How to make Swajaldhara work

Intention and execution are not always related. That's the Swajaldhara lesson. Swajaldhara is a national-level rural water supply scheme that seeks to put in place a people-oriented, decentralised and demand-driven water management regime. To this end, it aims at utilising pachayati raj institutions across the country, empowering them in the process. At present, though, the scheme throws up more questions than answers

 
By Videh Upadhyay
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

How to make Swajaldhara work

-- Intention and execution are not always related. That's the Swajaldhara lesson. Swajaldhara is a national-level rural water supply scheme that seeks to put in place a people-oriented, decentralised and demand-driven water management regime. To this end, it aims at utilising pachayati raj institutions across the country, empowering them in the process. At present, though, the scheme throws up more questions than answers.

The Swajaldhara scheme has now been extended to 67 districts in 21 states. It proposes that the Union government provides 90 per cent funding for various water supply schemes suggested by panchayats. The remaining 10 per cent will be footed by the panchayats themselves. Essentially, a village-level water supply committee is the cornerstone of Swajaldhara. This committee would be responsible for generating a water supply scheme for its village, and then its implementation. Experiments in the pilot phase of the scheme in some states have shown that the creation of these bodies is crucial to the implementation of Swajaldhara.

In this context, it is necessary to guard against the creation of institutional bodies that run parallel to the gram panchayat. The Swajaldhara scheme does not specify how such a committee would be integrated with the existing panchayati raj framework. The legal status of the committee is also fuzzy. The primary concern should, therefore, be to work out whether the committee will be part of the gram sabha, gram panchayat or another body.

In the course of my travel to villages where a variant of Swajaldhara was being worked out in its pilot phase, I detected an anomaly. The gram sabha had 'total discretion' to constitute the village-level water supply committee. However, it was the chief executive officer (ceo) of the zila parishad who decided on the composition of the committee. It is clear that there is a need for specific safeguards against such violations of the spirit of the scheme.

Another concern: the zila parishad has the power to grant clearance for technical and administrative aspects of the schemes proposed at the village-level. Here, there is a need to closely watch the equation that develops between the ceo and the president of the zila parishad. The president ought to be vested with clearance powers, for unlike the ceo, the president is an elected functionary. The president's office is integral to the panchayati raj institution mechanism and is legally authorised to "exercise administrative supervision and control over the ceo".

There should also be express provisions in Swajaldhara that consider how the existing water supply committee of the zila parishad can be involved in the new structure. And what about the intermediate tier of panchayati raj institutions -- panchayat samitis at the block level? The fact that they have no role in a nationwide scheme empowering panchayats in water management could be potentially destabilising.

There are many other questions as well. In what way does Swajaldhara bind the prescribed authority to act on what is proposed at the village level? Especially within a prescribed timeframe. While the 90:10 funding formula might work when the assets for water supply are put in place, the fact that the operation and maintenance costs are to borne by the panchayats should not be lost sight of. Most rural water supply schemes have failed because they failed to consider this. It is important to ascertain the financial capacity and willingness of panchayats to bear the expenses in this regard.

This question is even more pertinent because the government has announced its 'Haryali' programme (for water harvesting and conservation through watersheds), to be taken up by panchayats based on the same funding formula. It is, thus, crucial to closely understand all institutional and financial aspects of proposed schemes at this stage itself. They could later precipitate uncomfortable situations on the ground.

Finally, there is no escaping the fact that the states have no role whatsoever in Swajaldhara's scheme of things. Water supply is a state subject under the Constitution of India. Perhaps this is another reminder that scheme-driven initiatives tend to disregard the legal framework!

At the end of the day, if the well-intentioned Swajaldhara is to translate into effective execution, the scheme needs to be rigorously thought through. It desperately requires a stronger legal and institutional foundation. Lest we forget, sustainability of the institutions managing a resource is critical to the sustainability of that resource.

Videh Upadhyay is a Delhi-based lawyer, and partner, Enviro-Legal Defence Firm

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