Every year, you read about droughts, water shortage, human suffering due to dry summers. But, so far, it has been a cycle.

This time though, India is hitting Day Zero. By 2020, government think-tank Niti Aayog estimates, India’s water crisis will be a full-blown pandemic: at least 21 Indian cities will completely run out of groundwater. Just to put that into perspective, the deadline is now a few short months away.

Some are trying to find a solution. On short notice.

Vivek Shukla has just driven back to Bengaluru from Chennai, where he had a string of meetings—from dawn to dusk—with irate apartment owners and resident welfare associations (RWAs). “The water situation in Chennai is really alarming. Some apartments haven’t received water for days. Even the tankers have given up,” says Shukla, referring to the nexus of private water tankers that supply water to urban areas that fall outside the ambit of municipal pipelines.

Chennai is one among the 20+ cities at the cusp of this dangerous, gutting water crisis. Shukla, an entrepreneur, teamed up with his ex-Wipro colleague Kasturi Rangan in 2014, to launch Smarter Homes—a start-up that supplies high-tech water meters-which can accurately measure consumption at an apartment level. Smarter Homes is aimed at urban residential high-rises which are quickly populating the IT corridors of Indian cities.

The aim for start-ups like Smarter Homes is to meter every inlet (source of water) going into an apartment, and measure consumption at each unit’s level. This way, residents pay for exactly how much they consume.

“In the long run, linking price to consumption will reduce the overall use of water,” claims Shukla confidently. At last count, Smarter Homes had helped bring down water consumption by 35% in the residential buildings they work in.

Shukla and Rangan brought their decades-long experience in product development and services to the water conservation space. Starting from a one-room rental and two-person team, their start-up, five years later, employs over 100 people. With the water crisis looming, Shukla’s team had to set up a toll-free helpline to handle the volume of daily enquiries, which has jumped 100% since March. “We’re not just meter providers. We’re trying to solve the entire metering problem, end to end,’ goes Shukla’s pitch.

Water conservation, so far, has been a litany of well-meaning nudges. Taking shorter showers. Harvesting rainwater. Making taps trickle. However, most measures have focused on increasing supply. Smart metering finally breaks that jaded model of thinking and focuses on curbing demand.

However potent the promise of metering, flipping crisis to commercial opportunity has been far from easy. Over a few hundred thousand installations, smart metering start-ups have had to tailor their meters, their pricing plans and business model, and buttress their operational costs by raising investments from a variety of funders—real estate giants, landscaping companies, banks and even tech firms.

AUTHOR

Olina Banerji

Based in Delhi, Olina writes about mega-trends in urban mobility, education, skilling and the environment, with a focus on how institutions and innovations can help cities grow sustainably. She is a graduate of the London School of Economics, and has worked previously with India Today and global non-profit Ashoka.

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