Sunderrajan Krishnan
Ashoka Fellow since 2022   |   India

Sunderrajan Krishnan

India Natural Resources Economics and Management (INREM) Foundation
Dr. Sunderrajan Krishnan works to tackle the myriad health issues stemming from widespread water contamination in India. In order to do so, he has created a movement that mobilizes citizens as…
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This description of Sunderrajan Krishnan's work was prepared when Sunderrajan Krishnan was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2022.


Dr. Sunderrajan Krishnan works to tackle the myriad health issues stemming from widespread water contamination in India. In order to do so, he has created a movement that mobilizes citizens as changemakers in the form of custodians of safe drinking water sources, remediators of polluted sources, and sources of new solutions and initiatives addressing the issue. He has synthesized these roles into a new and certified mantle for citizens, the Water Quality Champion.

The New Idea

Sunder works to create a wide and inclusive participatory network of Water Quality Champions all the way from Government of India civil servants to local members of the community and school going youth. The Water Quality Champions program educates and galvanizes people to take action toward solving water quality issues in their community. The water champions spread knowledge on water management to communities and other stakeholders, and in turn help generate it by mapping local hotspots of contamination. They adapt and apply Sunder’s frameworks to tackle contamination locally and collaborate within the network to develop new solutions. They also motivate and bring new water champions and invested stakeholders into the fold. The network thus becomes self-expansive and sustaining.

Sunder has developed the technical and scientific elements of the Water Quality Champions initiative from his own on-ground experience finding solutions to treat the health effects of contamination. Sunder designs new and relatively inexpensive solutions like ‘matka filters’ that are effective and easy to implement. He actively consults with the community to troubleshoot problems that arise by adapting the interventions. For instance, Sunder used sandbed filters with iron nails to purify water contaminated with arsenic at a low cost and then replaced the iron nails with steel wool used in kitchens when the inconsistent iron content in nails reduced the effectiveness of the system. This pedagogy based on data-driven solutions and innovation best practices serves as a scaffolding for water quality champions to address the problem in their own communities. For instance, Sunder’s organization, the INREM Foundation, recently launched a program through which the Government of Assam will identify and certify as many as 150,000 middle and secondary students to become Jal Doots - young Water Quality Champions in their communities.

Sunder has also been part of formulating an evaluative framework of 14 key measurements of drinking water quality which is now officially used and endorsed by the Government of India’s National Water Mission as being the standard of evaluating water quality. The water quality champions use this framework to test water sources and identify contaminants.

INREM also sends teams to address drinking water quality hot spots in states across the country. The resulting solutions and data generated by its teams and data on other local water quality initiatives that partner organizations from across the country have vetted are available online. The objective is to make this information transparent and accessible to all NGOs, government agencies, local activists, researchers, and the community.

The Problem

In 2018, the Government of India launched a nationwide mission to provide running water to all homes in the country. This was accomplished chiefly by tapping into groundwater. The initiative did not sufficiently take into account the mineral contamination of ground water sources and tapped into contaminated sources of water to supply entire villages. While the type and variety of minerals in subsurface geology vary from region to region and within regions, the chief contaminants at issue are fluorides, nitrates, iron, arsenic, magnesium and uranium.

This contamination results in serious health issues like Fluorosis, kidney failure, cancer and physical and intellectual disabilities. The already high health costs of water contamination have been compounded by the 2018 mission which has in some cases provided contaminated water to villages that were previously drinking clean water from other sources. The mission also exacerbates the issue by increasing mineral contamination due to the excess drain on chosen ground water sources.

Tackling the problem is further complicated due to the fragmented government response, with individual agencies focusing on water sources, infrastructure developments and effects of contaminated water on people. Tackling the issue is made especially difficult by the lack of reliable and accurate ground-level data on water contamination in the country. The data collected by government agencies is insufficient and often outdated. Furthermore, the response to the issue is fragmented, with different government agencies focusing on water infrastructure, sources and health effects of contamination. Local activists, civil society and other organizations and actors trying to solve the issue are isolated from one another and their actions are uncoordinated. The water quality champions program brings all these actors together in one network.

The Strategy

Sunder’s Water Quality Champions program creates a certification system for people who are committed to improving water quality in their communities as well as bureaucrats who wish to change policies and procedures that could stand in the way of such efforts. To be certified a Champion, the candidate first has to successfully complete a rigorous 9-day course to understand water contamination and learn how to develop sustainable systems solutions. Second, and equally important, is in-person interviews to determine whether the candidate is a changemaker. More specifically, if the candidate has launched an effort to improve water quality and organized a team to address the issue. Candidates are only certified as Champions when they have successfully satisfied both criteria.

The water champions, inspired and armed with know-how from INREM, identify water contamination issues in their regions; supply local data to INREM regarding the same; bring scientific solutions developed by Sunder to their regions; collaborate with other members of the network to further innovate and test these interventions, and use their knowledge of the local community to successfully adapt and implement the same locally.

To support the work of the Water Quality Champions and their partners, Sunder's organization, INREM, works closely with the India Water Portal created in collaboration with a Civil Society Organisation partner, Arghyam. Through this, INREM makes recent, reliable and accurate block and district-level water quality information easily accessible to government bodies, NGOs and local activists. It brings together curated sources of data and provides cohesive and comprehensive information in a systematic and comprehensible manner.

INREM also maintains full-time Water Quality Champion teams in seven states where they work closely with state governments on drinking water contamination hot spots - Odisha, Telangana, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh. For example, in Jhabua (Madhya Pradesh), the INREM foundation shifted over 12,000 people to safe drinking water sources over three years. In Nalgonda (Telangana), INREM worked with the government to give 800 villages access to clean drinking water and helped 30,000 people recover from skeletal fluorosis.

Sunder's approach is to work closely with government at all levels – federal, state and local – but at the same time maintain his organization’s independence. INREM does not accept government financial support apart from the reimbursement for the direct costs of conducting trainings associated with the Foundation's Water Quality Champions program.

The Person

Sunder describes himself as being perpetually curious. His quest to know the why and how of everything around him led him to pursue the hard sciences and to study at the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay. As a student, he interned at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre where he studied potential solutions to uranium contamination of water as a result of nuclear testing where his interest in water contamination was piqued. He went on to enroll in the Geological and Environmental Sciences (now knows as Earth and Planetary Sciences) program at Stanford University where he began to see the disconnect between science and the on-ground realities of environmental issues.

Through his volunteer field work with NGOs in India, Sunder realized that what he really wanted from life was to fight water issues from the front lines. Instead of pursuing an academic career, he joined the IWMI -Tata Water Policy Program to study water issues in the country. As he traveled across numerous villages, he met people who had lost complete mobility due to health issues stemming from water contamination and the scale, severity and impact of the problem truly dawned on him. He found himself desperately wanting to be able to tell these people there was an answer- to give them a sense of hope and a path ahead. So when he came across the problem of Fluorosis in Jhabua, Madhya Pradesh, he was determined to find a solution.

He pioneered innovative integrated solutions like the combined use of nutritional supplements and water filters to counter fluorosis successfully and significantly improve public health. Sunder then founded the national Fluoride Knowledge and Action Network to raise awareness and galvanize action to solve Fluoride water contamination. As he continued to travel and work with communities suffering from water-related health issues, Sunder quickly realized that Florine contamination was only one piece of the mammoth and complex puzzle, leading him to conceive of the water quality champions program and build INREM into what it is today.