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Jal Jeevan Mission: A mammoth task, a sea of business opportunities

“How to ensure availability of water in every house? How does every house get water, pure drinking water? And so I declare from the Red Fort today, that in the days to come, we will take forward the Jal Jeevan Mission,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in his Independence Day speech. 

The alarming proportions India's water crisis has acquired are quite well known. Several cities are slated to “run out of water” in a decade. In villages, too, the situation is grim--less than half the population can barely use 50 litres of water a day, India’s national auditor told the Parliament in 2018. 

Massive funding need is only part of the problem 

But how easy or difficult is it to provide water to all households in the country? Modi said the mission would require Rs 3.5 trillion over the next five years to implement. This is fairly in line with the assessment of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), which had estimated an expenditure of Rs 23,000 crore a year, from 2018 till 2030, roughly equalling Rs 3 trillion in current price terms (2018). 

To complete the mission in five years would require even more: nearly Rs 70,000 crore a year, equivalent to 1.5 per cent of budgetary expenditure of Centre and states put together, or nearly 0.3 per cent of India’s gross domestic product.

This huge fund requirement comes at a time when the CAG report has flagged the falling expense on the national rural drinking water programme (NRDWP): it halved under the previous Modi government. While Rs 10,500 crore were spent in 2012-13, a year when another wave of slowdown had hit the Indian economy, the year 2015-16 saw Rs 4,370 crore spent on the water programme. 

The magnitude of the task at hand does not end at financial issues, but starts afresh at how little pumping money into water supply has actually achieved. The present article focuses on rural water supply, leaving urban issues apart, due to (non) availability of data. 

“The overall coverage of rural habitations [getting 40 litres per day per person] increased only by 8 per cent, after incurring an expenditure of Rs 81,168 crore during the period 2012-17,” the CAG report noted. 

At present, only 17 per cent of rural households have water supply “inside” their household, while 18 per cent households have the “provision” of water through pipes. Piped provision is considered as a more stable, cleaner and a more durable method of providing water, which helps in overall development of the region. 

If we consider that India has 169 million rural households (as per to Census 2011), the Jal Jeevan Mission would require providing piped water to nearly 135 million households (barring the 17 per cent which already have) in five years, or 90,000 households a day. That in itself is a mammoth task. 

Rebuilding groundwater resources

The story does not end here. About 88 per cent of rural India’s drinking water is catered to by groundwater, wherein lie two major issues: availability or quantity of water, and water quality. 

In terms of quantity, more than 37 per cent of blocks (smaller building blocks of districts, totalling 6,880) in the country have groundwater levels ranging from critical to over-exploited, meaning, risk prone (See chart). The most risky blocks are concentrated in a few states, such as Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana and Tamil Nadu. 

Then, about 20 million people (17,800 habitations) live in areas where groundwater has been affected with arsenic contamination, while another 10 million (12,400 habitations) where fluoride contamination is rampant. Further, more than 400 habitations, mostly in Punjab, have traces of uranium. Salinity is also a normal feature of groundwater in many over-exploited blocks, experts note.

Apart from provision, the Jal Jeevan Mission needs to ensure the availability and quality of water in the first place. This was aptly put forth by none other than the secretary at the new Jal Shakti ministry. 

“The strategy so far to increase access to household water supply faced obstacles, including not paying enough attention to sustaining or recharging groundwater, the primary source, and treating service delivery primarily as an engineering solution, without adequate involvement of the users,” Parameswaran Iyer wrote in a column in The Indian Express, after Modi announced the intent to roll out the scheme. Iyer was unavailable for comment. 

Water expert Indira Khurana told Business Standard that this would not be possible unless we “rebuild our relationship with water”. 

“Water is a product of land, forest and ecology. Mere recharge might not solve the problem of availability and supply. An ecological approach is a must,” she said. 

Taking all of this into account, the Jal Jeevan Mission would require services ranging from groundwater recharge, pumping, small-scale water treatment facilities, piping, metering for flow/usage measurement, and most importantly, training and communication of local communities, and social and environmental audit of projects. 

This is precisely where the Rs 3.5 trillion would essentially be spent, in the prescribed period. 

With a slowing domestic economy, global headwinds creating ripples after every assessment by agencies, and limited fiscal room at the domestic (union and state) level, many experts said it might not be possible without private participation, or funding from corporates.

A 2013 “Master Plan” by the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) had projected the estimated cost to recharge all critical groundwater areas (nearly 11 million) at just less than Rs 80,000 crore (at 2011 prices). Assuming that this cost must have doubled over a decade due to sheer inflation and growth in rent/wages, just recharging available sources would probably eat up nearly half of the Rs 3.5 trillion requirement. 

Part of this spending, and labour work, would be done through Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. This would ease the burden of the fiscal cost to some extent. The implementation of the Mission would also need companies who would fund for/provide water treatment plants, pipes, water meters at the water district level and at the household level. 

Khurana said that availability and provisioning should be complemented with equal thrust to operation and maintenance. “Unless people are a part of it, this Mission would not succeed,” she said. 

But S Janakarajan, another water expert, and president at South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies, a think tank, said that though the Mission is commendable, ensuring quality, quantity, distribution and periodic maintenance is an imperative. 


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