Health, happiness and a big heart: A letter of gratitude to Bala Vikasa

Martyn Jones is one of FRANK Water's valued ambassadors. His wife, Gemma, volunteers at FRANK on a regular basis. When Martyn & Gemma got married, they asked guests to donate to FRANK Water in place of wedding gifts. Here, Martyn recounts his recent trip to India to visit Bala Vikasa and FRANK Water's Telangana Programme.    

Growing up, India was always a mysterious place to me.  I led a sheltered childhood in a quiet village in Wiltshire, where time moved slowly and the biggest talking point was the great tractor incident of 1991 (a farmer tipped over his tractor and a crane was brought in to rescue it, causing great excitement).  My childhood was brightened by visiting friends and family, including my uncle who travelled widely and would bring stories of his adventures in faraway lands.  I remember his stories of Indian beaches, animals and spices.  He would bring back presents wrapped in newspaper, and I would try to decipher the lines of unusual script, never quite sure which way was up. 

But one day we had a phone call.  I remember the hushed tones in the hallway when my dad found out it was the British High Commission in New Delhi, with news of my uncle’s death.  To this day, I’m still not sure of the exact situation aside that my uncle died from dysentery caused by contaminated food or water.  Years later, I was touched when I found out about an amazing charity called FRANK Water, and I've since been really impacted by FRANK's work to provide water, sanitation and hygiene to communities in need in India.  The more I found out about FRANK Water's projects - often in remote, tribal areas of India - the more my curiosity grew about life in India.

And so it came for my first trip to India, with my wife Gemma. FRANK Water (and one of their Indian partners, an NGO called Bala Vikasa) offered the opportunity to visit some of their projects in Telangana state, near the city of Warangal.  As a first time visitor, looking at a map of Telangana provided my first lesson about India: it is huge!  Warangal city hardly appears on a map of India, yet it is actually a conurbation of three cities with a combined population of over one million - bigger than Birmingham! 

We arrived at Hyderabad airport refreshed after holidaying in Mumbai, Goa and Kerala.  We knew our time in India was coming to an end but, instead of the usual end-of-holiday-blues, we were excited to be visiting the people we’d heard so much about. Arriving at Hyderabad airport, we were greeted by Madhu Reddy, an engagement worker from Bala Vikasa.  Madhu was to be our guide for the next few days as we joined him on his travels from village to village whilst he monitored the progress of FRANK’s projects and spoke with community members to ensure the long term sustainability of these projects. Madhu had arranged for a driver to take us to the remote villages – we were to spend many hours in his car over the next four days!

Our first destination was the Bala Vikasa training centre in Warangal.  This residential centre was to be our base for the next four days.  Usually it hosts delegations from across Asia, who come to learn best practise tools and techniques in international development.  Here we spent time with Madhu and his boss, Pratap.  They told us about the communities we would be visiting, and gave us some background about the local area and the causes of water contamination.

Early the next morning, we set out to visit Gonepalli and Irukode villages in the Medak district, about 2.5 hours from Warangal.  In both these villages, the ground water supply is contaminated by fluoride.  FRANK Water and Bala Vikasa have provided water purification equipment, which provides clean water on-demand. The villagers sign up to an Oyster card scheme, which allows them to visit the purification plant and withdraw water 24/7, tagging in with their card and paying approx. 20p for a jerry can of 20 litres of water.  The water is perfectly safe to drink straight from the tap, and we enjoyed sipping the refreshing, cool water in Irukode.

Also in Irukode, we met a man named Rohan who had previously suffered painful joints which affected his work as a rickshaw driver. Since switching to purified water 12 months ago, he is free from pain and is able to enjoy his work and earn a living once again.

On Sunday, we visited two tribal communities in Warangal district (again about 2.5 hours from Warangal city). In Thirmalagandi and Doravari Vempally villages, the groundwater supply is safe but there had not previously been convenient access to the water from within the villages.  In Doravari Vempally, we met a really happy group of about 30 women whose lives have been transformed by the village water tower!  They told stories of how they used to fear the long walk to the open well on the outskirts of the village, where snakes and uneven ground made fetching water an everyday danger.

We were told we were the first British people to visit Doravari Vempally since the 1980s.  Back then, a well was constructed but nobody asked the villagers where they wanted the well to be built, so it was placed in an inconvenient location far from the village centre. This highlighted the importance of community involvement to the success of Bala Vikasa's projects.  FRANK and Bala Vikasa have funded the construction of water towers in the centre of each village, along with pumping equipment to draw water from boreholes to the water towers.  The villagers here subscribe to a ‘club’ which for a small annual fee allows them to draw as much water.

Throughout our trip we were so impressed by the level of positive community engagement at each of FRANK’s projects.  This was really reinforced by Madhu’s commitment to the communities he serves and the huge heart he has for helping others.  We're incredibly grateful to Madhu, Pratap, Shoury and Sunita for making us feel so welcome at Bala Vikasa.