States, local communities must come together to ensure tap water for all

Last December while inaugurating the Atal Bhujal Yojana — a scheme for India’s groundwater resources — Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he understood the pain of water scarcity, having grown up with it in his home state of Gujarat. He rightly pointed out that the water puzzle in India is a peculiar one, with half the country facing water shortage and the other half the problem of excess.


In the face of this twin challenge, Modi also declared detailed guidelines for providing functional household tap connection to the entire country by 2024, which would require tailormade solutions for each region. 


According to government’s estimates, this means reaching out to some 146 million rural households that do not have tap water coverage. Experts say the actual number could be much higher, making the job no easier.


At this stage, the government has announced a whopping budget of Rs 3.6 trillion for the programme of which the central share will be Rs 2.08 trillion. The Jal Shakti ministry has also set up a task force of bureaucrats, former officials and sector experts to analyse various drinking water programmes and ascertain whether substantial investments into such schemes have delivered satisfactory results.


The task force has already held four rounds of meetings and will give its recommendations for fine-tuning the Jal Jeevan Mission implementation strategy.


“We can only give a prescription but the medicine has to be administered by the states and communities,” said Sashi Shekhar, former water resources secretary and co-chairman of the task force.


This is one of the major challenges of implementing a scheme of such scale in a time-bound manner. While most states have agreed to come on board, there are concerns the Centre-led programme should not get entangled in state-level bureaucracies and their individual Jal (water) board setups.


“Responsibility of water supply is assigned to state water boards, which as experience suggests, invariably go for major projects which often do not provide least cost, sustainable solutions with community ownership,” Shekhar added.


The broad contours of the Jal Jeevan Mission have stated that states will have a definite operations and maintenance policy especially to meet with requirements such as monthly energy cost of piped water supply scheme, by ensuring cost recovery from user groups and thereby avoiding any unwanted burden on the public exchequer.


Every village will have to prepare an action plan that will have three components: Water source & its maintenance, water supply and grey water management. No expenditure towards operation and maintenance cost of the schemes such as electricity charges, salary of regular staff and purchase of land will be allowed out of the central share.


This brings us to the second big challenge: Community participation. Much of the success of the scheme depends on communities not only being proactive at the planning stage but also agreeing to pay for the water and other operation and maintenance costs.


Once the assets are created through a one-time government investment, it will fall upon communities, going down to the gram panchayat level, to manage and operate. Not only do they have to be willing but also be equipped and capable of taking such responsibility.


Industry experts feel that the government has provided everything over the last 70 years such as handpumps and the shift to utility-based model, that comes at a fee, would require a behavioural change.


The government is likely to ask civil society to have a dialogue with the locals in areas where functional household tap connections are missing and to build consensus within the community.


Financially, the Jal Jeevan Mission feels secure. Bharat Lal, Jal Jeevan Mission Director and additional secretary, Jal Shakti Ministry, told Business Standard, “The government is committed to funding the scheme. Money is not an issue. We have to ensure proper utilisation.”


While the task force has started to visit states to collect water-related data, Lal said that the initial response will be to go for low-hanging fruit. For instance, projects that are close to completion but remain unfinished can be taken up on priority. The government teams will also assess the ground and surface water availability in areas and consider providing connections to nearby areas where there is ample supply.


In order to understand local concerns, the government is also scanning Parliament questions of the past five years, engaging with NGOs and international organisations such as Unicef and WaterAid India in cities including Chandigarh, Gandhinagar, Puri, Guwahati and Bengaluru.

Another major challenge facing the authorities is the quality of water available. Not only does the Department of Water Resources lack adequate data of the overall water availability in the country, including mapping of aquifers which picked up only recently, there isn't enough work on studying the contamination of water bodies, water experts say.


India is believed to be the highest extractor of groundwater — drawing more water than the US and China combined. With so many claimants human, cattle, agriculture and industry — for the same catchment area of groundwater, Jal Jeevan Mission is making all the right noises about “source sustainability.”


Narendra Modi’s dream project after Swachch Bharat has all his attention, not unlike the building toilets mission or Aayushman Bharat. “PM is keeping a close watch and cabinet secretary is reviewing the progress every month,” officials said. Indications are that the project could soon come under PRAGATI — the multi-modal platform chaired by the PM for timely implementation of important government schemes.     


However, the 2024 deadline seems slightly compressed. Many feel that it may be too short a time to have behavioral change and coordination at the grassroot level to achieve 100 per cent target. “When there is a deadline, data does get fudged to show the right numbers,” an official who did not wish to be named said.


While in some states such as Gujarat, Odisha and Bihar, the Jal Shakti Ministry feels, implementation will be easier owing to political consensus, the lack of it will make things difficult in say West Bengal. Also, dearth of water, infrastructure, arsenic contamination will pose a challenge in states including Uttar Pradesh, Assam and Maharashtra among others. To make things attractive for states, there may be rewards and incentives on the way.


The tall task can be accomplished, but all entities including the government, both at the Centre and states, as well as local communities and technology — will have to come together for it to become a reality.

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