More than a million people have benefited from an ADB-supported project to improve water, sanitation, and other basic services for the poor in 10 Indian towns and cities.

By any measure, ADB’s Karnataka Urban Development and Coastal Environmental Management Project was a huge undertaking - aimed at improving the lives of more than a million people. But for Vimala, a 31-year-old housewife in Mangalore city’s Mulakad slum, it all came down to one basic necessity and a simple, life-affirming concept: dignity.

“Women feel safer because they don’t have to relieve themselves in the open.”

Vimala, a 31-year-old housewife in Mangalore city’s Mulakad slum

Vimala’s home now has a toilet. “Women feel safer because they don’t have to relieve themselves in the open,” she says. “That has given us dignity and privacy.”

A 300-kilometer stretch of the southwest coast in India’s state of Karnataka had long suffered from a shortage of basic infrastructure. A lack of storm drains meant frequent flooding. Water supply was erratic, and many wells that people depended on were polluted. Poor sanitation threatened public health.

Local governments in towns and cities such as Mangalore, Udupi, and Karwar could not provide the assets and services that people needed. The region’s prospects for healthy economic growth were dim.

In 1999, after the Government of India sought ADB’s support to help fill the infrastructure gaps and tap the coast’s potential, ADB approved a $175 million loan for the project. Its goal was to improve living conditions in 10 towns and cities.

Integrated urban development

Saugata Dasgupta, a senior urban project officer at ADB, says the project reflected the integrated urban development concept advocated by the sector strategies of both ADB and India. “These aim to expand and rehabilitate important infrastructure; develop the capacity of local governments so they can improve delivery of health, sanitation, and other services; look after the environment; and empower the poor.”

Up to 1 million people have been given access to improved water supply, better drainage, and upgraded solid waste removal services under the project. In all, 2,000 kilometers of water supply pipes, 427 kilometers of sewer lines, and 59 kilometers of storm drains were installed. Landfill sites with a capacity of 187 million tons were created, and 172 kilometers of roads were upgraded. More than 56,000 slum dwellers received proper sanitation facilities - including Vimala.

Now, public health is much improved. “There’s been a drastic reduction in water-borne diseases,” says Gopal Krishna, the chief officer of Kundapura municipal council.

Cleaning up cities

And the new sewage treatment plants installed under the project in Bhatkal, Karwar, Mangalore, and Udupi have helped ease pollution along Karnataka’s coastline. Thanks to its plant, which can treat 43.5 million liters of sewage a day, Mangalore is one of the cleanest cities in India.

One project objective was to bolster municipal services by improving the collection of taxes and fees. Few people enjoy paying bills, but many residents can see the connection between the money they hand over to the government and the services they receive.

“Water connections are metered and everyone’s happy paying their bills since they’re getting round-the-clock water supply,” says Umesh, a councilor in the coastal town of Kundapura, whose income from water supply fees has grown from $13,000 a year to $158,000.

Central to the project’s economic development plan was the creation of nearly 2,500 self-help groups that covered about 30,000 low-income families. With the assistance of two regional nongovernment organizations, these groups distributed loans to local residents, businesses, and entrepreneurs. Of the $1.9 million in total lending, $800,000 came from the members’ own savings. Each self-help group has 20 to 30 members who meet once or twice a month and receive entrepreneurship training.

High project impact

The project exceeded many of its original benchmarks. It added 305 million liters a day to the state’s water supply, for example, 44% more than the goal. Due in part to the stronger than expected results and project efficiencies, the Karnataka Urban Infrastructure Development and Finance Corporation took the unusual step of asking ADB to cut its loan from $175 million to $145 million.

The project’s approaches taught important lessons. One was that small investments in such areas as microfinance, the formation of self-help groups, and low-cost sanitation facilities can have large social and economic impacts - and help build local support for projects at the same time.

Most importantly, the project and the continuing activities it established have helped break the poverty cycle in disadvantaged communities. Research by the Karnataka Urban Infrastructure Development and Finance Corporation has found that the average daily income of self-help group members rose from less than $0.50 before the groups began operating to more than $2.40 afterward.

This article was originally published in Together We Deliver, a publication highlighting successful ADB projects across Asia and the Pacific that demonstrated development impacts, best practice, and innovation.