2.5 mn got piped-water connections during Covid: Gajendra Singh Shekhawat

Jal Shakti Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat
India’s ambitious Har Ghar Jal initiative to provide piped-water connections to all households has taken wing under the shadow of Covid-19 with 2.5 million connections provided during this time, Jal Shakti Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat tells . The minister says he is confident that the pandemic would not delay the targets set or lead to any funds crunch. Edited excerpts:

How has Covid impacted the pace of work of the Jal Jeevan Mission?

Covid impacted everything and to some extent affected us as well, but as soon as the lockdown-1 was over, water-related works were allowed. In March, when Covid started, we did as much on the table work as we could with states. This includes approving state and district action plans and completing detailed project reports. We used the lockdown to ensure that all such work is done after which the momentum picked up. During this Covid pandemic, 2.5 million new connections have been provided across the country.

Have the timelines for Har Ghar Jal changed?

It has not changed and it is not going to change. We are committed to the deadline announced by the Prime Minister that we have to finish this goal by 2024. States are also on board. Even where there is no pressure of elections, such as in Haryana, the state has set an early target of 2022. States like Bihar and Telangana have set a target of 2021-2022. Almost 70 per cent of connections left are in UP. 

The department of drinking water has been placed under category C where its expenditure cannot go over 15 per cent of BE in the first quarter. Does the restriction constrain your work in any way?

This is not going to have an impact because the total allocation, including internal and extra budgetary resources, is around Rs 30,000 crore. States have around Rs 6,000 crore unspent from last year since it was allocated later during the year. Besides this, we have ample funds due to convergence. The 15th Finance Commission has earmarked Rs 60,000 crore to be transferred to states this fiscal year. Of this, Rs 30,000 crore is just for the purpose of drinking water and sanitation. That fund is accessible to us and we have asked states to make a plan. States such as UP would have access to over Rs 4,000 crore of funds. We also have funds through the Swachh Bharat Mission. Some part of the expenditure has to come from states. With the government increasing the fiscal responsibility and budget management limit, states also have access to more funds. 

There is a lot of stress on hygiene and handwashing to prevent spread of Covid. In rural areas, access to water is an issue. What is the situation with regard to water availability?

The distribution schemes are being operated and maintained by state governments. But, on the water availability in the country, there are over 5,000 reservoirs in terms of surface water. We track and monitor 132 of these, which account for over 66 per cent of the total water holding capacity of the nation. On May 1 this year, we had 56 per cent more water compared to the same period last year. If we take an average of the last 10 years, then also we have 46 per cent more water. 

Covid is now breaching the urban-rural divide. What will be the role of your ministry in tackling this crisis?

The PM has launched the Gareeb Kalyan Rozgar Yojna.  Jal Jeevan mission is the biggest opportunity for the villagers at this time and state governments. There will be a lot of work in the villages in terms of adding wells, ponds, trenches and laying pipelines. The scheme is not just to provide tap water but also generate employment opportunities in each and every village.

The World Bank has provided support of $400 million for Ganga rejuvenation. How are you going to deploy the funds?

We have adopted a hybrid annuity model for Ganga rejuvenation. Under this model, whoever constructs the project will be responsible for its maintenance for 15 years. We would give 40 per cent payment upfront and the remaining 60 per cent along with interest and operational expenditure will be given in annuity every six months or a year.  We have also decided to have one city, one operator, who would be responsible for maintaining all the other projects there as well. 

Why have you not released groundwater data for the last two years?

The system for groundwater data is that it is released every three-four years, but this should not happen. Our data recovery mechanism has been very different. We have taken a decision to move all data online. We are starting a platform called the National Water Informatics Centre (NWIC). In the coming days, you should be able to see ground level, underground level and aquifer data online along with the smallest of reservoir data on this platform. We have started talking to states to converge our data with them. We are also talking to the ministry of environment and forestry to share the central pollution control board data with us as well. This should be functional within a year. 

How are you going to manage judicious use of water in agriculture?

In the next three years, we want to be able to study all the aquifers in the country. We have started a programme where all the sandy soil areas in states such as Punjab, Haryana, and Rajasthan will be studied through heliborne technology. With cameras, we will study aquifers 300 metres deep into the soil and combine that with geospatial data that we have been given access to. Using this information, we will make a plan for each village. Most farmers do not know how much underground water there is in areas they are growing crops. This integration will be the biggest reform in India.

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