Ensuring drinking water for every household needs a community-driven system and a new mindset
Women collecting water, Bansur tehsil, Alwar, Rajasthan (Photo: Ashish Sharma)
IF SHE COULD, Soma Devi would have a bath every morning. But it’s the fifth day and there is not enough water in her village, nestled in Rajasthan’s torrid Aravallis, to bathe or wash clothes. “I have no idea how many kilometres it is, but I walk several times a day for over an hour to fetch water from the tanker,” she says, only her nose pin and lips visible from under her bright red loogdi (long dupatta), camouflaging the griminess and the angst. In her scorching courtyard, the dry 4,000-litre tank, pots and vessels tell the story of the 80-odd houses of this kasba in Hamirpur of Bansur tehsil and several other hamlets of the region. For 45-year-old Soma and the women of her household—young and old—life revolves around the elusive water.
They are yet to hear of the Modi Government’s resolve to provide piped potable water to every rural household (‘Har ghar jal’) by 2024. There is disbelief, scepticism and hope. Some scoff at the chances. “In so many years nothing has changed. Another five years, what will happen? No [politician] comes here,” says Surendra Saini, a farmer. Soorji, 60, for whom to see water flowing from the tap in her house is like a dream come true, says she will touch the feet of those who bring water to
Along the roads cutting through the rocky terrain, lined with fields of bajra, a drought-resistant spiked millet, one wonders what it will take for her dream to become reality and the cynicism to turn into hope. At a school in Mehrala village, Krishna, a teacher with around 24 children in her class, says there is no tap. “I cannot insist on cleanliness and having a bath every day… Will there really be water in taps?” Her face lights up. Giriraj Singh, who runs a private tanker in the area, stops by. He makes seven to eight trips every day, seven kilometres each, to various water-thirsty hamlets, charging Rs 400 for 4,000 litres of water. The government rate is Rs 290 for 4,000 litres. For a family of 20, over a week this would mean less than 29 litres per person per day. Under the Government’s Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM), the minimum water supply is pegged at 55 litres per capita per day (LPCD), envisaged as the required quantity in rural households against the previous estimate of 40 litres. This includes water for cooking, bathing and washing clothes. For drinking and cooking alone, particularly in areas where there is arsenic and fluoride contamination in the ground water, the per capita per day need of water has been evaluated as 8-10 litres.
In Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s second tenure, the Rs 3.6 lakh crore water mission is the biggest social inclusion agenda, seeking to have a multiplying effect on livelihoods, an issue that has the potential to become a poll plank by 2024. At a time when his Government is under attack over the economy, Modi has promised to “fulfil” the aspirations of the socially and financially deprived sections. From the ramparts of the Red Fort on August 15th, he sought the participation of the common man to make water conservation a jan andolan (people’s campaign) and assured that his Government would pursue the mission to take water to each rural home, mitigating the struggle of the women who fetch water from faraway places. Later, in Aurangabad, Modi invoked Ram Manohar Lohia, the icon of socialist parties, citing his concerns in the 1970s that women faced two hardships: the lack of water and of toilets. Modi underscored that his Government was working towards fulfilling Lohia’s dream.
For the inhabitants of villages, where water is priceless, the prospect of running water in their homes is akin to the dream of finding a pot of gold. In Kaalipahari, another village falling in Bansur in Alwar district, the tank has been dry for the last four to five years. Women get water from privately owned wells. As power comes, Rajbala, a middle-aged housewife, leaves her lunch halfway and rushes to get water. Among the women, traditionally tasked with fetching water, Madhav Prasad, an 85-year-old six-footer carrying a bucket on his lime green turban and holding another in his hand, stands out. A widower, who fetches water for the cattle, Prasad is pessimistic about promises made by successive governments over the years. The toilets in his house, built under the Government’s Swachh Bharat Mission, are lying unused because of water scarcity. “By 2024, I won’t be there,” he quips when told about the Government’s ‘nal se jal’ (water from the tap) mission. His wry humour makes women laugh.
As the temperature starts falling on a sweltering day at 4 pm, women, holding plastic buckets, start gathering around a 10,000-litre tank to fill water, at Luharwada village, about 30 minutes away. The vibrant hues of their lehengas and loogdis serve as a foil for the dreariness, heat and aridity. “They stand for hours. A tanker comes from 3 kilometre away to fill water in this tank. The villagers collect money for the water,” says Prakash, who runs a provision store across the road. He too is despondent. He says that after elections, politicians do not visit the village, which falls in the Jaipur Rural Lok Sabha constituency, held by the BJP’s Rajyavardhan Rathore. In the Saini-dominated village of mostly farmers, the only crop grown now is bajra, a winter staple eaten with milk, curd or buttermilk. Prakash says the water shortage has been acute over the last three years; before that farmers grew wheat and vegetables as well. Down the road at Palasana village, a large, a nearly 100-year-old well, which went dry 15-20 years ago, has been covered with a grill. Kamala, in whose house a cooler is running without water, says getting water means walking 1.5 km.
Hope flows along with hopelessness on the parched terrain. “Everyone here has mobile phones. But there’s no water,” says Hari Singh, a 55-year-old farmer of Behramkawas village. When asked if every home could get piped water in five years, he smiles: “Why not?”
In another part of the country, on dissimilar topography and in different weather, the setting sun casts an orange glow on the snow-covered Nanda Devi when a group of people—some locals and some outsiders—gather in Galla, a remote village of Nainital district, to discuss water connections to the households of new inhabitants. Some complain of shortage. Others speak of widening the pipes in their houses. A middle-aged villager, indulging in his evening ritual of drinking the local liquor, mumbles he faces no problem because the women of his household fetch water. He says it unabashedly, almost as a matter of pride. In a different world, his statement could have triggered a fierce debate, but in the frozenness of the backwoods it is met with silence, accepted as a time-honoured practice. The village has piped connections, but villagers walk across the hilly terrain to fetch water for drinking from the ‘srot’, origin or natural spring.
The first beneficiary of the scheme would undeniably be women, as with earlier initiatives like cooking gas connections and toilets in households undertaken in the Modi Government’s first term. The ambitiousness of the water mission is evident from Government data. Of the 178.7 million rural households, 32.8 million—merely 18.33 per cent—have piped water supply connections, according to Government sources. This means that the scheme has to reach 81.67 per cent households in five years.
After integrating all water-related departments into one Ministry of Jal Shakti, Modi roped in three men—Union Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, a two-term Member of Parliament from Jodhpur in Rajasthan; Param Iyer, who returned to India to lead the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan in 2014; and Bharat Lal, a Gujarat cadre Indian Forest Service officer who spearheaded reforms in the state’s drinking water sector—to draw the blueprint for the water mission.
“This is another big, bold idea from the Prime Minister. It involves the aspirations of people. Everyone, particularly in rural areas, would like to have running water at home,” says Iyer, who has been given an extension after his contract with the Government ended this year. The Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation (DDWS) now has a more demanding assignment after ensuring that the target to achieve an open defecation-free (ODF) India by October 2nd stays on track. Despite challenges, such as ensuring ground water source sustainability and reuse of grey water, the DDWS is confident that under the Prime Minister’s leadership the Jal Jeevan Mission will be accomplished on schedule, says Iyer.
According to Government sources, 50-60 per cent of the schemes are likely to depend on ground water, therefore sustainability of the source is important. As in the case of Swachh Bharat, the programme will be rolled out in consultation with states, which will be encouraged to perform and raise availibility beyond 55 LPCD, the minimum. For city households, the requirement is estimated over 100 LPCD. The National Commission of Urbanisation’s report in 1988 had recommended that per capita water supply of 90-100 litres was needed for a hygienic life. As per Government data, while in Sikkim almost 100 per cent rural households have piped water, coastal Goa has none, reminding one of Coleridge’s ‘Water, water, everywhere,/ Nor any drop to drink.’ Among other low-performing states, Uttar Pradesh covers only 1.33 per cent and Bihar, 1.88 per cent. A NITI Aayog report has sounded the alarm saying that 21 Indian cities, including Delhi, Chennai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad, will run out of ground water by 2020. It has also said that 40 per cent of the population will have no access to drinking water by 2030.
The biggest challenge for the Jal Jeevan Mission is mindset change, says Lal, who has been brought in as Additional Secretary from Rashtrapati Bhavan, where he was Additional Secretary to President Ram Nath Kovind. “People need to learn to conserve and protect drinking water sources: lakes, rivers, ponds or ground water,” says the man behind the Water and Sanitation Management Organisation (WASMO), based on decentralisation and community-driven concepts, in Gujarat. With nearly 80 per cent piped water supply now, from around 20 per cent in the early 2000s, it is the second best state when it comes to providing piped water to rural households. Hit by drought because of a failed monsoon in 1999, Gujarat saw slogans like ‘pehle paani, phir Advani’ (first water, then Advani) being coined during the General Election that year, when the BJP leader was contesting from Gandhinagar.
The ambitiousness of the water mission is evident from the data. Of the 178.7 million rural households, 32.8 million, merely 18.33 per cent, have piped water supply. The scheme has to reach 81.67 per cent households in five years
“The Prime Minister wants it to be a jan andolan. He wants to ensure a basic standard of living and dignity for the rural poor,” says Lal. Both Government and experts in the field agree that the programme has to be community-driven with gram panchayats taking charge of funds and functions.
Rajendra Singh, a Magsaysay award recipient known as the ‘waterman of India’, says that for thousands of years, there was community-driven decentralised water management till the British government took it into their hands. “If companies get into it, they will own water. Anyone who owns water can own the Earth.” According to Singh, known for his team’s water conservation efforts in Rajasthan, the bigger concern was not piped connections but water. “Contractors will lay the pipes and taps, but whether there will be water is the bigger question,” he says, suggesting the water mission should be community-driven, not contractor-driven.
Environmental activist Vandana Shiva mentions in her book Water Wars how farmers’ associations for construction and maintenance of water systems were widespread in the country. ‘The self-management systems suffered when the government took control over water resources during British rule. Community ownership was further eroded with the emergence of bore wells and tube wells, which made farmers dependent on capital. Collective rights were undermined by state intervention, and resource control transferred to external agencies. Revenues were no longer reinvested in local infrastructure but diverted to government departments,’ she writes. According to her, local communities do not conserve or maintain water systems if external agencies—bureaucratic or commercial—are the only beneficiaries of their efforts and resources. She also cautions that higher prices under free-market conditions will not lead to conservation, as the economically powerful will waste water and the poor will pay the price.
“Community rights are a democratic imperative: they hold states and commercial interests accountable and defend people’s water rights in the form of decentralised democracy.” Water, nature’s gift, is a commons which cannot be owned as private property or sold as commodity, she says.
THE GOVERNMENT’s mantra for water sustainability is to rely on the age-old system of community and village management of water, which includes creating infrastructure and collection of water tariffs. Under the Jal Jeevan Mission, a village will elect its own panchayat to plan, approve, implement, manage, operate and maintain its water supply systems. The community will play a major role in quality monitoring and surveillance. In every village, five youths will be given test kits to check contamination, turbidity and chlorine in the water. Lal says water management should be done by means of self-governance, with NGOs hand-holding villagers.
In 1972, the Indira Gandhi Government started the Accelerated Rural Water Supply Programme (ARWSP), a decentralised, demand-driven, community-managed scheme in 39 districts, giving gram panchayats a major role in the village water supply’s management, operation and maintenance. The ARWSP was restructured and named the National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP) in 2009. In 2017, under the Modi regime, it was restructured with a focus on sustainability of the schemes.
Depleting ground water and sources have posed a major challenge for the schemes. Of the 731 districts in the country, in 256 (mostly in Telangana, Tamil Nadu and Uttar Pradesh) classified as overexploited and water-stressed by the Central Ground Water Board, the ministry is focusing on water conservation, rainwater harvesting, renovation of traditional and other water bodies, reuse of water and recharging of structures, watershed development and intensive afforestation. Between Soorji’s dream and reality stand several other challenges: grey water management, erratic rainfall, contaminants in ground water, scarcity of dependable water and the lack of village infrastructure.
Experts say capturing water from rainfall would go a long way in ensuring that everyone has water, a fundamental right. According to RK Sama, a former Indian Forest Service Officer who worked with Lal in Gujarat, measuring water supply is crucial in its management to ensure it reaches every household. “Historically, if you look at it, every government has promised water and every village has some sources developed and some infrastructure built. When water is not measured, it is not accounted for and the result is someone doesn’t get it. What you need is to change mindsets of the bureaucracy and the people. It has to be village institutions or a community-managed decentralised system which can distribute water on equitable basis and account for the water supplied or taken. Each village has to develop its distribution system by integrating all the sources and be responsible for safe, adequate, regular supply to every household.” There is evidence that poor households and communities living on the periphery don’t get water, he says.
While the Government tries to attain its target of ensuring piped drinking water for every household, as Vandana Shiva sums up in her book, ‘each of us is responsible for the kumbh—the sacred water pot.’ For centuries, environmentalists have warned against overexploitation of water sources. The message is yet to sink in.