Every second woman in rural India walked an average 173 kilometres – the distance between Delhi and Vrindavan – to fetch potable water in 2012, making her trek 25 kilometres longer than what it was in 2008-09.
Data released this week by the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), a ministry of statistics and programme implementation wing, gives two broad hints when compared with previous studies: economic growth may not have touched the lives of these women, and a water crisis is imminent in villages because of overharvesting of groundwater sources.
With per capita availability of water in India falling, the report shows that dependence on depleting groundwater for drinking purposes in rural India is on the rise as more accessible sources are drying up.
As a result, in 2012, about 54% of rural women had to travel between 200 metres and five kilometres daily to get drinking water. They walked 20 minutes a day, on an average, and spent another 15 minutes at the source.
Every second rural woman spending 210 hours in a year for fetching water also meant loss of 27 days' wages for these households. Collectively, these women covered 64,000 times the distance between the earth and the moon.
The NSSO data also shows that 70% of the rural women from states such as Chhattisgarh, Manipur, Odisha and Jharkhand had to travel some distance to draw water. The daily time spent on this exercise was the highest in Jharkhand (40 minutes) followed by Bihar (33 minutes) and Rajasthan (30 minutes). It was the lowest for Assam (10 minutes) in rural areas and Delhi (six minutes) among urban parts of the country.
The women had to toil more as the traditional water sources were drying up. The NSSO statistics show that more households were dependent on tube wells or bore wells as principal sources of drinking water in 2012 compared to previous years.
About 80% of the country's drinking water needs are met by groundwater which, apart from rapidly becoming a rare commodity, is often highly contaminated, says international non-profit organisation WaterAid. The NSSO statistics, on the other hand, reveal that less than 10% of rural Indian households have the facility to treat water before consuming it, while the findings say that 90% of the families get safe drinking water. This data, though, was derived on the basis of households' claims and not any scientific study. Also, only 1.7% of rural Uttar Pradesh homes, 2.2% in Bihar and 6.6% in Haryana boil, filter or use chemicals and electrifiers to purify water.
India has, over the years, been shifting goalposts for providing potable water to all. In 1949, an environmental hygiene committee recommended that safe drinking water should be supplied to 90% of the country's population within 40 years. Sixty-five years since the target was set, potable water remains a distant dream in most of rural India.