In November 2009, Onkar Gauridhar, then 28 years old, went to pay his monthly water bill, issued by the Pimpri-Chinchwad Municipal Corporation (PCMC) in Pune, Maharashtra. To clear an amount of just Rs 160, Onkar had to wait in a queue with about 60 others for two and a half hours before he could reach the counter.
“I had never stepped in the office before, and assumed there was some technical glitch resulting in the long queue,” he says.
However, when he reached the kiosk, the official showed him a receipt of Rs 12,000. “I was shocked and showed him the 6×3 cm receipt displaying Rs 160 that I had. The official simply told me there was no point arguing, as the updated figures showed Rs 12,000 as dues. I ran from pillar to post to find justification for the exorbitant amount the entire day, but failed to get an answer. It was an upsetting experience, and never left my mind,” he adds.
Onkar, a resident of Chinchwad area in the city, had recently quit his job as a data analyst with an investment company, in search of better prospects. But this incident, he says, persuaded him to work alongside the PCMC to help save ten million litres of water annually.
However, there was a catch. He had chosen to take a six-month gap, before switching jobs to try something new in the field of analytics. “I saved about Rs 12 lakh to sustain myself during unemployment. However, my mother suffered heart ailments, and underwent surgeries which cost me Rs 7 lakh,” Onkar says.
A friend in need
Onkar confided in his college friend, Amit Deshmukh, about his situation. “I told him I have a client willing to invest, but no money to set up the business. Amit offered a lending land, and mortgaged his property to loan Onkar Rs 22 lakh,” he says.
Meanwhile, Onkar also roped in his ex-colleague, Shishir Thakur, to join the business. Shishir had also had a business deal which never materialised.
Around the same time, local body elections were underway, and Onkar took the opportunity to manage portfolios for the corporators. “I earned Rs 40 lakh by managing ten candidates and repaid my debt in 11 months. Frequent visits to the municipal corporation during work helped me channelise some ideas,” he says.
During the next month, the trio visited the office to observe the various issues citizens were raising regarding their water bills. “We overheard and observed everything, and made notes of it. We proposed the idea of streamlining the water billing management system to the officials, but it was all in vain,” he tells The Better India.
“As an IT professional, I had made such systems for governments in Australia, the US, France, and other countries. I thought about why our governments did not have robust IT systems in place for smooth functioning. Many professionals from my field work in multinational companies and complain about poor government infrastructure, but conveniently go back to their respective offices to develop world-class software for other countries,” he says. This ignited the idea of their start-up, Cranberry Analytics.
The idea was presented to the officials, but they declined the offer. “They said they could not trust a third party with confidential data. It took five days of convincing the mayor, following which they gave us a small zone to try out a pilot project,” Onkar says,
10,000 million litres of water saved
Shishir, the co-founder of the start-up, says that once work began, the team realised that out of 1.3 lakh water meter connections, 90,000 were functional, and only 55,000 consumers were billed.
“The PCMC was earning Rs 18 crore and losing the majority of revenue to malpractices, unauthorised connections, and inaccuracies in the system. We worked upon two pilot projects before earning the tender in 2012,” Shishir recalls.
He adds that they spent four years to get all 1.3 lakh consumers in the government database, and identified faulty metres and billable consumers through technological interventions. “We introduced a barcode system to read meters, send information to servers, identify consumption patterns, bring transparency and seal leakages,” he says.
By 2020, the PCMC’s revenue had jumped to Rs 45 crore annually, which came through 1.55 lakh consumers, resulting in a recovery of about 80% of consumer dues.
Shishir says it was difficult to deal with the technical aspects, as well as to change consumer perception that they have to pay for using the water. Making them understand how water use is mapped and how they should use it judiciously demands efforts and requires relationships to be forged with the consumers. “With the introduction of this mobile app, the consumer can now monitor their usage every day, and understand if there are any fluctuations from normal in usage patterns,” the 34-year-old says.
The start-up dove deep into analysing and streamlining operations and management of the water distribution. “We learned that the system was losing 45% water. For example, if 100 MLD (millions of litres per day) of water was released, only 55% would reach consumers. Water released from the Elevated Storage Reservoir (ESR) lost its way to leakages, unauthorised connections, and other network issues. There was no surveillance, and we introduced artificial intelligence and technology to cut this loss by 35%,” Shishir says, adding that from 2017 onwards, a total of 10,000 million litres of water has been saved from this loss every year.
A changing landscape
Shishir says that in 2020, Cranberry Analytics equipped the war room at the PCMC office and that 29 reports are generated every day on a real-time basis. The system maps the water leakages, consumer patterns, recoveries, water usage fluctuations, and unauthorised water sourcing, in addition to raising an alert for faulty metres at micro-levels.
Amit says the company is working to predict water usage in the city in the coming months. “The city is expanding, and water use will change. The budget allocation, understanding new water lines, and approving connections could be predicted at least a couple of years before, through analytics. We will also enter the sector where groundwater extraction done by people can be metered, and the usage can be billed,” he says.
Amit adds that water is a crucial asset and that monitoring its usage through technology is one of the best ways to conserve and encourage the habit of judicious usage.