Jalabandhu Program Assessment: A Day on Sagar Island, West Bengal

(This blog is also posted on the Water For People web site)

Today we start from Diamond Harbor (a day’s journey from Kolkata, West Bengal, India), which is a small port village where the Ganges River meets the Bay of Bengal. I am here with three colleagues as part of the Jalabandhu (Mobile Mechanic) Impact Evaluation team that traveled to West Bengal, India, at the end of March, 2012.  With us is a team of exceptional Water For People staff from the Kolkata office, who know and manage key aspects of the Jalabandhu program.

West Bengal Map

Map of Sagar Island route
Our team of Water For People-India staff, partner NGO representative, and four World Water Corps members gladly pile into two air-conditioned vehicles around 8:00 am. We’re temporarily escaping the 80 degree heat and 90-plus percent humidity and hitting the road for the ferry to carry us (and hundreds of Hindu pilgrims who are not part of our team) to Sagar Island – home to one of the holiest Hindu sites in India. It’s also home to a successful mobile mechanic program, known as the jalabandhu program, which is backed by Water For People, and implemented by their local NGO partner, Sabuj Sangha. We’re here to review that program, and talk with the NGO, Jalabandhus, and communities.

I need to briefly explain why Sagar Island is so special. Each year in mid January around 500,000 Hindus converge on the southern tip of this island (normal population: approximately 160,000) to observe the holy day of Makar Sankranti. They submerge themselves here, where the Ganges River and Bay of Bengal meet, and they then offer puja (worship) at the Kapil Muni Temple, which is just a few hundred meters from the beach. Luckily it’s not mid-January, and we are able to dip our toes after a long day in the field with only a small group of pilgrims and the local dogs accompanying us.

We will be staying for the night in basic accommodations at a pilgrim rest-house (dharamsala), where only vegetarian food is allowed. And no garlic or onions either, as that might “stir the blood” and distract one from one’s holy purpose.

After we disembark the ferry, we are taken to our first stop: the Sagar office of Sabuj Sangha, where we meet the staff and Jalabandhus.

We learn that the hand pumps on this island are cared for by 17 Jalabandhus, who service the eight Gram Panchayets (local government jurisdictions) that comprise the island. The Jalabandhus work together as needed, and share resources and knowledge. This is facilitated by the NGO, Sabuj Sangha, who acts somewhat like a call-center. Community or WATSAN committee members can either call their respective Jalabandhus directly if their water pump needs service, or the Sabuj Sangha office directly. The office will dispatch the required Jalabandhu(s) to do the repairs. WATSAN committees, by the way, are water and sanitation committees, formed in each community to collect fees for system maintenance and replacement, and to promote sanitation and hygiene. It can be difficult for the Jalabandhus to work effectively (and get paid) in communities that don’t have WATSAN committees to organize and collect fees.

The very good news is that the Jalabandhu system has reduced the pump down-times generally from many days to only a few hours. The Jalabandhus are mostly members of the communities they serve, and the pride the Jalabandhus feel in their ability to support their communities is obvious in meeting and talking with them (albeit through an interpreter – our Bengali is a little rusty).

There are a few problems. For example, locally available parts are low-quality, and some of the community members wonder why a part that was fixed a short time ago needs to be repaired again. The Jalabandhus want to work together to import better quality parts from Kolkata so they can make better repairs.

Jalabandhus stand beside an India Mark II pump
Another commonly-heard issue is the lack of enough tool kits to repair all the types of pumps currently installed (particularly the India Mark II pump). The kits are expensive, and beyond the means of the Jalabandhus.

The Jalabandhu program is complex, and we don’t expect that one model will fit all circumstances when considering expansion. But it is very clear that the program works – drinkable water is flowing more consistently and in a more sustainable way with the Jalabandhus’ help.

What did we do the rest of the day? Met and interviewed the Pradhan (leader) of a local Gram Panchayet and staff, had a bumpy ride to a community where we interviewed the WATSAN committee after being received with flowers, and finally checked in at the dharamsala before heading to the beach to dip our toes (or entire body, in one case), and visiting the temple. Not your average package tour…

Sagar Island - Bengal Bay and Ganges River

All images are Copyright 2012 Jeff Friesen. Aerial imagery and world map from ESRI online sources.


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