This week Paul Polak has guest blogger Bhavna Toor. Bhavna will be talking about the new work Paul has been doing in India.
Meet Bina Behera. She is in her early fifties. She lives on the outskirts of a small village in the Khurda district of Orissa. She earns approximately Rs. 100 a day making small handicrafts and selling them to a local trader. She became the sole bread-winner of the family six months ago after her husband repeatedly fell ill from all kinds of water-borne diseases to the point where he was completely bed-ridden. Over the past year, she has spent upwards of Rs. 10,000 on health-care bills for her husband.
Spring Health International, founded by Paul Polak, with the goal to provide clean and affordable drinking water to rural areas in Eastern India, partnered with a local shop-keeper in Bina Behera’s village to set up a water kiosk that would provide safe drinking water to all villagers at 20 paisa per liter. One would assume this would be the perfect solution for Bina Behera’s family, saving them considerable lost income and health-care fees from water-related sickness. But it was not; at least not at first. Why? Bina Behera and her family belong to a community of untouchables, also known in India as Dalits.
When another member of her community went to the water kiosk to fill his jerry can, he accidentally touched the water tap for the 3000-liter water tank. This was considered to be such a grave offence by the rest of the villagers that the shop-keeper was forced to empty out the entire water tank, and perform a ritual to purify the water tank that had been rendered impure by “the untouchable”. Following this episode, not a single member of the Dalit community dared to go to the kiosk to purchase water. Therein lay the problem. Market forces alone cannot be the panacea when there are powerful social forces at play.
Untouchability has marred the social fabric of India for over 3000 years. Largely a social construct, Dalits came to be associated with all occupations that were considered to be impure according to Hindu norms, such as leather tanning, butchering, and manual scavenging (the removal of human feces from toilets without a flush, a practice that, though banned, continues in several parts of India till today). As a result, Dalits were historically banned from entering temples, drinking from the same wells as others, and were required to stay on the outskirts of villages. Untouchability was officially outlawed in 1950 by the Indian Constitution, which gave the right to equality and right to freedom from discrimination to all citizens of the country. In practice, however, prejudice against Dalits has been so firmly entrenched into the ethos of Indian society, particularly in the rural areas, that it has been difficult to uproot completely.
Spring Health had quite a conundrum at its hands. Had it been a conventional enterprise, perhaps it would have looked the other way, and been sufficiently satisfied with providing water to a majority of the villagers that are not Dalits (only 12 out of the 100 households in the village are from the Dalit community.) But, because Spring Health has a social mission of equal and affordable access to clean water to all those living on $2 a day or less built into its business model, it looked for a creative solution, and found one.
Spring Health, at the suggestion of their business and design consultant Idiom, started a home delivery system, allowing the shopkeeper to deliver clean water to the hamlet that houses the Dalit households in 10-liter jerry cans, at a small premium. The shop-keeper was happy to try this method as the extra sales increased his revenues, and the Dalit households were happy as they now had access to an income-saving, and potentially life-saving, resource.
The great thing about a market is that it does not discriminate. Anyone who has the ability to pay for a product or a service can theoretically access it, which is why I am a big believer in market solutions to poverty. However, conventional enterprise may not provide an effective solution when strong social prejudices stand in the way. In those instances, it can become all too easy for an enterprise to simply adapt to, and therefore, perpetuate the power hierarchy in society. Whether you call it a social enterprise or not (I know Paul Polak would strongly object to calling Spring Health a social enterprise per se), in order for an enterprise to effectively serve underserved populations, it must have an explicit social mission to do so. Only then will it go the extra mile to come up with innovative solutions to the most intractable social constraints that prevent equal access.
Paul Polak and I went to visit Bina Behera to see the results of the home delivery method. At the time of our visit, 5 out of 12 Dalit households were availing of home-delivered water. To our delight and amusement, Bina Behera candidly reported that she and her family were ritually consuming the clean water almost as if it were medicine. As a form of gratitude, or maybe just sheer hospitality, she offered us fresh coconut water, which we drank immediately. Paul reached out his hand to thank her, while I put my arm around her. Little did we know, these seemingly small gestures filled her with great joy. She grabbed my hand tightly and muttered something in Oriya, which our translator later told us it meant, “You are like a daughter to me. I am so happy you came to visit me.” It was then that we realized, that by “touching an untouchable” we had subtly conveyed to her that she is indeed, not untouchable, but our equal in dignity.
It may take several generations to completely eradicate untouchability from Indian society, but at least with socially-minded enterprise, and the economic empowerment that it creates, we may just be able to give Bina Behera and others like her a fighting chance to avail of the same opportunities as others, and hope for a better life ahead.