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Rampreet Saini, 50, runs a general store in the Savda Ghevra resettlement colony on the fringes of west Delhi. He lives nearby. There is a water ATM, or a drinking water dispensing kiosk, in front of his house. So whenever he needs water, he fetches it from the kiosk, at 30 paise per litre.

Fifteen such water kiosks were installed in this colony in November by the Piramal Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Piramal Group, under its Sarvajal project after it won a tender floated by the Delhi Jal Board (DJB). The area has no water pipelines and the groundwater is unfit for consumption, so people rely on DJB tankers. “If the allotted number of tankers come, there is plenty to drink. But at times they don’t and that is when we use these ATMs," says Saini. On an average, Saini buys 20-30 litres of water every day.

A water purification and treatment plant in the locality services these ATMs. Groundwater purified at the plant is transported via a water tanker to the ATMs. Two of the 15 ATMs are at the plant and water bought from these costs less, 15 paise a litre.

Local resident Mohammad Akram, who has a timber shop, says he is happy to pay 45 paise for the 3 litres that he needs every day, rather than 1 for a small sachet of water.

A Sarvajal card is needed to operate the ATMs. First-time users need to pay 100 for the card; 50 of this is a one-time fee. Thereafter, the card can be topped up with a minimum recharge of 50 at the plant or appointed vendors in the colony. The recharge is done through a mobile messaging system.

But of the 7,500 families in the colony, only 800 have bought the card. Daily wagers like 35-year-old Ramkumari, who lives with her husband and five daughters, say they can’t afford it. Most of the residents of this colony are people like her who work at construction sites.

The DJB, however, is optimistic. “The response from the pilot at Savda Ghevra has been encouraging, though not overwhelming, as this ATM service is not advertised; mostly it is word of mouth. However, residents who have used the facility have shown interest in continuing to use the facility," says its spokesperson.

Anuj Sharma, Sarvajal’s chief operating officer, says the charges have been kept to a minimum, to cover the cost of “purification and transportation". The plant can purify 1,000 litres per hour, and run 24x7. However, it’s run twice at the moment, morning and evening, in accord with the requirement as the water is considered fit for consumption only for 72 hours. On an average, 150 litres is consumed from each ATM every day.

Last month, Delhi’s lieutenant governor cleared a proposal to set up similar water ATMs in 10 resettlement colonies. The DJB spokesperson says these are the areas which don’t have sufficient water supply or infrastructure to provide drinking water round the clock. “We have decided to go ahead with the tendering process along with Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board," adds the spokesperson.

“These ATMs, however," the spokesperson clarifies, “are not aimed at replacing water tankers but they are put up as backup so that residents have access to at least drinking water at all times as tankers may get delayed due to various reasons."

Amit Mishra, general manager, urban operations, Sarvajal, says the ATMs are “solar-powered, remote-sensing, and cloud-serviced". Each ATM unit has a solar panel which charges the battery fitted inside. The Sarvajal card has data about the amount loaded on the card. As the user places the card on the sensor, the SIM card fitted inside sends a message to the server, and the available balance is flashed on the display panel. The user can then press the button, and the water starts flowing. The same button has to be pressed again to stop the water from flowing. Money is deducted from the card depending on the amount of water taken.

Mohammad Shahid, a local resident, complains that since the ATMs are not guarded, miscreants often soil the nozzles. Sharma agrees, but points out that community-level participation and awareness are required to ensure such social initiatives can run at a low cost.

The Savda Ghevra project is not the only one of its kind in India. Piramal itself has been running the Sarvajal project for five-and-a-half years. And there have been similar initiatives in Mumbai’s Mankhurd area and Karnataka’s Kanakapura constituency, the first by a non-profit and the second by the state government.

In Savda Ghevra, a survey carried out by Sarvajal six-eight months ago shows that every family spends 12-16% of its monthly income on health issues—and half of this is on water-borne diseases. “Our basic objective is (to promote) health, and (unclean) water is one of the main sources of illness," says Sharma. Sarvajal and other such projects aim to fight this.

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