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Mission statement

Developing world - Himanshu Parikh's career in structural engineering has become a mission to improve life for the world's poorest people.

Over breakfast next Tuesday, civil engineer Himanshu Parikh will be setting out to convince some of the globe's biggest corporations that they should be lending cash to the world's poorest communities (see news, p12).

Fed up with waiting for development funding from the World Bank, NGOs and foreign governments, Parikh, 53, is seeking funds with which Indian slum dwellers can get on with the pressing task of creating effective clean water and sewerage systems.

'Civil engineering isn't fashionable at the moment: the attention of development agencies is on good governance, education, health, etc, ' Parikh notes.

'But over the years we've found that water and sanitation makes a very, very substantial change to poverty levels - it makes the most critical difference.

In the last decade, through his firm Himanshu Parikh Consulting Engineers, Parikh has sparked a revolution in the way development projects are initiated by convincing slum dwellers and locally-based businesses to invest their own cash. This enables them to realise immediate improvements in their living environments.

And in the wake of self-initiated, locally managed improvement projects, he has observed an unanticipated and disproportionately large growth in local levels of wealth.

'We found that if you just change water and sanitation in slums, and go back to those places four, five, or even just one or two years later, there is enormous change. That's been substantiated through independent studies.

On over 150 slum projects, affecting 1M or more people, Parikh has observed that following installation of basic infrastructure people's spending on their homes has increased in the order of 10 to 20 times. He maintains that this reflects a new found sense of pride, hope and permanence, as well as increased productivity, enabled by reducing time spent fetching water or lost to ill-health.

And Parikh says that on average loans are fully repaid within two years of project completion.

So next Tuesday he will be arguing to corporations such as Shell, BP and Unilever that lending to slum dwellers will not be purely an act of philanthropy - money will be repaid for starters.

Parikh contends that involvement in transforming the poorest communities in India will also give corporations a presence and build goodwill in what will fairly quickly become new consumer markets.

In a village or slum of 5,000 people, residents can generally stump up 25% of the £125,000 cost of installing clean water, sewerage, paving paths and roads, landscaping and putting up street lighting. Local business can meet an additional one third of the cost. That leaves around 40% of the bill to be covered.

'The corporates in Ahmedabad told me [after my first project involving them] that what they lent was only 10% of their annual advertising budget, but that the marketing value was far greater.

What better way of advertising yourself?' asks Parikh.

His work has grabbed attention not just in India - it won him the United Nations' World Habitat Award for Urban Development in 1993 and UN recognition for best practice in 1996. In 1998 he won the internationally prestigious Aga Khan Award for Architecture.

'The judges reckoned the impact we make on the human habitat is as great as any architecture.'

'We' is his Ahmedabad-based company, founded in 1982. Having studied structural engineering at Cambridge University and focused in his first years following graduation on stressed tendons, he returned to India because he 'didn't want to be a specialist'.

'I wanted to save the world and to have a lark. I got involved in a short-term development project, intending to return to England, but ended up staying in India for over 20 years.'

Eighteen months ago Parikh did eventually get back to the UK to teach at his alma mater and to work as an associate consultant with Buro Happold, at the same time as keeping his Ahmedabad office running. But he continues to spend much of his time in India and feels the country's pull powerfully.

'There's so much for civil engineers to do. Professionally, it's still an exhilarating place to be.'

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