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Penn State electrical engineering alumnus' kiosks bring clean water to India

"To solve such big issues, you need many perspectives. You need the wisdom of the crowd."— Advait Kumar, electrical engineering graduate and founder of Swajal
March 13, 2015

In 2008, Advait Kumar, a Penn State electrical engineering alumnus, saw something that changed his life.

"One day I went to the backyard and I saw all these house workers queuing up to get their turn to fill water from our home," Kumar said. "I didn't understand why they were there."

The problem, hidden behind ancient, turquoise temples, is that scores of Indians are barely surviving life in terrible slums that are not recognized by Indian society. "The government," explained Kumar, "isn't even responsible for sending water or electricity or sanitation." 

The situation is grave in Kanpur, Kumar's hometown. An industrial city with a population of more than 2 million people, it has carved out a niche in tanneries. Most of the factories line the Ganges, which, in addition to being the holiest body of water in the Hindu religion, is where they discharge their waste unchecked. 

"The dumping is mainly unrestricted by the government," Kumar said. 

Still, children continue to swim in the river. "They play in the mud and then they die because of diarrhea. One thousand six hundred people a day die of diarrhea. Twenty-one percent of communicable diseases in India are water related. These things," said Kumar, "are curable." 

At Penn State, Kumar didn't forget about the abject poverty he'd left behind. When, in 2011, the United Nations put out a call for proposals for making clean energy accessible, he seized the opportunity. Swajal, a solar water purification system, was born. 

It's a rigorous system, which is critical when dealing with industrial contaminants.

"We use nine purification stages to clear water from the ground to the bottle. And it's customizable, depending on the contaminants. Ammonia and E. coli require especially rigorous purification. In an area where the water isn't as bad, the system might be smaller," he said. 

"From speech classes to English classes to engineering, all of them helped me actually write a proposal that the United Nations accepted."—Advait Kumar 

Kumar, who built Swajal water kiosks while still a student, leaned on the Penn State community for support, drawing on his electrical engineering studies to build a system that met two essential criteria: precise engineering and green technology.

"Basically, I had to connect all of these dots to build a solution," he said. "Electrical engineering is a core discipline. When you get good in electrical engineering, you can go and build something. It's like using Lego blocks.

"But at the end of the day," he said, "this is a social adventure, and I have to apply to the United Nations and other big organizations. Part of Penn State was learning how to write an effective proposal. How to tell people what you need and what is good. From speech classes to English classes to engineering, all of them helped me actually write a proposal that the United Nations accepted." 

Since his May 2014 graduation, Kumar has continued to have an impact on the quality of life in India, installing Swajal kiosks in four different states. Though he works at a major financial firm, he continues to mentor other social entrepreneurs coming on board. 

"Swajal is essentially a platform and a franchise. I'm not interested in getting into the business of water. I want to create a web of super cheap water distribution centers." 

Kumar has been overwhelmed by the support of local communities. "Swajal has really been internalized by them," he said. "Even though the systems are outdoors all day and all night, none have been vandalized." 

In fact, a local woman scolded him for spoiling her with such good water. "She calls it sweet water. She says she doesn't want to drink anything else." 

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