Fellow Since 2006
This description of V.S. Chary's work was prepared when V.S. Chary was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2006.
Srinivas Chary Vedala is reforming how water is delivered in Indian cities, with the goal of improving poor people’s access to potable water. He is working on the technical aspects of water systems as well as how public officials manage their work.
The New Idea
Chary uses a combination of engineering and managerial solutions to re-structure municipal systems, breaking down deep misconceptions and resistance to technical improvements. By institutionalizing water delivery controls, encouraging collaboration between officials, and employing various other political strategies, Chary is also addressing government inactivity due to bureaucratic inefficiencies. Since 2002, through an initiative called the Change Management Forum (CMF), Chary has set into motion a model of round-the-clock water supply, which begins with local reforms focusing on operation, maintenance and best practices in management. The pilot project in Andhra Pradesh has effectively reduced connection costs, drastically increasing access to water for the local poor. With CMF, Chary provides a group of members the tools they need to make positive changes in water delivery systems, as in Andhra Pradesh, in their communities and across India.
An estimated 200 million people across India do not have access to adequate potable water. Those who do have water often receive unreliable service, with regular supply ranging from one to six hours per day. In the slums, the average person is supplied 27 liters per day, far short of the 140-liter national target. This low level of water distribution constitutes a serious public health risk. Despite decades of government investment in urban water supply, there is a clear link between low availability of water and the lack of a functioning distribution system. Drought and other environmental conditions are only secondary causes. The existing system is woefully inefficient, with over 27 percent of delivered water unaccounted for, though widely acknowledged to be lost in leaks and theft. Illegal connections, tampered meters, and heavy subsidies supporting artificially low prices for those who can pay, the government suffers a significant cost-to-price loss. Added to the public health cost of poor water quality, on economics alone the government has plenty of reason to reform its distribution system. A large part of the problem is inequality in how the system serves the rich and poor. In cities, water subsidies amounting to US$1.1 billion per year enable the wealthy to pay less than 10 percent of the actual cost of producing potable water. These low tariffs encourage waste, with 30 percent of distributed water flushed down the toilet. The poor, on the other hand, pay 8 to 20 times what the rich pay, as a percentage of income, for water from a variety of sources, some unclean and unreliable. Politicians and bureaucrats avoid debate on rationalizing water tariffs for fear of losing electoral support from the middle class, which enjoys its cheap and plentiful water. Consequently, municipalities remain inefficient in their roles within the water delivery system and are saddled with mounting debts. Strong political will is needed on a broader scale to reduce staff, cut operational costs and increase efficiency at the municipal level.Water delivery is controlled by a myriad of ministries and institutions. Communities have little say in the system, and don’t really understand it. Local stakeholders have attempted reform, but no one has implemented a broad, systematized plan. Some municipalities have encouraged private sector participation as a quick solution, but of the more than 18 private sector projects initiated between 1994 to 1999, only a couple have been successful. Consumers are suspicious of water privatization. These experiences have resulted in widespread consensus on the need to target the current public distribution system, but a lack of concrete proposals as to how to do so.
Chary’s strategy has two main parts. The first is a combination of technical and managerial improvements on the existing public water delivery system. The second component is spreading much-needed momentum and incentive for changing the status quo among public officials and administrators who can make these improvements happen. Chary has targeted small municipalities for his initial technical improvements, believing positive change to be more easily achievable here than in larger towns and cities. He has then used his successes as convincing arguments to break down misconceptions and introduce his ideas to politicians in other places across India. Chary has put into action a model of 24-hour, seven days per week water delivery, demonstrating that delivering water at a particular pressure for 24 hours a day actually reduces cost of delivery and that fixing meter tariffs results in changes in consumer behavior. Chary argues that full-time delivery allows towns and cities access to sufficient water while also serving the poor, leading to a reduction in government public health expenses from urban water-borne diseases. Chary’s prime example is his work in the state of Andhra Pradesh, where he has advocated to bring down connection costs from an unaffordable rupees 6000 to rupees 8000 per connection to rupees 1200 per connection for the poor. Essential to Chary’s model of initiating change is the involvement and cooperation of policy makers, especially politicians, mayors, municipal commissioners and administrators. From the beginning, Chary has involved the Ministry of Urban Development, knowing that this would enable motivated officials to participate openly in his strategy. Involving mayors and top municipal officials is a risk because of their power to negatively affect his goals, but Chary believes strongly in peer pressure among public officials as a tool for change. He also saw that operational changes such as tariff changes are politically driven. Members of Chary’s CMF are public officials themselves, but CMF also focuses on involving other politicians to become champions for positive change, mentoring more and more groups and spreading improvements on water delivery throughout India. CMF consists of officials and political representatives from 25 local governments/water utilities, across India who are motivated to support institutional reforms and believe in Chary’s argument that good service delivery is good politics. Chary’s goal in developing CMF was to concentrate the knowledge and best practices of water and sanitation professionals. In Change Management seminars, Chary encourages CMF members to set improvement goals based on various reform initiatives led by governments, the private sector, and multilateral organizations in India. Within CMF, Chary emphasizes three major points: 1) best practices lie within the system and there should be mutual sharing of knowledge; 2) a critical mass of change champions are required to break the inertia and strong leaders need to unlock their potential to stimulate outcomes; and 3) large-scale investments need to be preceded by service reforms to plug the leaking bucket. As a team, CMF members think through problems, brainstorm collectively to create multidisciplinary solutions, return to their locales with ideas, provide feedback on successes and failures, and ensure continuity of changes through teaching roles in their communities. CMF currently serves a constituency of 25 million people and is anticipated to expand to 100 million in 60 more cities.CMF members are linked to a network of partnerships with donor and academic institutions for financial and technical support in improving public water delivery in their communities. CMF collaborates with agencies like Cranfield University, WEDC and the Water & Sanitation program of the World Bank, allowing these institutions to benefit on their part by gathering first-hand data for their reform agendas. The CMF secretariat also administers a resource center for its members providing them with global research and information, access to technical resources, and knowledge of performance trends in other member areas. Other CMF resources include a benchmarking database, a goal-tracking system to gather progress details from each member, and a periodic CMF newsletter which keeps members and non-members updated about reform agendas and improvements in individual municipalities. Chary is now broadening CMF to involve media and civil society organizations in order to trigger demand-led initiatives, demystify reforms, and encourage municipal government transparency. He has initiated a national level workshop on “Creating an enabling environment for urban water sector reforms” to begin a conversation between CMF members, civil society and the media on urban water sector reforms and implementation strategies.Examples of CMF’s success include the Andaman Islands, where the Port Blair Municipal Corporation has initiated improvements such as a door-to-door survey on unauthorized water connections and the integration of water tax with property tax. The Mayor of Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh has started a Jal Adalat (water court) and seven centers for public grievance redresses.In the Ramagundam municipality in Andhra Pradesh, CMF has worked closely with the local government in transitioning to a round the clock water supply, assisting with planning, technical expertise, supplies, and testing and refining the pilot program. Five months after the program was launched, 70 percent of the town had access to continuous water supply. The Ramagundam municipality has adopted a pro-poor approach to service delivery by reducing connection charges and allowing payments in installments.Chary is now exploring strategies to scale up. Future CMF hubs will be based on demand, stemming from the initiatives of new political change champions who can act as mentors for these new groups. Chary is experimenting with the first regional CMF in the northeastern states. He is also working to merge CMF with the Central Public Health and Environment Engineering Department of the Ministry of Urban Development.
After earning a degree in Civil Engineering from Osmania University in India and a Master in Urban Environmental Planning from CEPT, Ahmedabad, Chary began his career as a Researcher with the Tata Energy Research Institute in Delhi. Working in advocacy, training, projects and consultancy, he was instrumental in developing programs for the transport sector. His three-month stint at TERI opened up an opportunity to win a US government fellowship to study at the University of Pennsylvania, where he got a diploma in Systems Engineering, focusing on environment and energy. TERI also exposed Chary to a number of important government officials and honed his ability to handle advocacy work in public service delivery. After finishing the program at University of Pennsylvania, Chary worked with TERI in Washington for a year and then in India for another two years, working out strategies for reduction of transport pollution and other environmental related issues. During this time, he joined the Environment Protection Training & Research Institute, being launched by the Government of Andhra Pradesh in conjunction with a Swedish funding agency. At the Institute, Chary was responsible for developing the mission, creating the organizational structure, and putting together an economic strategy. After two years, Chary moved out to join the Administrative Staff College of India, which offered him a teaching opportunity and a flexible environment to pursue innovative programs. He won a Chevening Fellowship in Environmental Management to study at the University of Brandford and University of Manchester, focusing on strategic environmental management. From 1996, Chary has successfully developed the department of Energy, Environment, Urban Governance and Infrastructure Development, using his work at ASCI as a platform for advocacy in changing the public water delivery system. Between 2002 and 2005, Chary also consulted with the Water and Sanitation Program, South Asia as a strategic advisor, building advocacy in the water and sanitation domain and networking. Chary lives in Hyderabad with his wife, son and daughter.