Modi’s rural sojourn: Take piped water to 4,620 households everyday

The challenge is to sustain supply; most habitations covered with drinking water have slipped back to non-covered status due to drying up of sources

By Sushmita Sengupta, Rashmi Verma
Published: Monday 17 June 2019

Narendra Modi started his second term as prime minister with everything rural. In the last term, his government was widely perceived to be not acknowledging and focusing on basic rural issues such as the agrarian crisis and the looming water scarcity that threatened a near-collapse of irrigation. This time, however, his agenda from Day one has seemed to be all about rural India, with an emphasis on water.

there have been two big developments within 10 days of him taking over (on May 30):

  1. A meeting of state secretaries for agriculture to discuss the farm crisis
  2. An inter-state meeting on water crisis

During this period, he declared in all his public meetings that the focus would be on water. On June 15 when the governing council of NITI Aayog met, he annopunced a characteristic target-driven agenda: “The aim is to provide piped water to every rural home by 2024.”

With that, India set a deadline for the 12th time to take water at the household-level. In the past the country has failed miserably to keep this promise. Modi’s new target has raised hopes. 

It would be an enormous exercise: Some 8.43 million households — currently without drinking water facilities — have to be connected to piped water in the next five years. Some 4,620 households would have to be added to the network every day for the next five years, at the rate of 40 litres per day.

The grand promise comes on the eve of India becoming open-defecation free by October 2019 — another promise that Modi made in his last tenure and has spectacularly succeeded in delivering. Every household with a toilet would also add to the demand for water at the household-level. One of the biggest reasons for people not using toilets has been the lack of availability of water.

As a strategy, Modi’s promise of piped water to every household is logical in his agenda for rural India: First, there was his flagship housing-for-all scheme, which is considered to have benefited him in the recent general elections. This came with the promise of toilets, which also succeeded. Now, a piped water supply closes the third basic necessity and a promise of immense resonance with voters.

But, there are some caveats. In 2017, his government launched the Har Ghar Jal programme with the same objective. It was to ensure safe drinking water to all household with piped supply being the main mode. By April 1, 2018, however, only 20 per cent of rural households could be connected to piped water supply, the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation record showed.

The promise was to cover 35 per cent of rural households with piped drinking water in 2018-19, Down To Earth earlier reported citing a 2018 report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG).

This promise came with enhanced water entitlement for each household. Under Har Ghar Jal, the ministry increased drinking water supply in rural areas to 55 litres per capita per day (lpcd). “But, less than 50 per cent of households receive this amount. The old supply rate was 40 lpcd and almost 80 per cent of households get it,” Down To Earth reported.

As the new target sets in, India will continue to be haunted by what is known as the “slippage” problem. It means villages/habitations covered with safe drinking water facilities slip back to 'not-covered' status due to various reasons that include drying up of the source or collapse of the facilities due to non-maintenances.

According to the CAG report, which analysed the state of rural water supply between 2012 and 2017, 4.76 lakh habitations had slipped from 'fully covered' to 'partially covered' state. Numbers of such slippage habitations were high in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Karnataka, Jharkhand, Odisha, Rajasthan, Uttarakhand and West Bengal.

Down To Earth analysis of the coverage of habitations by piped water supply with respect to supply of 55 lpcd shows that between 2016-2017 and 2017-18, there was a decrease in number of habitations in 'fully covered' status with a rise in those in 'partially covered' and quality-affected statuses.

While it is not known from where the piped water supply schemes would draw water, currently India majorly depends on groundwater for all water uses.

There is an 80 per cent increase in deep tubewells between 2006-07 and 2013-14. Overdependence on groundwater and depletion of underground sources are major reasons why many covered villages slip back to not-covered status.

Dipankar Saha, a former member of the Central Ground water Board, terms India as the world’s largest extractor of groundwater. “Almost the entire rural water supply and over half of urban water demand is catered by aquifers,” he says.

India extracts around 24 billion cubic meter groundwater to cater to 85 per cent of the country’s drinking water. That means, close to a billion Indians depend on it for water demands.

On the other hand, the quality of water sources — both surface and ground sources — is hardly suited to drinking. According to NITI Aayog, nearly 70 per cent of all of the country’s fresh water sources are contaminated. The same agency said 600 million Indians are under water stress due to these reasons.

In the last 25 years when reaching safe drinking water has been a flagship national goal (not to forget the target under the United Nations-mandated Sustainable Development Goals committed for 2030), Indian habitations continue to be haunted by lack of safe drinking water. And at the core of this failure is the safe and sustainable source of water. On both these counts, we have failed. The latest promise has to factor in this challenge.

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