The not-so-humble hand pump
Meeta Rajivlochan
Water: A Matter of Life and Death
by Maggie Black with Rupert Talbot, Oxford University Press. Pages 262. Rs 545.

For a country that boasts of tremendous technical manpower and crows about its achievements in science and then mewls about the absence of opportunities for work, it seems something of an irony that none of the technical types could be bothered to design a hand pump for water that would function well under Indian conditions. The private entrepreneur and our highly trained engineers were far too busy complaining about how their creativity was stifled in India to do anything meaningful and it was left to the stodgy government engineers, under inspiration from Christian missionaries, to find a solution.

The story of how our country with only 5 per cent of the world’s water resources tried once to cater to the drinking water needs of its 20 per cent share of the world population, with the support of UNICEF, is the subject matter of this book. It is an extremely informative and often heart-warming story of a struggle against massive odds and of the eventual triumph of human ingenuity over nature. The problems encountered were varied, both of hardware and of software. It would be difficult to say which of these struggles was the more difficult: reaching water to people, often in the most inhospitable of terrains, or of persuading them to use it, once this first task had been done. Regardless, the story holds many valuable lessons on the manner in which projects are organised and implemented and the human variables which governments all too often forget to factor in.

To return to the telling of the first task, a problem which plagued India’s drinking water program for decades was that of appropriate technology to stand up to the heavy wear and tear inevitable in Indian living conditions. The cast iron hand pumps prevalent in the countryside in the 1950s and 1960s, poor copies of old-style American and European hand pumps in the first place and long since out of use in these countries except as ornamental features, were essentially designed for use by a single family. These were not designed to stand up to heavy usage by a community of over 500 people for over 10 hours every day and they broke down repeatedly. Secondly, false assumptions had been made about the capacity of communities to maintain them. The Gram Panchayat was expected to assume ownership of these pumps and to have them repaired by local mistris whenever these broke down, but no system of spare parts provision had been made nor had the mistris been trained in hand pump maintenance. So they simply waited for the miracle men who had put the pumps in place to reappear and repair them. For their daily needs, they continued to rely on open water sources such as the wells they had relied on in the past.

Devising a pump which could withstand such heavy usage took many decades. Eventually the breakthrough was achieved with a design developed by Christian missionaries, first in Jalna and then in Solapur in Maharashtra. This pump had a fabricated steel body; it had a single pivot handle with a sealed ball bearing and the life of the connecting rod was improved by being kept aligned and in a state of constant tension through a link chain running over a quadrant. Finally a pedestal was designed to fit neatly over the borehole casing pipe. UNICEF’s key partners, the government’s Mechanical Engineering and Research Organisation (a part of CSIR) which offered design support and Richardson and Cruddas, also a government-owned engineering company which manufactured the prototypes, together tested and manufactured the pump which later became a household name and came to be known as the India Mark II.

Theoretically this should have solved the drinking water problem in the country or so the government and UNICEF believed but the old adage that you can take a horse to the water but you cannot make it drink was truer than ever. That required some cultural retooling since in many areas government sponsored pumps were looked at with some suspicion. There were complaints that the water from the pump did not properly cook rice. Finally it was for the women of the family to refuse to go to the local river or lake for fetching water and insist that hand pump water was the only one that they would use to force the men to stop their whining and start drinking the water from the local pump.

This excellent book is a detailed documentation of the various efforts at bringing water to the people and the manner in which quite un-heroic people tried to sort out their problems of existence.