Innovative Government-NGO Partnerships for Development

The partnership between SEWA, an Indian NGO, and the local water authority Gujarat Water Supply and Sewerage Board is a significant policy shift signifying that NGOs can be competent providers of public services. 

Sari-clad women, handling tools with alacrity while fixing water handpumps is a common sight in the Sabarkantha district in North Gujarat, a state in western India.

Trained and organised by the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), an Indian NGO renowned for work in the unorganised women’s sector, these ‘barefoot mechanics’ as they are commonly referred to, are hired by the Gujarat Water Supply and Sewerage Board (GWSSB), the local water authority.

Using end-user household survey data collected in two sub-districts of Gujarat, our research concludes that the quality of services provided in maintaining and repairing community handpumps when the state water authority enters into co-management contracts with NGOs (such as SEWA) to provide repair services is better than services provided by private organisations.

We collected the data for this study in Bayad and Dhansura during December 2013.  Bayad and Dhansura are adjacent sub-districts that administratively fall under the jurisdiction of the Sabarkantha district (Figure 1). While village-level governments are formed to overlook day-to-day work, key policy decisions pertaining to agriculture, infrastructure, industry, health, education, and social welfare are taken by the district- and state-level governments. Therefore, the sub districts are exposed to the same policy decisions.





Figure 1. Location of the Bayad and Dhansura sub-districts in the western state of Gujarat in India. 

The Barefoot Mechanics of Gujarat

Providing adequate access to water in rural communities remains a challenge across much of India. Only 35 percent of rural households have access to drinking water within their premises. About 43 percent have access near their premises (within 500 meters) and 22 percent have access away from their premises (beyond 500 meters) (Census of India 2011).

In the arid and semi-arid regions of Gujarat, including the Sabarkantha district, surface water is scarce and households largely depend on groundwater. Community handpumps are commonly used as most households in the district do not have piped water connections. To alleviate water shortages, particularly so in the dry season, the state water utility, the GWSSB installed nearly 10,000 handpumps across the state to improve villages’ access to water. However, these pumps need regular maintenance and break down often in the dry season when they are needed the most to draw out groundwater.

Given that is logistically difficult for GWSSB to service these handpumps with the frequency required, the board has chosen to outsource this activity.

SEWA is a trade union of self-employed women established in 1972 and currently has about 600,000 members in the state of Gujarat. As part of its ‘Women, Water and Work’ program SEWA has been participating in the GWSSB bids for handpump repair since 1998. SEWA bids for these contracts through a trust, specifically created for this purpose, called the ‘Khedut Mandal’ (Farmers’ Association). GWSSB invites tenders from contractors and awards annual contracts to the most competitive bid, that is, the lowest price.

To make the program economically attractive to the participants, SEWA has to limit the team size of women who get a repair job to typically 12-15 women. GWSSB provides the spare parts and tools but the cost of training and transport is borne by SEWA.



Specifically, the SEWA service significantly reduces time to collect water in both the dry and wet seasons and reduces the time to attend to pump breakdowns, thus further reducing the imposed cost of water collection. In addition, there is a significant reduction in repair time for handpumps used by lower caste households in SEWA serviced villages suggesting that contracting out services to NGOs may indeed bring about equity in access to public goods and services.

Co-management of government services

This is a significant policy shift.  Governments routinely contract out public services such as sanitation, public infrastructure maintenance, healthcare, and social services. In recent years, government contracts with NGOs have increased in both developed and developing countries. NGOs which previously were called upon primarily to remedy government failures are now seen as competent agents and providers of public services.

Co-management is one such hybrid model in which government and civil society actors aim to achieve common objectives, supply public services jointly, or manage common pool resources through formal contracts or agreements.

As governments increasingly rely on non-state actors to provide public services and achieve public policy goals, hybrid models of contracts are evolving, especially so in the domains of environment and sustainable development policy.

Co-management is one such hybrid model in which government and civil society actors aim to achieve common objectives, supply public services jointly, or manage common pool resources through formal contracts or agreements.

From a public policy perspective, our findings imply that it is not only important to expand infrastructure to reduce the burden of collecting water on rural households, but equally important to ensure that the infrastructure is properly maintained through innovative government-NGO (or state-nonstate) contractual relationships such as co-management.

The GWSSB’s efforts to contract out the maintenance and repair of village water handpumps to an NGO such as SEWA is a positive step in this direction.

Namrata Chindarkar and Yvonne Jie Chen are assistant professors at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore. Dennis Wichelns is a senior research fellow at the Stockholm Research Institute, Bangkok (Thailand) and a former director of the Institute of Water Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.


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