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Deeply Committed To Make A Difference, Says Parag Agarwal, Founder, JanaJal

In a discussion with BW Businessworld, Parag Agarwal discusses the company's growth and its future plans during the government's efforts to provide safe drinking water to people by 2024.

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Key challenges that must be overcome from the government side are offering a single-window clearance for allotment of the site along with electricity and water connections. Access to financing options will allow for social entrepreneurs to blossom that will encourage individuals to serve communities while earning a respectable livelihood. In a discussion with Sheena Sachdeva of BW Businessworld, Parag Agarwal, Founder & CMD of JanaJal discusses the company's growth and its future plans during the government's efforts to provide safe drinking water to people by 2024. 

What kind of innovation is being done by JanaJal in terms of water and wastewater management?
JanaJal is a social enterprise that is India’s only dedicated water services. We are working to make safe drinking water available, accessible, and affordable to the common man in a sustainable manner through installation, operations and management of Water ATMs, WOW (Water on Wheels) and existing water infrastructure built by various agencies including State governments.

We maintain a technology-agnostic approach towards water treatment as different water-related issues demand a different treatment approach. This is the only way to conserve water and ensure higher availability in the long term. We have developed our unique IP of a cloud-based IT platform that allows for remote supervision and management of water purification plants on a real-time basis. JanaJal is also India’s first social enterprise that provides 100% digital transacting through single QR code that supports UPI, BHIM, BharatQR and 122 e-wallets using digital touch-screen user interface. Monitoring of consumption data for qualitative (TDS, temperature, hardness, fluoride, iron, arsenic, and pH) and quantitative (litres of water dispensed per day) and revenue monitoring makes pre-emptive maintenance possible thereby increasing efficiency in operations. Our globally unique IoT (Internet of Things) based controllers connected to a cloud-based platform remains the keystone of our operations that allows remote management, monitoring, control and even simultaneous calibration of the dispensers.

Data gathered from every water purification plant and water ATM are analysed on a 24X7 basis and helps in better planning of operations and water management. Preventive to predictive maintenance allows for proactive technical support thereby increasing efficiency across operations while saving money for our stakeholders. Our partners and respective stakeholders can view the information through dashboard access and a mobile app which helps us in providing fully managed service contracts.

In most cases, the reject water generated during water treatment is filled into storage tanks of toilets and used for flushing purposes so that 100% utilisation of water takes place.

What kind of challenges do you face and what has been its result on the ground?
Despite all the privatisation, water remains the only utility in India that continues to be managed by government agencies.

The cause of safe water gained attention after the formation of the new government in May 2014 and received a boost after the launch of the Swachh Bharat initiative in October during the same year. Thereafter various government agencies have gradually developed their own safe water agenda by taking up projects in various capacities. The implementation of a national policy by Indian Railways and IRCTC for installation of water ATMs across all railway stations in India paved the way for other agencies such as Smart City Corporations, Municipal Corporations and even Gram Panchayats to build decentralised water infrastructure to make this precious resource available to people at an affordable cost. as they have taken into consideration every aspect of project development and sustainability. The Niti Aayog too recently stated that safe water must be priced at an affordable level to make it available to people in a sustainable manner.

While there has been significant evolution of policy during the past 5 years across all urban, semi-urban and rural administrative bodies, the time is right for the government to address the problem of paucity of safe water in a multi-pronged manner.

Decentralised water infrastructure such as water ATMs are the order of the day and offer the ideal alternative that besides safe water, also provide jobs and social entrepreneurship opportunities to people.

Key challenges that must be overcome from the government side are offering a single-window clearance for allotment of the site along with electricity and water connections. Access to financing options will allow for social entrepreneurs to blossom that will encourage individuals to serve communities while earning a respectable livelihood.

The recent mandate handed out to the Modi government by the aspirational Indian is a testimony of the fact that the results of past efforts have been encouraging and the stage is perfectly set for a mass scale solution to the drinking water problem. JanaJal has been proposing a revival strategy of all existing water treatment plants to various States in India which can meet the demand-supply deficit in very quick time.

What is your business model and revenue visibility?
Our business model is highly scalable and sustainable at the operating level for all involved stakeholders. As a social enterprise, we operate through multiple channels such as Public-Private Partnership (PPP), CSR project implementation including operations and management and Build-Own-Operate (BOO).

Since early 2019, we are now transitioning to an asset-light services focused model based on three key pillars namely COCO (Company Owned Company Operated) with 100% capex investment; POPO (Partner Owned Partner Operated) with limited capex investment (Social entrepreneurship model); and GOCOPO (management of existing water treatment plants and infrastructure owned by government bodies). The backbone of such services is the unique IoT based controllers and cloud-based IT platform that has been developed through a deep understanding of the water sector and it demands to remain sustainable over long periods.

Our emphasis is on keeping every water ATM feasible in terms of being able to meet its operational costs, cost of maintenance and replacement of consumables, capital costs and enable the entrepreneurs to earn a decent livelihood with dignity.

According to the World Bank, India's Water and Wastewater market alone is worth $420 million and is annually growing at 18%. How big is this market and how do you foresee JanaJal growth along with the market?  
Most assessments, estimates and projections factor only packaged water as far as drinking water is concerned. JanaJal has made a significant contribution to evangelizing the “unpackaged branded safe water” segment in India which is entirely a new category. We believe that this is 20x the market size of packaged water. Despite the advent of packaged water, less than 5% of Indians can afford it on a sustainable basis.

With such gigantic numbers being the market size, JanaJal is certain about being able to offer services and solutions that are unparalleled in terms of vision and execution capabilities. The singular objective is to make safe water available to 1.3 billion people in a sustainable manner. The company bears adequate experience and expertise to emerge as the lead services player in this segment and expects to make one billion litres of safe water available every year to Indians by 2021.

Water crisis is not only related to wastewater management but also to water management, reuse, mobilization of water conservation and efficiency and accessibility to drinking water. How is JanaJal different from others in this sector?
It is important to understand that water and safe water are two distinctly different commodities. Availability of water does not necessarily mean that it is potable and fit for human consumption. Lack of this understanding has led to water-borne diseases being the bane of existence.

JanaJal’s ability to customize solutions for water treatment and develop innovative ways to operate in all environments has been the key differentiator as compared to all others. By tradition, making safe water available has been considered as a philanthropic activity and people often associate them with NGOs, social foundations, charitable and religious trust. We believe that sustainability begins where philanthropy ends. The need to adopt sustainability in every activity is a non-negotiable aspect of survival and can only be met by generating profits that can help absorb the internal cost of operations.

We have been one of the first social enterprises that strived to build sustainability within the drinking water sector while creating a robust for-profit business model. This has been the biggest differentiator as it allows for the highly qualified and experienced professionals to play a role in administration, execution and operations that leads to greater efficiencies across the board for all stake-holders.

What challenges did you face while raising funds for your idea based startup?
Since its inception in 2013, the company advocated the difference between water and safe water to every stakeholder. With a singular focus on safe water, the fact that viability, feasibility, profitability and thereby sustainability can be achieved in an activity that for centuries has been philanthropic was the greatest challenge. The company was bootstrapped by its founders through the early stage of conception, prototypes, testing, building operating procedures, securing and executing its initial contracts.  In February 2017, the company was able to secure its first successful round of funding from a US-based social impact fund. This was a commitment of USD 5 Million from a group of investors who considered the cause of making safe water available to people as valuable as profits. Execution is the biggest challenge, the management team was able to demonstrate high levels of efficiency, integrity and ability to showcase their vision. Initial execution targets were surpassed by nearly 150% along with the creation of IP that infused confidence in the minds of not only the investors but also stake-holders about the significance of efficient services through the use of technology versus simply procuring and installing water treatment plants.

As water is a socially impacted area, startups in this sector are facing difficulties raising funds?  What are your views?
We believe that safe water is the most socially impactful cause that not only delivers better health and wellness but also creates jobs, provides vocational training and upskilling, empowers women through higher economic gains for their families due to alternate use of time usually spent to fetch water everyday and increased access to education for children who can spend time in school instead.

However, access to funding is very difficult as it requires investors to slide down their expectations on IRRs and ROIs and value the triple bottom line as much as they value profits. Therefore, the need of the hour is 'patient capital' that stays invested for 7 years or more and does not demand an exit sooner. Such an approach is only seen in investors from developed nations where they bear the desire to give back to the world through safe water that acts as a medium to deliver collateral benefits besides good health and wellness to people. Value creation is distinctly different from a profit generation approach and encompasses the latter. However, it takes longer which investors must adapt to.

Any projects in the pipeline?
We have secured a contract to install 200 Water ATMs in Ghaziabad Nagar Nigam, Uttar Pradesh in phases for which installations have already commenced. We have also secured a contract from New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) for installation of 106 water ATMs in phases, of which 46 water ATMs has already been commissioned under the first phase. In addition to the 101 water ATMs operating in the Mumbai region with IRCTC, the company has initiated the installation of 61 water ATMs with Konkan Railways that will expand the footprint beyond Maharashtra to Goa and Karnataka.

We are in active dialogue with various PSUs and corporates for installation of water ATMs under their community CSR program. We have also approached a few state governments for reviving all existing water treatment infrastructure through the deployment of our globally unique IoT based controllers connected to our technology platform. Work across various prospective projects in Smart cities has also resumed actively post the recent elections.

Did you receive any support from the government directly or government policies?
The Government of India has been extremely supportive of the concept of decentralized water treatment plants in the form of water ATMs since 2014. Slowly but surely the policies are being framed in a more conducive manner to set the stage for large scale implementation. Haryana has already become the first State in India to approve a Water ATM policy that specifies that one water ATM must be installed and operated at every 400 meters across the State.

The formation of Jal Shakti Ministry by the recently re-elected government demonstrates their firm intent to undertake water management and safe water projects on a rapid scale in India over the next 5 years. Recently, the State of Madhya Pradesh has introduced the “Right to Water” bill in its Assembly thereby making water a constitutional right for its citizens. This shall pave the way for a national policy on similar lines in the new future.

That said, much remains to be done and all administrative bodies must adopt a holistic approach that addresses multiple aspects of the problem simultaneously rather than do so sequentially.

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