Notes from the field

From monitoring to action: The emergence of mobile mechanics in India

09/11/2014

Rajeshi looks to the sky anxiously.  It’s been a year since her house was destroyed by a massive storm that ripped the coast of India and she is nervous as the monsoons, which brought the last storm, return.  She and her family like all her friends and millions more lost almost everything.  They are rebuilding now, slowly. 

She does however remember that water flowed quickly from her handpump after the storm, in sharp contrast to everything else that was broken and unusable.  When asked how that happened she replies “the Jalabandhu”.


Jalabandhu maintaining a local water project. Photo: waterforpeople.org

The Jalabandhu, or “friends of water” responded to the devastation of Cyclone Aila by repairing, dewatering and rehabilitating hundreds of water points throughout South 24 Parganas, receiving national praise for their efforts. 

The Jalabandhu are a group of 184 mobile mechanics whose emergence was the direct result of Water For People’s monitoring.  They provide maintenance and repair services to hundreds of thousands of Indian families, keeping water flowing and earning an income in the process.  Some Jalabandhu have developed such large client networks that they are now employers of additional mechanics.  Women broke into this male dominated community of service providers in 2012.

Importantly, the Jalabandhu were formed as a result of monitoring followed by action.  For years, Water For People supported conventional water projects in South 24 Parganas.  Communities received handpumps and standardized training of volunteer committees who were to manage the water point, collect fees and ensure regular O&M from a local volunteer plumber.

Monitoring data consistently showed that this approach was not working.  Original efforts to improve on training (with no corresponding improvement in sustainability results) led us to wonder if the whole training approach we adopted was wrong.  It took time, but we received political buy-in for a change in direction, shifted incentives from volunteerism to payment for services, and have seen a reduction in downtime, better services for families, and the growth of the Jalabandhu community far beyond the original areas it was tested.  Government support has been reinforced and the Jalabandhu are now a regular feature of the landscape.

"The Jalabandhu were formed as a result of monitoring followed by action."

We have seen such changes in all our country programs, from the professionalization of service provision in places like Blantyre, Malawi and rural Uganda, to the introduction and testing of new (for us) water resource management practices in Guatemala.  We have seen the emergence of a new breed of paid water operators whose livelihoods are dependent on keeping water flowing. 

The water and sanitation sector debates the importance of monitoring quite a bit, and methodologies like MERL have gained prominence. 

Wonderful. 

The water sector and sanitation sector debates indicators, with some really interesting sets of indicators emerging like the recent salvo from USAID and Rotary. 

Spectacular.

Our advice is to stop talking about frameworks and indicators and start monitoring.  Indicators will never be perfect but tracking something is better than nothing, and frankly there is a whole lot of nothing going on. 


 Paid water operators who provide access to water to the community. 
Photo: waterforpeople.org

Monitoring has helped Water For People improve because we have created the space for mistakes and challenges to be highlighted and not obscured.  We have largely abandoned the simplistic language of “failure” and adopted the idea of movement and pivoting for improvement instead.  And we welcome the insistence on measuring results and improving with a long-term view.  Because in the end monitoring for results requires us to remain and learn long after a project has been completed.  People we serve and support deserve such consideration.

Take a chance – commit to monitoring for results over time, create your own indicators or grab someone else’s, ask hard questions on long-term impact and focus on factors that provide clues to whether water and sanitation services will last, create the institutional space for mistakes, set-backs and most importantly, for readjustments.  Don’t complain about donors not paying – anyone with a car and staff and petrol can monitor.  Anyone with a cell phone can monitor.  Improvements are inevitable if monitoring is built into organizational DNA and culture.

Keywords:

Global Water

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