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Meet Divya, Ekta, Shikha, Alam and Mani Kumar. These youthful water doctors of Sukkhapurwa (Ward 39 of Kanpur Nagar) have one simple aim — to ensure access to clean water for their community and beyond. “This is a low income, low education community where most people still don’t realise the role that water hygiene plays in the control of diseases,” says Divya, 23, student of B.Tech in a local college. “Even we had no idea before we were trained to scientifically test water, until last year!”

Sukkhapurwa’s young water doctors

Today, these five youths trained by WaterAid India and its partner, along with the support of HSBC Water Programme, have been going from house to house in Sukkapurwa and neighbouring communities, explaining to residents the importance of clean water. For Rs. 30, they test water samples for parameters including hardness, fecal coliform bacteria, chemical contaminants, solid particles and more. “Armed with the results, we return to those households,” explains 20-year-old Shikha, who is presently pursuing B.Sc in biotechnology. “This helps convince people to maintain better water hygiene.”

Even today, many in the community do not store their drinking water hygienically. Alam, 25, recalls that in his house, until quite recently, drinking water used to be stored in a bucket and drunk out of a mug that was often left on the floor. “Even worse, the bucket was covered only if someone remembered to put the lid back,” he recalls. “Today, we explain to people that they need to cover their drinking water containers securely and use a long-handled ladle to pour out water from them.” Other contaminants are in the water supply itself. Recently, for instance, the group recalls testing a water sample that looked absolutely clean to the naked eye. “The people from whom we obtained the sample thought it was unnecessary to test such clear water,” says Mani, a 20-year-old student. “To their shock, there turned out to be a high percentage of nitrates in it!” One of the most common groundwater contaminants in rural areas, Nitrates can cause "blue baby" disease in infants and is harmful in high concentrations for adults too. “We showed them images of babies who had turned blue because of regular consumption of nitrate-contaminated water and advised them to source their drinking water elsewhere,” explains Divya, who is now preparing for the civil services entrance examination.

Sukkhapurwa’s young water doctors

The group, consisting mainly of students, meets at least twice a week to go into their community to generate awareness about the importance of clean water. “We have to explain water quality parameters in simple relatable terms,” says Mani. “For example, we explain hardness by asking if their dal or rice takes longer than usual to cook.”

When they are able to convince someone to get their water tested, the carry the sample back to the Basti Sandarb Kendra/Anganwadi at Sukkhapurwa. “The kit can’t be used in the open,” explains Ekta, smart in her white lab coat and yellow rubber gloves. “We have to conduct the tests in a controlled environment.” Each kit, which has enough reagents for 100 sample tests, costs Rs 7000 and is presently being provided to them free of cost by WaterAid and Shramik Bharti. Presently, the group is charging Rs 30 to test each sample but will soon have to increase this amount to simply meet the cost of the kit. “As we raise awareness about clean drinking water in other communities as well, we’re hoping to develop this into a social start up,” says Alam. “For there is no doubt that testing drinking water regularly is the best way to ensure its continued quality. And somehow, showing the test results has proven to be the best way to convince people to improve their own habits and hygiene!” Also, unlike other water testing labs that charge as much as Rs 1500 per sample, the group wants to keep their rates affordable even for the lowest income groups.

Sukkhapurwa’s young water doctors

The group reports that there have been many positive consequences of their work. “My training has influenced everybody in my family!” smiles Shikha. “So we’ve all become conscious about drinking out of clean utensils and keeping the water source covered and on a height.” Mani says his brother used to constantly suffer from stomachaches and digestion problems. “Everyone in the family has commented on how he seems less prone to all this now,” he says. All of them say that being part of this group has enabled a great deal of personal growth as well. “I feel more confident now,” says Ekta. The fact that their work is aiding their own community is a bonus: “Every time we conduct a sanitary survey or test a water sample, it’s a step towards improving the health of my community,” says Alam.