How technology improved water access for Delhi’s poor

Mukta Naik, Delhi Community Manager
Delhi, 12 May 2016

The Government of India’s (GoI) Smart Cities Mission has mainstreamed the idea of using technology innovations to leapfrog urban governance targets. Despite the policy’s focus on inclusion and participation, the competitive funding smart city projects seems sidelined underserved communities, which often remain off the priority list. In Delhi, there is reservation about New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC), one of Delhi’s most elite areas, being selected among the first 20 smart cities to receive GoI funding.

The majority of Delhi’s population (about 60%) lives in a baffling array of informal settlements, commonly called bastis, where insecure tenure and poor access to services is a reality. In the absence of piped water supply basti residents, usually women, spend a fair amount of their day waiting for the water tanker to arrive. If and when it does, they jostle with each other to collect enough water for their families. In the dry summer months, this is a fight for survival. Fortunately, the Delhi government has used technology to make simple and incremental improvements to water supply over the last five years or so.

Communities identified three pressing concerns over tanker supplied water—first, poor quality; second, leakages in the system owing to poor tanker maintenance but also, reportedly, because the private sector water mafia can siphon off from government run tankers; and third, concerns around equitable access, where and when will the tanker appear and who will control these decisions.

In response to the most pressing leakage problems, the Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi (GNCTD) awarded a seven-year contract in June 2011to the Delhi Integrated Multi Modal Transit System Ltd (DIMTS) to implement a solution. The Centre for Policy Research’s detailed analysis of the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) describes how by 2013, the utility had introduced new stainless steel water tankers fitted with GPS trackers. DJB engineers could now track tankers from the point of filling right till the point of distribution. Tanker operators were issued smart cards that ensured that potable, treated water was being filled into the tankers and sensors fitted inside the tankers reported chlorine levels.

The strategy was to improve water access by focusing on transparency of information. A public monitoring interface in the form of a website that provides exhaustive information on tanker schedules, where tankers will be parked for distribution, arrival and departure times, filling point, contacts in case of delay or failed delivery and vehicle number has greatly improved transparency and access. Additionally, mobile-based complaint registrations were put in place in 2014, and by mid-2015, customers were empowered to track water tanker locations via their mobile devices.

Delhi’s water tanker experience is a great example of technology being used for efficient and equitable delivery of urban services, though relying heavily on web- and mobile-based tools when reaching out to less-educated and low-income populations may hinder its effectiveness. The initiative successfully leveraged the capacities of the government (GNCTD and DJB) and quasi-private entity DIMTS to respond with a citywide solution. In a city where a relatively well-serviced area is slated to get the ‘smart city’ tag under the new smart cities scheme, it is prudent to remember that smart is not necessarily new and fancy, but merely logical.

Photo: Center for Policy Research

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