The scheme is making quick progress, but a major part of rural India still remains to be covered
When Prime Minister Modi announced the Jal Jeevan Mission from the ramparts of the Red Fort on August 15, 2019, India kicked off its seventh major programme to ensure safe drinking water supply to rural India since Independence.
Under the mission, the government aims to provide tapped water connections to all rural households by 2024. But has the country learnt from the failed attempts to get it right this time around?
India has a long history of unsuccessful attempts to supply drinking water to its villages. The Indian Constitution, adopted in 1950, made water a state subject and gave all citizens the right to safe drinking water.
So, it was one of the priorities of the country’s first five-year plan (1951-56), which asked state governments to build the required infrastructure to be able to provide basic water supply to rural areas. State governments, though, focused only on the easily accessible villages until the mid-1960s.
In 1969, India launched the National Rural Drinking Water Supply Programme. Using technical support from UNICEF, the country dug 1.2 million borewells and issued 17,000 piped water connections under the programme.
In 1972-73, the country rolled out the Accelerated Rural Water Supply Scheme (ARWS) to improve rural access to safe drinking water. A year later, ARWS was replaced with the Minimum Needs Programme (during the fifth five-year plan) that had the objective of improving the overall living standards of people. Owing to its slow progress, the Centre reintroduced ARWS in 1977–78.
In 1986, ARWS was put into mission mode with the formation of the National Drinking Water Mission. In 1991, it was renamed to Rajiv Gandhi National Drinking Water Mission. Three years later, the 73rd Constitutional Amendment assigned Panchayati Raj Institutions the responsibility of providing drinking water.
In 1996, the now defunct Planning Commission carried out a sample survey in 87 districts across 16 states to understand the progress made with ARWS. It found that the scheme only covered 86 per cent of the sampled villages, and even there the water supply remained erratic.
The Planning Commission found excess iron, fluoride and bad odour made the water non-potable in many states. This was because the scheme relied predominantly on groundwater without any plans of water recharge.
The sinking groundwater levels meant that a number of villages that were initially “covered” under the scheme, slipped back to “not covered” status. Also, 87 per cent of water extraction structures were not operational, suggesting poor maintenance.
In 1999, the Centre rolled out the Comprehensive Action Plan (CAP 99) to increase the coverage of ARWS to the “not-covered” and “partially covered” rural habitations.
The Centre also rolled out the Sector Reform Programme (1999-2000) on a pilot basis to achieve self-sufficiency in drinking water in 67 districts across 26 states through community participation.
In 2002, the programme was modified and launched as Swajaldhara to be implemented in “villages, Panchayats, Blocks where people come forward to own, implement and maintain their water sources as per their choice”.
Under the scheme, the community had to contribute 10 per cent of the capital cost (5 per cent in the case of SC/ST dominated villages). In 2007, the community contribution was made optional. In 2004, all the drinking water programmes were brought under the Rajiv Gandhi National Drinking Water Mission.
Over and above this, the Bharat Nirman Programme, launched in 2005, had a rural drinking water supply component, which took care of all uncovered habitations identified under CAP 99.
The Bharat Nirman Programme also faced limited success in addressing the problem of villages rolling back on progress. According to a report released by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG), in most years between 2002 and 2007, the existing schemes could cover only about 50 per cent of the target habitations.
In 2018, CAG carried a performance report on the implementation of the National Rural Drinking Water Programme between 2012 and 2017, in 27 states. The report says that 0.48 million habitations slipped from “fully covered” to “partially covered” during the period. This was primarily because rural India saw an 80 per cent increase in deep tubewells between 2006-07 and 2013-14.
In 2017, the Centre launched the Har Ghar Jal programme with the objective of ensuring safe drinking water to all households, with piped supply. By April 1, 2018, however, as per the records of the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation, only 20 per cent of rural households were connected to piped water.
The promise was to cover 35 per cent of rural households in 2018-19 along with enhanced water entitlements for each household. Under Har Ghar Jal, the ministry also increased drinking water supply in rural areas to 55 litres per capita per day (LPCD). In 2019, the Jal Jeevan Mission replaced the ARWS.
An analysis of the previous schemes suggests they failed due to four major reasons. First, owing to their dependency on groundwater, they failed to ensure a sustainable water source.
Second, they failed to create a sense of ownership among the community towards the drinking water supply. This is the reason that the bulk of the infrastructure that the previous schemes created is now defunct due to poor maintenance.
Third, the progress of the previous projects was seldom shared with the public, which is a good way of sensitising the people. Fourth, mismanagement of funds: India had spent Rs 200 crore on rural water supply, but the problem still persists.
The Jal Jeevan Mission at least partially addresses these key issues that led to the failure of the previous schemes. The scheme, for instance, says that depending on the availability, villages can be connected to either surface water sources or groundwater. It goes on to say that the water sources also need to be recharged and protected.
The scheme also has a major focus on sensitising the communities and implementing officers at all levels. One of the stated key objectives is to “Take up all support activities like Information, Education and Communication (IEC), training, development of utilities, water quality laboratories, water quality testing and surveillance, research development, knowledge centres, capacity building of communities etc to make the mission successful”.
At present, however, the majority of the funds are being used to create infrastructure. As per government data, 22 per cent villages are yet to set up the Village Water Sanitation Committee which has the crucial responsibility of maintaining and overseeing the water supply on a day-to-day basis. Even the capacity of the members at the village level needs to be improved.
The programme has a robust dashboard where centralised progress of the scheme is pushed out for the general public. This much needed step helps villages understand how other villages are progressing and can play a major role in encouraging villages to take action.
The dashboard maps every village with water sources, water treatment plants, purification plants, storage facilities, delivery network and community sanitary complex. It, however, does not locate the source sustainability structures like rainwater harvesting, groundwater recharge.
The scope of the programme also includes preparedness for “natural disasters or unforeseen challenges”, implement on a case-by-case basis bulk water transfers to the villages and set up treatment plants and distribution systems. It also talks of bringing in technological interventions to supply safe water wherever water quality is an issue, and undertake greywater management.
India has 193.6 million rural households. Of these, only 32.4 million or 16.7 per cent rural households had tapped water connections at the start of the Jal Jeevan Mission.
As of January 3, 2023, the number of rural households with a tapped water connection had increased to 108.7 million or 56.14 per cent, as per the programme’s dashboard. This means the Mission needs to cover 76.3 million additional rural households (47.3 per cent) in the next two years.
So far, only five states and Union Territories (UTs)—Haryana, Goa, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Puducherry, and Daman and Diu and Dadra Nagar Haveli—have achieved the Har Ghar Jal status with tap water supply to all rural households. Two more states—Telangana and Gujarat—have reported having achieved Har Ghar Jal status and their claims are being verified under the scheme.
A lot is riding on the Jal Jeevan Mission. Its success will ensure India maintains its open-defecation-free status and achieves the Sustainable Development Goals on water and sanitation. The scheme is making quick progress, but a major part of rural India still remains to be covered.
This article was first published in State of India's Environment 2023 released by Centre for Science and Environment and Down To Earth Magazine on March 23, 2023
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