Good Businesses 2014

A reservoir of hope

Naireeta is tackling the issue of water logging by creating underground reservoirs through an innovative method

There stands a lonesome neem tree in the village of Mota Joravarpura, surrounded by acres of flat brown earth waiting to be cultivated. Cowherds sit underneath its shade in the heat haze and enjoy a simple lunch, while their cattle graze in a field nearby. Keshaben, an outspoken Gujarati woman in her late 40s, is contemptuous of the vehicle that transported her from the village centre to this clearing on the outskirts. “Your A/C is no good,” she says. “This is our very own natural A/C. We like to sit under this tree and enjoy the cool breeze.”

Rewind 10 years. There is no neem tree. Instead, a dusty wasteland caked with the white residue of salt stretches endlessly. When it rains, the air does not resonate with the sowing song of women in the fields. Instead, they are flooded with waist-deep water that makes cultivation impossible. Entire families of small-scale cultivators migrate to the Kathiawar peninsula, to cities like Rajkot and Jamnagar, looking for itinerant construction work. Today, Keshaben points to the tree and reminisces, “Birds find it difficult to leave their nest in the trees, imagine how difficult it must have been for us to leave our homes.” An area that grew no crops throughout the year is now growing two crops annually. The principal point of difference between then and now: one magical word, Bhungroo (drinking straw in Gujarati).  

A Mercurial Monsoon

It is impossible to not like Biplab Paul. He greets everyone with a booming ‘Good Morning’ charged with such infectious energy that it actually makes your morning better. He laughs heartily and often, at the smallest of jokes, with the utmost sincerity. He makes for quite a curious manifestation of India’s heterogeneity: a syncretic product of Bengal and Gujarat. A native Bengali from Chinsurah and an economics graduate from Jadavpur University, 44-year-old Paul has settled in Ahmedabad since 1995 where he undertook a course in environmental education at the Centre for Environment Education. 

The image of a little girl in Sami taluka of Patan district quenching her thirst by sliding down a ditch to slurp muddy water left a strong impression on Paul’s mind. In his travels around rural Gujarat as part of the NGO Lok Vikas, he was intrigued by a peculiar dichotomy in the nature of water scarcity. The modest quantity of rainfall the state receives is concentrated in a short period of 15-20 days, leading to water logging in the peak cropping season. For the rest of the year, the state experiences severe water-scarcity. Landed small-scale cultivators are thus forced to abandon their fields and go looking for employment elsewhere.

An idea came to Paul’s mind: what if there was a way to store this excess water underground and pump it out for use in the dry spells? His invention, Bhungroo — an irrigation device that costs around ₹3 lakh to 5 lakh, which is around one-tenth the cost of a borewell and one-third the cost of a tubewell — was thus born.  

Diving for water

What exactly is a Bhungroo? Bhungroo is a pipe, typically 4-6 inches in diameter, that is drilled into the ground upto a depth of 60-110 feet at the lowest point in the catchment area of fields prone to water logging, ensuring that the excess floodwater flows into it due to gravitational pull. It takes up an area of roughly 1 sq m. The design and depth of the pipe depends on agro-climactic and soil conditions. A filtration mechanism at the opening ensures that topsoil and other impurities do not manage to enter it. 

A perforation chamber is made in the Bhungroo at a spongy soil layer capable of absorbing water and the rainwater is guided here, creating an underground water reservoir. Each Bhungroo has a capacity to drain the water from 5-7 acres of land, drawing an average of 2 million litre per unit. Diesel pumps are used in the winter to pull up the water and can irrigate 20-30 acre of land. It also helps reduce desertification because the fresh rainwater going into the ground mixes with the saline groundwater and reduces the overall salinity of the land.

Paul has an inventory-less model wherein he locally sources all the material and labour required to erect the Bhungroo, including the PVC pipes and drilling equipment. Firstly, the material is transported to the site of erection, which incurs a cost of ₹20,000-30,000. The drilling requires six men to drill for a period of 12 days with the labour costing around ₹70,000. Drilling costs vary, depending on whether it is done by machine or manually. Typical drilling costs come up to around ₹1 lakh but often vary depending on the depth at which the spongy soil layer in the ground is found.

In 2001, when Paul first set out on the lonely journey to implement Bhungroo with no scientific knowledge, he had many hurdles to reckon with. He first taught himself hydrogeology to understand the issues involved. “We moved from failure to failure,” he says. “But unlike Bengali parents, Mother Nature is a kind teacher who doesn’t punish you for failing. She embraced me and taught me every time I failed.” It was also difficult to convince illiterate, technology-averse farmers to try out his innovation.

“Most of the people Bhungroo serves have been oppressed in some way all their lives. They are not very trusting of new people or new ideas. They think it is yet another way to swindle them of their money. It was difficult for us to get them to accept Bhungroo as a beneficial technology,” says Paul. “The first time, they thought we were all liars. The second time they thought since we’re coming back we must have something. When they finally saw us get on with the drilling, they were convinced we were serious about what we were doing,” says Shaileshkumar Jadav, a Lok Vikas volunteer who has been closely associated with the on-field implementation of Bhungroo in Sami taluka of Patan district.

At this stage, Paul along with his wife Trupti chose to use women as the medium of transmission for his idea since most male members of their families were not available, having migrated to cities for employment.  Upon interaction, he discovered women to be more resilient to failure, less egoistic and more patient with his trial-and-error methods. In 2006, Paul erected the first Bhungroo in Mota Joravarpura in Keshaben’s field, financed by his own and his wife’s savings. 

He was still in the initial stage of innovation with no ‘proof of idea’ and could hardly rely on any external funding. He calls Mota Joravarpura his ‘pilot project’ and has not charged a single paisa from the villagers for the Bhungroo erection. 

In 2007, he won the World Bank’s India Development Market Place Award, which opened doors for him in terms of funding and recognition. In 2008, the Gujarat Commissionerate of Rural Development in collaboration with Japan Fund for Poverty Reduction (JFPR), pooled in a grant of around ₹1 crore to bring 500 BPL families in Patan district above the poverty line using Bhungroo technology. The implementing agency was Lok Vikas, as part of which Paul erected 100 Bhungroos in Sami with the assistance of Self Help Groups (SHGs) who were acting as advocacy units for the government. 

Based on his previous experience, Bhungroo was modelled such that it was collectively owned by five women belonging to poor farming households as part of a Joint Asset Group (JAG), an unheard-of phenomenon in the highly capitalistic Gujarati society. “Mohammad Yunus came up with the idea of Joint Liability Group (JLG) in Bangladesh. We used this model to form a JAG instead. Why do you want to distribute debt when you can distribute a long-term asset?” asks Paul. 

Bhungroo’s growing popularity and success encouraged Paul to devise a business model. Thus, Naireeta, a social enterprise was born in 2011. According to the initial business model, the JAG paid their dues to Naireeta for services and Bhungroo construction over five years by giving them 30% of their winter cash crop. Naireeta used to sell this on the open market and pay the financial institutions it borrowed from to install the Bhungroos. The excess water, if any, was sold by the commune to other small-holding farmers in repayment of either the diesel expenses or one-third of their winter cash crop. Paul constructed two Bhungroos under this model. For a one-time investment of ₹3 lakh-5 lakh, Bhungroo generates an income of ₹9 lakh a year for the commune and provides them lifelong food security. Typical break-even time for the commune is 36 months.

In 2012 came the turning point when Bhungroo was officially adopted into Gujarat’s 12th State Budget as part of the state’s irrigation initiative, which saw Paul erecting 25 Bhungroos. During this period, Paul created a team of 13 SHG volunteers who had become self-sufficient in determining the site of Bhungroo erection and other technicalities apart from the depth of the Bhungroo, for which Paul had to be present occasionally. The Bhungroo initiative was soon handed over to this team, which has erected 2,000-3,000 Bhungroos in north Gujarat catering to around 14,000 farmers till date with nominal participation from him, says Paul.

Until this point, Paul was still operating on a grant model and was not earning anything.  In the same year, Paul won the Ashoka Globalizer Award and was soon advised by an international consultancy to forge tie-ups with capable organisations possessing a local presence instead of dealing with individual farmers. “Collection costs were high in the earlier model. Since most small-holding farmers are not connected to the banking system, we had to go ourselves to check on them,” says Paul. 

Consequently, Naireeta’s model took concrete shape. According to this model, Naireeta is approached by local organisations — NGOs, SHGs, or corporates intending to spend their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) fund — interested in implementing Bhungroo in their area of operation. So far, Naireeta has collaborated with the Deshpande Foundation in Karnataka and the Sophia Foundation in Odisha. Naireeta charges ₹3,000-6,000 per day for sessions on the nitty gritty of on-field implementation of Bhungroo. “We have opted for an open-source model. Knowledge is our biggest asset and we want to spread the word. Right at the beginning, we decided we won’t patent the Bhungroo since it increases cost of access,” says Paul. The local partner is responsible for identification of beneficiaries and rural community mobilisation, while Naireeta is responsible for erecting the Bhungroo at an appropriate site. 

Under this model, Naireeta has constructed one Bhungroo so far in collaboration with Deshpande Foundation that fetched a revenue of ₹6.6 lakh and a net income of ₹1.6 lakh. Also, the Sophia Foundation has entered into a Schedule of Rate agreement with the Irrigation Department of the Odisha government for a trial unit of Bhungroo in Puri district, according to which one unit of Bhungroo is priced at ₹7.5 lakh - 8 lakh, including material cost, local community mobilisation, labour, capacity building and training. The government provides the funds to Sophia, which will pay Naireeta a lump sum fee of around ₹5 lakh for erecting the Bhungroo, this includes labour costs, machinery and transport costs, earthwork and drilling costs.

Regarding the method by which Naireeta decides the quantum of money to be charged above its expenses, Paul has this to say. “Bhungroo is not a product but a service. We look at the organisation’s willingness and ability to pay, and then decide the amount of surplus to charge We invest our surplus in areas that desperately need the Bhungroo. We want to break even soon so that we are able to spread impact effectively,” he says. Apart from installation charges, Naireeta has other revenue streams specified in the contract: technology execution cost, the cost of adapting it to local conditions, and maintenance costs over the years. 

So far, Naireeta has clocked revenues of around ₹7 lakh since 2012 from its operations and a loss of ₹42,000 since it ran into some financial hurdles with its partner organisation in West Bengal because of which it could not get its dues. It has four salaried employees apart from seven members in the top management who don’t draw any salary. In addition, it has 19 rural volunteers who act as brand ambassadors for Bhungroo and advocate it in north Gujarat. Paul hopes to break even in 2017. 

While Naireeta has been successful in advocating the Bhungroo in Gujarat, he is now looking to scale it up to a pan-India level. In fact, in the long run he wants to introduce it in other countries afflicted by water-logging, like the South-East Asian nations and some African countries. He has already partnered with Conservation Alliance International to introduce the Bhungroo in Ghana.  

Challenges of Scale

Uptil now, 220,000 hectare in Gujarat has been irrigated using Bhungroo, according to a report by the Gujarat Ecology Commission. “Bhungroo will have to reach a tipping point when there’ll be viral replication. It has been very successful in north Gujarat, because the farmers here are very aware and entrepreneurial in nature. Small-holding farmers elsewhere don’t have this mentality,” says Somnath Bandyopadhyay, professor of ecology at Nalanda University. For this, Bandyopadhyay says that an academically rigorous scientific evaluation will be essential to assess the impact of Bhungroo, much like the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) which began as a one-state initiative but is now being implemented in 11 states and is backed by Nabard. 

Also, scalability will be a challenge considering that if grants and financing don’t come from the government or other foundations, Naireeta will be unable to achieve scale, given that since 2012 it has only managed to install one Bhungroo under its new business model. Naireeta will also have to train soil engineers to identify locations suitable for Bhungroo erection, a job largely done by Paul himself.  To remedy this information lacuna, Naireeta has forged tie-ups with knowledge partners such as Bihar Innovation Forum, which is popularising the innovation in its regions of operation by engaging with farmers and publishing the impact of Bhungroo. 

But Paul is ready to run the marathon and is busy advocating his innovation to the Centre and various state governments, convincing them to take it up as part of their official policy, just like the Gujarat government did in 2012. However, sensitizing the government is going to be an uphill ride. The government does not recognise water-logging as an official disaster, says Rajiv Sinha, professor of geosciences at IIT Kanpur. “Whatever the case, I’m game for it,” says a determined Paul.