Why has Buro Happold adopted a tiny western Indian engineering firm, dedicated to transforming the water and sewer systems in India's poorest slums? Victoria Madine finds the answer is less a charitable gesture than shrewd business nous
For a man who is about to give a talk about Asian sewerage, Himanshu Parikh stirs up a great deal of excitement. The room where he is about to hold forth is full to bursting. Parikh has spent the past 20 years on projects to improve India's worst slums and he has now joined Buro Happold after the UK engineering consultant took over the running of his small specialist engineering practice in western India. Buro Happold employees are eager to learn from him.

On the face of it, Buro Happold's decision to acquire Himanshu Parikh Engineering – a company whose specialist skills are in improving shanty town sanitation and water supply – looks like little more than a philanthropic gesture or a publicity stunt.

But Padraic Kelly, managing partner at Buro Happold, believes there are solid business reasons behind the company's relationship with Parikh. "Not every business move is about securing immediate financial profit. Taking on Parikh's firm is about going back to our founder Ted Happold's Quaker belief that a principle of business is to make a profitable contribution to society.

"But that isn't about being a charity – giving something away for nothing. We expect to learn a lot here in the UK from continuing Parikh's projects in India. There is a tremendous synergy between our and Parikh's innovative approach to problem solving." It's this synergy that Buro Happold hopes to tap into.

"Above all, it's Parikh's skill and experience at engaging local communities that we feel we can learn from," says Kelly. "In India, he united local government, central government, banks, funding agencies and locals, and this success at building teams is really interesting for us. In the UK there's a great need to get communities more involved in construction projects that effect them."

Kelly's is not the only voice arguing that the private sector can learn from experts in community projects: the government is increasingly encouraging firms to take on social and environmental challenges. DTI minister Stephen Timms stated last month that corporate social responsibility is good for UK competitiveness. He argued that it can be a highly creative activity because it enables imaginative people from the private sector to "work alongside inspirational activists".

But Parikh isn't just an activist: the 51-year-old is a successful businessman who is intent on proving that so-called "charity" work can benefit community and commerce. "People only value what they pay for, and this is why private firms can contribute to community renewal programmes," says Parikh. His firm always charges for its services to its Indian community clients. Its standard way of working is to become a project stakeholder alongside public agencies and larger private firms, which together form consortiums to fund the slum improvement projects.

The Cambridge-educated engineer, born in Tanzania of Indian parentage, came to Buro Happold's attention after he won an Aga Khan architecture award in 1998 for his contribution to creating decent living environments. Parikh built his business (based in Ahmedabad, Gujarat) on finding solutions to allow Indian cities to integrate slums into mainstream infrastructure by improving water and sewage systems.

When he set up his office in 1982, his intention was to find a way of building low-cost housing for slum dwellers. But Parikh soon realised that slum communities would never make the necessary investment in schemes because conditions were too awful and the communities did not own the land. Instead, he looked to natural drainage systems and local politics to provide a solution.

We are creating a situation where we can mobilise villages’ own resources – the local people actually do the work themselves

Parikh's Slum Networking Project provides toilets that connect to an underground sewerage system, and water taps connected to a piped network that, wherever possible, follows nature's own drainage system: rivers. This integrated drainage and sanitation facility is connected to the city's sanitation system, rather than operating through its own subsystem (which is usually the case in Indian cities). Parikh argues that this holistic approach to sanitation benefits the whole city because linking up the slum to the general network can ease the pressure on central city sewage pumps.

On a typical project, Parikh and fellow consortium members seek to engage the local community by negotiating on behalf of people living in the slum to buy the land they are living on. "We and our consortium partners – which includes government development agencies and corporate companies – provide security to the local people by negotiating tenure and creating a situation where we can mobilise villages' own resources. In other words, the local people actually do most of the building work and negotiation themselves because they think they might actually benefit from it."

The success of Parikh's approach has been highlighted by research carried out by the India Institute of Management and the United Nations Development Programme. After a 1991-3 project in the Gujarati city of Boroda, the organisations found that average incomes had doubled and the infant mortality rate dropped from 75 in 100 to 15 in 100. At the same time, literacy rates for girls increased from 5% to 10%. "These step changes were made possible by providing water," says Parikh.

It is the lessons that Parikh learned about working with "natural" infrastructure systems and harnessing the resources of local communities that Buro Happold hopes to turn into an approach it can use on infrastructure projects back in the UK. As Parikh says: "My company is still working on a major infrastructure problem in Ahmedabad to improve both the condition of slums and general sanitation levels. The UK's problems are different, but it could benefit from the lessons learned on those projects."

Parikh believes that urban poverty cannot be tackled using problem-by-problem solutions, but requires a holistic approach. "You've got to have city solutions that look coherently at the conurbation and masterplan of a city alongside the design of its infrastructure," he says.

Another reason Buro Happold is keen to learn from Parikh's approach is the growing trend for the World Bank to support micro-infrastructure projects. Traditionally, the bank has supported schemes such as dams and reservoirs to address disaster-prone or impoverished areas in the developing world.

"The World Bank is becoming more interested in supporting smaller projects like Himanshu's work because it's a way to reduce the risk it carries. We think small-scale projects have a big future in the world infrastructure market," says Kelly.

Despite his progressive approach to civil engineering, Parikh likes to look to the past for his inspiration. "My model has always been Brunel. He grappled with the great infrastructure problems of his day, and with the politicians of his day. I want to demonstrate that there is a place for engineers in governing the infrastructure they create."