Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Social entrepreneurship achieves what centralized aid could not in India

By Eliot Van Buskirk, Wired
  • Dr. BP Agrawal won this year's Lemelson-MIT Award for Sustainability
  • He developed rooftop rainwater capture system that increases availability of clean water
  • His other program uses inexpensive laptops, devices to do frontline medical diagnostics

(Wired) -- Critics of some aid programs contend that merely supplying money and resources to destitute regions does not help them in the long term, and can even hurt, because it creates dependence on the part of the recipients.

Not so with Dr. BP Agrawal's solutions for bringing clean water and medical services to rural Indian villages, which won him and his program the $100,000 Lemelson-MIT Award for Sustainability, the organization announced this week.

His "River From The Sky" (Aakash Ganga) initiative continues to enable villagers to trap rain water on their rooftops and store it underground via pipes, providing an average of 10-12 liters of water per day to each resident of 40 villages, reaching approximately 10,000 villagers so far.

The system also creates an economic incentive for villagers to sustain the program, not only by providing water, but by allowing them to rent out their rooftops to those with increased demand for water in order to generate income. Excess water is routed to a community tank that all of the villagers can access.

The second program, "Clinics for Mass Care" (Arogya Ghar), equips rural Indian girls, who otherwise lack significant opportunity for advancement (in part because they spend much of their time carrying water), with inexpensive laptops connected to a variety of diagnostic devices.

Carrying the entire unit in a shoulder bag, they travel door-to-door in villages asking if anyone is sick, receiving 25 cents for performing diagnostic tasks using instructions on the computers. This typically creates an income of about $100 per month, says Agrawal, while offering girls, whose career options are usually severely limited, valuable vocational training in the field of healthcare.

Dr. Agrawal grew up in rural Rajasthan, India. After heeding his parents' instructions to study science, he eventually led R&D developments at several Fortune 100 companies, at one point completing an executive management program at MIT's Sloan School of Management. He left the fast-track in 2003 to work on these programs, at his non-profit, Sustainable Innovations.

In the beginning, he says, he encountered fierce resistance from Indian officials who had been burned by previous efforts to send aid to rural villages.

"I traveled 10,000 miles to talk to them, and they stopped listening to me within ten minutes," Dr. Agrawal recalled to

The reason: the Indian government had offered to fund 90 percent of villages' clean water initiatives in 1997, but villages proved unable to come up with the remaining 10 percent, so the program was cancelled. Officials refused to believe Agrawal's programs were working until he showed them bank account records proving that they were sustaining themselves -- and that, once implemented, were providing income in some cases.

An entrepreneurial dimension is crucial for aid efforts such as this, according to Dr. Agrawal, but so is working with existing social norms, rather than trying to fight them.

"People look at culture, traditions, and social norms as something that holds society back," he said. "What we realized was, cultural traditions are an asset of a village. They are like social capital that can be monetized."

In one case, that meant picking a village for the water harvesting program because one woman there was particularly upset about her drinking water. After spitting it out because it was undrinkable, then listening to her ask him how he would like to drink water like that every day, Agrawal knew she would keep the rest of the villagers motivated. He picked that village for the pilot program.

In another village, he listened to an ornery old man --addressing him with the respectful term "Baba" -- who told him the water harvesting method would never work there, because it took up space where villagers liked to sleep on hot nights. He responded by making that aspect of the design flat rather than dome-shaped, so that it could still be slept on.

And across all of these villages, he convinced local village women to conduct holy ceremonies celebrating the births of newborn children near the reservoir area by offering them flowers and a fruit basket in return. The women then convinced other members of their families to relieve themselves elsewhere, to avoid contaminating the reservoirs -- something that could have been accomplished technologically for the far greater cost of about $1,000 per village, according to Agrawal, whereas the flowers and fruit baskets cost only $50 per village annually.

Several obstacles remain. For instance, Agrawal points out that India was recently ranked the 134th easiest country in which to do business in the world (the world contains under 200 countries), so the going is slow. But this $100,000 prize -- and the prestige these programs will gain in India as a result of being honored by MIT -- will help considerably with officials and others he needs to convince.

In order to roll the programs out to another 50 villages, expanding its reach to 100,000 people, Agrawal estimates he will need about $250,000 total, and currently seeks corporate sponsors. Given his track record so far, whoever donates that money should be able to do so in the knowledge that resulting improvements will perpetuate themselves.

Subscribe to WIRED magazine for less than $1 an issue and get a FREE GIFT! Click here!

Copyright 2011