We may not realise it, but water as a resource is slowly and steadily becoming elusive. Several states have faced back-to-back droughts, resulting in villages being declared ‘severely drought-affected,’ while major cities are on the brink of an acute water crisis.
J Chandrasekaran realised this while travelling across remote villages in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.
A heritage enthusiast, he was one of the founders of the REACH Foundation at the time, an NGO working towards facilitating the restoration of heritage structures.
“Over the years, I visited almost 2,000 villages scouting for heritage structures that needed restoration and noticed that all the villagers had similar issues. First, drinking water was not potable and they had to depend on mineral water bottles, whose source and authenticity was unknown. Second, we noticed that there weren’t any good toilets anywhere. People would walk around with a mug when they had to defecate,” he says.
Struck by their situation, Chandrasekaran realised that he wanted to do something that would improve their lives. After five years of research and fine-tuning technology, he founded a social enterprise named WATSAN in 2013.
“WATSAN is made up of two words—water and sanitation—which are also the two facilities we want to make accessible to people,” says Chandrasekaran, who grew up in Madurai’s Thirunagar locality. He has an undergraduate degree in Chemistry and a PG Diploma in Plastic Technology.
Affordable and Environment-Friendly Solutions
WATSAN manufactures and distributes Terafil water purifiers. These are low-cost, effective, electricity-free water purifiers that are being used by over 2.5 lakh households in the country!
“I was exploring electricity-free solutions to make drinking water more accessible when my mentor told me that the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research-Institute of Minerals and Materials Technology (CSIR-IMMT) had come up with a clay candle with nanopores that could be used to purify water efficiently,” says Chandrasekaran.
Subsequently, he acquired the license to produce the candle and started manufacturing the purifiers at WATSAN’S unit in Kanchipuram’s Kidangarai Village.
Over the years, they also started manufacturing purifiers that could remove the concentration of fluoride and arsenic from water.
There are different variations that the purifiers come in and comprise of primarily two containers. The Terafil candle made from nano clay particles is placed in the first container. This top part of the purifier filters microbes like bacteria and virus, enabling the clean, potable water to percolate to the bottom container.
Currently, WATSAN has two units, the manufacturing unit in Kidangarai and the assembling unit in Chennai where about 28 women are involved in the manufacturing process. Among them is Sunanda Raja, 30, who has been working with WATSAN for the past one year.
“I was working as a house help earlier, but my salary wasn’t enough to keep the household going. I am raising my two boys by myself, and have to take care of all their needs. I am delighted that I switched to this job because I am being paid more, and the timings are very convenient. Once my children leave for school, I come and work. I am done by the time they reach home, and I get to spend more time with them,” she says.
She also loves working in an all-women environment. “I have learnt how to package and assemble these purifiers, along with keeping track of the inventory. I even use one of these purifiers at home. After having worked here, I truly feel empowered,” she states.
WATSAN has sold over 5000 purifiers to NGOs in Kerala, Odisha and Chennai during the floods in each of these places. They have about six NGO partners who get in touch with them and buy these purifiers, making it accessible to the masses. Jawans in the Wagah Border are also using these purifiers.
They are also working with a leading online food delivery platform that is using their water purifier in their cloud kitchen. WATSAN’s solutions have also impacted people beyond the boundaries of the country. They have pilots ongoing in Rwanda, Tanzania, Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe and Myanmar.
In addition to the water purifiers, WATSAN has also built approximately 52 toilets by recycling discarded fibreglass.
“I noticed the large amount of fibreglass waste that was being generated by the windmill blade manufacturing industry. While windmills are a good source of renewable energy, the waste left behind is hard to dispose of as it cannot be incinerated,” says the founder. WATSAN found an innovative way to utilise this waste by constructing toilets using Fibre Reinforced Plastic (FRP),” he mentions.
These toilets are easier to make and erect than the conventional RCC (Reinforced Cement Concrete) toilets. They are also non-corrosive and lighter in weight.
Operations, Challenges and Impact
Despite the progress and change that WATSAN has brought about, there are several challenges they have faced.
“Although we devised the idea about constructing these toilets, the execution of it all took a long time because we needed approvals and sanctions,” says Chandrasekaran.
Once they got the approvals, they started making the toilet kit. This comprised of the roof, the doors, sidewalls, commode and the legs for the toilet which would keep the structure in place. They even conducted a pilot in Podaturpet near Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh border in a girl’s orphanage. They heard that one of the girls in the orphanage lost her life to scorpion bite when she had ventured out in the open to relieve herself. Here, they installed 15 of WATSAN’s toilets.
“However, we realised that transporting these toilets was a big challenge,” explains Chandrasekaran.
Following this realisation, they decided that instead of making the toilets and transporting them, they would make the raw materials available and teach people to make them. Last month, they finished the construction 40 toilets in Thiruthuraipoondi with the help of 12 women from SHGs.
Chandrasekaran explains how his idea has caught on and motivated others. “I had visited the Great Lakes Institute of Management as a guest of honour. Hearing me speak about the kind of work we do, the students in the institute raised money through crowdfunding, and I too paid a sum. Together, we helped in the construction of a toilet,” he recalls proudly.
So, what lies ahead for WATSAN now?
Chandrasekaran is currently developing ‘Water on Wheels,’ a portable water purifier, and has received a grant of Rs10 lakh from NASSCOM to work on this project.
In 2017, WATSAN received the best startup award by the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). They also won the Waterpreneur Award by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) in 2018.
“I don’t want any degree or qualifications for anyone to work with us and become a changemaker. I want to engage more women and provide them with skills and training in being able to test the water they use. I want to work with more people so that this solution is more accessible,” he says, signing off.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)