S S Sivakumar | He changed the economics of water, his machines make it

S S Sivakumar | He changed the economics of water, his machines make it

He hated capitalism and capitalists, but four decades after rejecting a corporate career, S.S. Sivakumar, now 61, has become a capitalist himself.

Only, he started late. In 2004, Sivakumar, then a professor of economics at the University of Madras, sought an early retirement that was granted.

Soon after, he founded Akash Ganga International (AGI), a company that makes water from, well, thin air.

All his life, Sivakumar, who looks an unlikely capitalist in his casual trousers, shirt, and bushy white moustache, has been interested in understanding what makes some people rich, and others poor.

At the Delhi School of Economics, where he completed his doctorate, his thesis was on this subject. He studied 200 families across three generations in rural India. His conclusion: “Affluence is a matter of chance."

S.S. Sivakumar is an economist-turned-entrepreneur. The scientific basis behind his air-to-water conversion is the heat exchange process: in this case, it involves sucking in air from the atmosphere and blowing it over cold gas, resulting in the creation of water

His interest in understanding the genesis of wealth did not. In 1984, with wife Chitra, a sociologist, Sivakumar embarked on a decade-long research study on class (wealth), caste, and resources such as water and land. By the end of the study, he was convinced that water, or the absence of it, held the key.

Water plays a dominant role in Indian politics and economics. Agriculture, which accounts for 18% of the country’s gross domestic product and which is the livelihood of 60% of the population, depends on the monsoon and most states have long-running disputes with their neighbours over the sharing of river waters.

An entire economic ecosystem, comprising mineral water companies, makers of water purifiers, service providers that deliver tanker-loads of water, and installers of reverse osmosis plants, has sprung up around water.

The idea for Akash Ganga came to Sivakumar in 2004, mainly as an offshoot of his research. He bounced the idea off Prof. M.K. Sundaresan, a physicist at Carlton University, Canada. It would work, said Sundaresan, and followed up with a contribution of $13,500 (then Rs6 lakh).

The scientific basis behind Sivakumar’s air-to-water conversion is the heat exchange process: In this case, it involves sucking in air from the atmosphere and blowing it over cold gas resulting in the creation of water (in much the same way, condensate, or water, forms on the outside of the windows of a heated room in winter or an air-conditioned room in summer).

By mid-2004, Sivakumar and his team worked out how to make water from air. AGL invested in a modest 3,000 sq. ft manufacturing facility and started rolling out its products. Priced between Rs9,200 (for an 8-litre version) to Rs42,500 (for a 120-litre one), the machines were powered by electricity, and sold through stores that sold consumer durables such as television sets, washing machines and refrigerators. The Akash Ganga machines produced a litre of water at an average cost of Rs0.80 a litre, but, surprisingly, found little success. The company was unable to sell the product as it lacked the resources to market the product on a larger scale.

With money running low—Sivakumar had invested around Rs1 crore of his savings into the venture—AGI had to give up its manufacturing facility and move to a smaller one. It also had to prune its workforce from a peak of 52 in August 2005 to just around six now. Sivakumar is determined to make a success of the company and his perseverance has seen some 400 units of the air-to-water converter being sold until now.

Since the process of converting air to water results in a drop in temperature (one reason why some air conditioners leak water), AGI has pitched its products as a three-in-one as the company terms it: an airconditioner, water creator, and air cleanser.

J. Sivaramakrishnan, a retired State Bank of India (SBI) official residing in Chennai, uses one such which cost him Rs23,500. It produces 20 litres of water a day. “It is the purest thing available. No need to run around for water," he says. The product isn’t without its failings: during winter, according to Sivaramakrishnan, the humidity drops, resulting in a decrease in output.

AGL is in the process of developing new products that will use alternative energy sources such as wind, sun and methane. And Sivakumar is convinced that his converters will find takers in the defence establishment. He has already sold six units with an installed capacity of 600 litres per day at the headquarters of the 25th batallion of the Madras Regiment on a trial basis, and is in talks to install a 1,000-litre unit. The Indian Army is in the market for converters of this kind and had conducted field trials on products supplied by Air Water Corp., a US multinational. “Our technology is indigenous and we can offer it to the army at a much lower cost," says Sivakumar.

The water produced by the machines has been tested by SGS India, a third party testing agency, on various parameters such as total dissolved solids, total hardness, acidity and alkalinity, and on all parameters it easily met the requirement for potable water set out by international standard IS 10500-1991, amendment 1 & 2 for water.

Once his products succeed in the cities, Sivakumar plans to take them to India’s villages, many of which do not have easy access to potable water. They also do not have a steady supply of power, but if AGI manages to develop machines that run on solar or wind energy, it will be able to address this problem.

Producing water from air may be an idea whose time has come, especially in a country that is forever short on the precious commodity or it could be one more in a long and growing list of ideas that sound good on paper but are rarely practical—alchemy and the perpetual motion machine would both fall under this category. “He falls for any idea he likes," says Devdutt, a retired official of the World Health Organization, whose association with Sivakumar goes back four decades. Devdutt uses only one name.

Twenty years ago, when organized retail was still unheard of in India, the TVS Group launched Stop & Shop, a chain of supermarkets. Sivakumar thought there was an opportunity to supply fresh produce to the chain and banded a group of farmers into a loose co-operative that would supply vegetables, sorted and packed in convenient 500g packs.

The failure of that chain stopped that experiment. With Akash Ganga, the stakes are higher—clean water for all—and Sivakumar is determined to succeed.

Sixty in Sixty is a special series that we plan to run through 2007, the 60th anniversary of India’s independence. We will introduce you to sixty Indians—both here and abroad—who are not rich or famous. These are people who are making quiet, but important, contributions without seeking headlines, to help make India and, in some cases, the world a better place. We also welcome your suggestions on people whom you think should be profiled in this series. Please send your suggestions by email to interview@livemint.com