In Memoriam: Ken McLeod – India Mark II development lead

by Rupert Talbot (former UNICEF and past Chair of HTN/RWSN)

Remembering Ken

Ken McLeod, who died of cancer in Cairns, Australia, on January 23rd at the age of 88, was recruited by Unicef to support India’s village water supply programme from 1974-1978, and played a pivotal role in the development of the India MK II hand pump.

The Government of India’s fourth, five year development plan (1969-1974) envisaged the ambitious goal of providing drinking water in the hard rock, drought prone regions of the country, using innovative down-the-hole-hammer drilling and deep well hand pump technology. Drill rigs were to be imported by Unicef and locally made, cast iron hand pumps, supplied and maintained by Government. In 1974, at the end of the plan period, hand pump surveys concluded that 75% of some 40,000 installations were not working. The viability of drilling and hand pump technology was in question and there was the real prospect of UNICEF, the Government of India’s main partner, withdrawing support. The programme was in serious crisis.

Ken McLeod, his 1942 Jeep, and Myra who designed the first India MK II hand pump poster, New Delhi, 1976 (Photo: Rupert Talbot)

Water well drilling was virgin territory for Unicef in the early 1970s and Unicef’s Executive Board had been divided over the decision to invest in such costly technology in the first place. It was now faced with the hard option of either scrapping the programme or keeping faith. It was a close run thing. Fortunately, the ‘pro’ lobby won with the eminently wise decision to halt the supply of drill rigs until the hand pump problem was fixed. Which is where Ken McLeod comes in.

Ken was a pragmatic, no–nonsense, straight talking, tell-it-as-it-is Australian with a diverse engineering background which ranged from marine and civil engineering to blast hole and water well drilling with down-the-hole-hammers. He had an innate sense of what would probably work and what wouldn’t. Obstinacy was also a hallmark. A serious asset as it turned out. Once he had made up his mind it was difficult to persuade him otherwise. And he had a droll sense of humour. His repertoire of stories and anecdotes are legendary within the water well fraternity. It would seem that seriousness of purpose combined with good humour are prerequisites for successful development enterprises. Ken had both these qualities in spades.

Over the course of the next 4 years it fell to Ken to identify, coordinate, argue with and cajole, myriad organisations and individuals to develop what became known as the India MK II hand pump. This was an extraordinarily complex, collaborative venture, involving pioneering NGOs in Maharashtra, birth place of the fabricated steel Jalna, Jalvad and Sholapur pumps, spearheaded by Raj Kumar Daw and Oscar Carlson (names participants in the RWSN Sustainable Groundwater Development Forum will be familiar with); WHO, who were independently trying to develop their own cast iron ‘Bangalore Pump’; The Government of India, whose programme was in dire straits and who were being prevailed upon by the country-wide hand pump industry to continue with the supply of their cast iron products (‘junk pumps,’ in McLeod Speak); and an engineering enterprise, Richardson and Cruddas, a Government of India undertaking tasked with making prototype and then production pumps. It took a McLeod to handle all of that.

Ken McLeod, Arun Mudgal (Richardson and Cruddas) and Rupert Talbot, MK II test area, Coimbatore, 1975. A ‘what to do ?’ moment after experimental cylinders had failed. (Photo: Rupert Talbot)

It is getting on for 50 years since it was eventually agreed by all parties that the Sholapur pump would form the basis of a new design and we were able to make and test the first dozen prototypes under the deep water table conditions of Coimbatore, Southern India. The fact that the India MK II then went successfully into mass production was largely due to Ken’s clarity of vision, direction, smart technical choices and perseverence.

I spoke with Ken for the last time two weeks before he died. We talked of those heady days of trying to get the MK II programme off the ground, of the internal arguments, external battles and technical problem solving in the field and in the factory.

His voice was strong and his mind as clear as a bell as he recalled people, places and events in great detail and he spoke warmly of those free spirits with their out of the box thinking who strove to make better hand pumps.

He was amazed to learn that there are now several million MK IIs in India alone and that it is exported to 40 or more countries. But hugely disappointed that the third party quality assurance procedures set up in his day and honed over the years to become the corner stone of the MK II programme under Ken Gray, had been allowed to slide back and that MK II look-a-like ‘junk pumps’ are being exported from India to Africa. That, we agreed, is a great tragedy.

There were many brilliant, dedicated people involved in the development of the India MK II. Ken never claimed any credit for it himself, but we all know who led the charge. It wouldn’t have happened without him. He was the right man in the right place at the right time. It needed his force of personality, tough and uncompromising ways, solid understanding of technical issues and absolute determination to get the job done in the face of industrial strength, bureaucratic wranglings. Aussie grit personified.

After Unicef, Ken McLeod worked with Shaul Arlossoroff and his UNDP-World Bank Hand Pumps Project, initially based in Nairobi then out of Australia, spending much of his time in China where I have no doubt he brought the same skills and energy to bear as he did in India.

Pragmatic and stoic to the very end he told me he hadn’t got long and was resigned to being on the ‘home stretch’ as he called it.

No funeral for Ken. No grave, no head stone, no epitaph. He wanted none of that. Instead, he has the lasting legacy of the India Mark II hand pump itself. Millions of them in fact.

Kenneth Robert McLeod, 1932 – 2020

RIP

Rupert Talbot
RWSN
26/1/20