Consider the Message – Human Rights for Profit? The Flipside of Frugal Innovations

By Juni Victoria Moe Moltubak

 Everyone needs to consume, be it food, water, clothes, content or other goods. It is the beauty and the beast of our economic system. Some things are consumed because we need to, and a lot is consumed because we want to. What happens when ‘need’ meets ‘want’? When a human right like safe drinking water meets a hunger for profit – a hunger for more? The Indian water crisis poses an interesting case for discussing the intersection between capitalism and societal development. 

Being both a massively growing economy, and among the poorest countries in the world, India is an interesting meeting point between different consumption patterns. Whilst some are looking towards the Indian future with optimistic eyes, others point out sobering matters like the fact that more than 140 million Indians still drink contaminated water. India still has a long way to go before it might be considered a so-called “developed” country, but at the same time, the state has in recent years become somewhat of a hub for frugal innovation of all sorts. 

Frugal innovation is where innovation and entrepreneurship meet resource constraints and poverty. It is about finding creative, low-cost, simple solutions to problems voiced by local populations in resource scarce areas. As a result, frugal innovation has by many been described as the key to achieve sustainable development – economic growth without devastating ecological consequences.  Or, as the Brundtland report phrased it in 1987, “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. Frugal innovations have been seen as the bridge between sustainability and capitalism, with their basis in a promise of future-proofing and inclusiveness on the one hand, whilst still being rooted in the profit-oriented world of international business on the other. Making a profit and saving the planet at the same time? Few things sound better in today’s economic and ecological climate. But at what cost?  

In Rajasthan, India, entrepreneur Anand Shah started the company Piramal Sarvajal in an attempt to tackle the crisis of clean drinking water in the region. The idea was simple; to bring high quality clean drinking water to all Indians who need it, at a low cost, with high reliability. The perfect frugal innovation, if you use a simple definition of the concept. Sarvajal has now grown to become a highly profitable enterprise, working in more than 20 Indian states, showing the world that human rights, like safe drinking water, sustainable development, and capitalism’s focus on profitability can be combined in frugal business models. 

Should we normalise and praise innovations that help the poor a lot, but the rich even more? Frugal innovations like Piramal’s water ATM can be, and in many cases is, used as means for the already rich, to capitalise on the human needs of the poor – a structure that will neither lead to sustainable development, nor to increased recognition of human rights in the long run. 


Piramal’s main frugal innovation is their Clean Water ATM – a water purifying system that runs on solar power. Solar power makes the machines highly reliable, and easy to maintain in remote areas. The purifying process in the Water ATMs uses a combination of ‘reverse osmosis’ and ultraviolet treatment, making it a far cheaper operation than that of most bottled water companies in the area.  

However, a cheap purifying process does not mean that the company runs their business for free. Impoverished consumers in rural areas have to pay for the company’s services, albeit affordable ones. This raises an interesting issue; what does the future of frugal innovation look like? Will it open more doors for profit-seeking actors to capitalise on humans’ basic needs? 

Piramal’s impact is undoubtedly great, and the simple, affordable and improved way of accessing safe drinking water is a massive help to societies across India. But it is arguably not unreasonable to question the moral message the activities of this multi billion dollar enterprise sends. If frugal innovations are to be the key to sustainable development, a human (rights) centered approach should be in focus rather than a profit-centered one. Not compromising the ability of future generations to fulfil their needs also means coming up with climate-solutions that can continue to benefit populations beyond their next paycheck. 

Many frugal innovations have been praised for bringing us closer to the ideal of sustainable development, but profit-focused enterprises like Piramal Sarvajal illustrate the importance of not endorsing new solutions uncritically. 

Edited by Helena Reinders, Artwork by Maria Alexeeva