from the various compact water dispensing machines, popularly known as water ATMs, installed in their neighbourhoods.

Despite living beside a huge pond, for the longest time access to potable water was the biggest problem faced by the women of Kallikapur. Most would wake up at the crack of dawn and rush to the nearest hand pump to queue up for their turn to fill up drums and buckets with water that they would then carry back home. They used to face immense mental and physical strain but they bore it all because there was simply no way out. Of course, even though they stepped out in time there was no guarantee that they would return with water. In fact, most times either the hand pump would simply run dry or the municipal public taps, affixed few and far between, would get no supply. At the same time, there was every chance that the stored water would get contaminated.

But then their fortunes turned and, today, getting water is no longer the torturous chore it used to be. Whether it’s Rinki Shaw, Kavita Pal or Rina Jana, they simply walk over to a water ATM at their convenience to take home their share without worrying whether there’d be any left.

The obvious questions that come to mind is where and how is the community being supplied this water? The answer to this comes from another local woman, Kavita Pal. “We are getting the water from a filtering plant that has been set up with the technical support of SAFE (South Asian Forum for Environment), a non-governmental science and environment organisation. It is a revolutionising measure. There was a time when the women here used to spend three to four hours daily collecting water. We could not take care of our children or do household chores with a free mind because collecting water was always the first priority. At least with the water machines and smart cards, we do not have to constantly be bothered about securing our most basic right anymore. I am assured of safe water and my children do not fall ill frequently, which is such a big relief,” elaborates Pal, who heads the joint liability group (JLG) that is in-charge of the monitoring and upkeep of the filtering plant.

The plant, which has been built by SAFE in partnership with the people, is supported by HSBC’s Water Program that provided the initial funding and technical support for the sustainable model project. “Indeed, this is an ambitious, comprehensive model on water and sanitation that utilises carbon smart energy and climate adaptive usage of water resources effectively. The success of this project has been manifolds and quite visible in the lower income localities,” points out Amrita Chatterjee, Director Communications and Research, SAFE. “This started off as a pilot project. The water is primarily taken from the nearby pond and filtered in the plant that has been built on community land. The water that cannot be purified is directed to the community toilets, which are, in turn, connected to a biogas plant that produces fuel for use in the community kitchens. Moreover, the filter plant runs on solar energy produced from the panels fitted on its roof,” she adds.

Over the last two years, the project has gradually attained self-sustainability. The room that houses the filtering plant has huge solar grid that produces more than 10 KW of energy to run the facility. The water is supplied through underground channels from the nearby pond. Surface water from the pond is not used as people have inhibitions in drinking the dirty water that they use for cleaning and washing purposes. The plant purifies about 10,000 litres of water on a daily basis that the residents collect from the three dispensers affixed in the slum. Though 10 litres comes free if someone needs more they have the option of buying it by topping up their smart cards with money. For the additional water the charge is a nominal fifty paise per litre. “The money helps in the upkeep and maintenance of the plant. The community members have learnt to operate and monitor the machines after receiving training from Eureka Forbes engineers who have installed the filters,” shares Rabi Kumar Jana, who manages the filtering plant, the 24 community toilets, the biogas unit and the community kitchens.

It was a World Bank study, which revealed that poor quality drinking water was causing 21 per cent of diseases in India and creating a burden of around Rs 300 crores for the government that motivated SAFE to plan this project. India has been spending around about Rs 1,48,000 crore every year since the 1990s on various Water Sanitation Hygiene projects but even then the country ranks 120 in a UNDP survey of 123 nations on 'safe water index'. According to the UNDP report, it’s the urban slums dwellers that end up becoming worst victims of environmental pollution, poor sanitary services and contaminated drinking water.

The Kallikapur slum project has successfully demonstrated an effective system to address basic healthcare and sanitation issues by suitably utilising renewable sources of energy, like solar power and bio gas, and catalysing the community into proactive action. The project is currently being replicated in two other urban slums in Kolkata now that the sustainability of the Kallikapur initiative has been measured and recognised. “For us women it’s been a total win-win. More so because these days even the men have gotten involved in doing what was considered only a woman’s work. Earlier, they used to feel that collecting water, cleaning toilets and making food were activities done by women and girls. But with community ownership and participation, the onus of getting the work done has become shared. Men and women have understood the merits of working side by side,” sums up a happy Rina Jana.

( Women's Feature Service)