Shallow scheme

Drinking water project peppered with flaws

By R V Singh
Published: Friday 31 January 2003

-- (Credit: EMKAY)on december 25, 2002, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee unveiled an ambitious scheme to provide drinking water to all villages in the country by April 2004. The project, called 'Swajaldhara', aims to involve people in water management by granting implementation powers to panchayats. Nearly 882 initiatives will be undertaken at a cost of Rs 82 crore in eight states -- Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh. The question is: will it deliver?

To begin with, the much-hyped project is nothing but the embodiment of an earlier programme the government began in 67 districts of 26 states in 1999. The only new elements relate to funding and administrative aspects.

As opposed to the ongoing scheme, where the nodal body for rural water supply is the district administration, the new plan bestows the ownership of assets on gram panchayats. The centre-state equation in the funding of the project has also changed. Earlier, both centre and state contributed equally to water supply schemes. Now, the Union government will meet 90 per cent of infrastructure costs and panchayats will bear the remaining 10 per cent.

Though the scheme has been hailed as a positive step as it would delegate powers to panchayats, its implementation raises questions. "The role of the nodal body is unclear," points out Apoorva Oza, chief executive, Aga Khan Rural Support Programme, an Ahmedabad-based non-governmental organisation (ngo). Says, Orissa-based activist Ranjan Panda, "People fear that this would lead to water privatisation."

Moreover, with panchayats yet to be granted financial autonomy (see: Toothless at 10), they may not be able to pitch in. Anil C Shah, chairperson of the ngo, Development Support Centre, Ahmedabad, says: "It is easy to talk about people's participation, but difficult to translate words into action."

Another perturbing feature is the surprise omission of Rajasthan and Gujarat, two drought-affected states, from the initial phase. C P Joshi, Rajasthan's minister for rural drinking water supply, reveals: "In Rajasthan, water has to be fetched from more than 50 kilometres away. How can villagers be expected to bear 10 per cent of such a huge expenditure?"

This project propagates supply systems such as mini-pipes, borewells, tubewells. But, there is no talk about involving traditional and sustainable initiatives such as baolis, stepwells and village ponds. "Linking rivers and sharing costs in the Swajaldhara Yojna will not reduce scarcity. Emphasis will have to be laid on rainwater harvesting," opines K G Vyas, former advisor, Rajiv Gandhi Watershed Mission, Madhya Pradesh.

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