How India’s water mission is overcoming the challenge in the Northeast
Sering, a small uphill village in Arunachal Pradesh’s Kamle district, home to the ethnic Nyishi tribe, seems like a relic from a lost century.
Located 2,000 feet above mean sea level, it’s connected only by rough walking trails, turning and twisting through thickets and forested hills. The nearest motorable road is about 22 km away. Such remoteness has often thwarted even basic infrastructure creation in this eastern most Indian Himalayan state.
To an outsider, the underpopulated hamlet, with just 140 people, feels like paradise, but life for the community can quickly turn into hell.
Being rain-surplus, landslides and heavy rains often cut off links to the district headquarters, Raga. Winters are freezing at sub-zero temperatures. Monsoon rains are incessant. Weather patterns like these make trails to mountain springs, the only source of water, dangerous, slippery and sometimes inaccessible.
Therefore, when, three months ago, the village blipped on a national grid showing India’s remotest places to be connected with piped drinking water facilities, it was a momentous occasion.
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The piped water facilities for the village was created under the flagship Jal Jeevan Mission, a programme to provide drinking water to every rural household by 2024. It is funded by the federal government, with states contributing their share. For most states, the funding pattern between the Centre and states stands at 60:40 ratio. For the disadvantaged northeastern states, the central government funds 90% of the costs.
In the northeast, the Har Ghar Jal programme, or water for every home, faces challenges quite distinct from those that typically crop up while creating water facilities in parched plains.
The engineering challenge
It is in the hilly states of India’s northeast where the water mission faces its toughest engineering challenges. For instance, unlike in Rajasthan, Arunachal Pradesh has surplus water. The problems are therefore not about scarcity but tapping water and channelling them into households in hilly topographies.
Sering typifies these challenges. It was indeed an uphill task to get potable water to each of the homes. The Nyishis are one of the largest native tribes of Arunachal Pradesh, who depend on slash-and-burn terraced rice paddies for livelihood.
For years, Sering’s small community has relied on arduous treks to nearby springs to fetch water. “In hilly areas, the challenge is to create gravity-based water supply system,” says Bharat Lal, the chief of Jal Jeevan Mission’s Har Ghar Jal programme at the Jal Shakti ministry.
Quite simply, it means using the force of natural gravity to move water downhill from a highland source, such as spring or a waterfall. An intake structure is built to tap or collect water, which is then channelised into people’s homes through solar-powered pumps.
“The biggest challenge for us was ferrying all the equipment because there is no motorable road,” says Kengu Ngondir, the village head. “Villagers carried cement, pipes, construction material and even boulders on their heads from the dumping site.”
The engineering challenge was even more critical. It involved building a collection structure precisely at a point in a nearby stream where it moves the fastest because of gravitational force. The collection structure had to be built on top of another concrete structure to offer it stability.
Broksarthang is another small village in West Kameng district of Arunachal Pradesh, located close to the international withBhutan at an altitude of around 2,900 meters above mean sea level.
Broksarthang has 22 households of roughly 170 persons belonging to Brokpa tribe, which rear yaks for a living. The village is about 70 km from the district headquarters of Bomdila, the point till which Chinese troops had intruded during the 1962 Indo-China war.
“Creating the infrastructure was tough for the public health engineering department because of the height at the which the village is situated. Even though there were 22 households, we had to provide them with drinking water because the village faced acute water crisis,” said Tage Lowang, an engineer with the state’s public health engineering department over the phone from Bomdila.
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The main water plant for Broksarthang is based on piped gravity system and has been designed for the future needs at a cost of ₹67 lakh, along with a treatment plant.
Given their terrain and challenges, the Centre has provided the northeastern states of Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Sikkim, a performance incentive grant of ₹465 crore for 2020-21 under Jal Jeevan Mission. The grant is also available for Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh. For FY 2020-21, the Centre has allocated ₹11,000 crore for the Jal Jeevan Mission.
Meghalaya has proposed 100% tap connections to all 589,000 households by December 2022. Allocation for Meghalaya was hiked to ₹174.92 crore in 2020-21. With opening balance of ₹17.46 crore and along with this year’s allocation of ₹174.92 crore, Meghalaya has assured availability of ₹192.38 crore of funds, said Bonoy Sangma, a senior public health engineering official in Shillong.
Meghalaya has installed over 68,000 functional household tap connections under the Jal Jeevan Mission so far.
Manipur, another rain-surplus northeastern state, faces acute water shortage during lean seasons. The state has got ₹3,050-crore Manipur Water Supply Project under the Jal Jeevan Mission-Har Ghar Jal Scheme.
The Centre has provided funds for household tap connections to 142,749 households, while the remaining 30% households will be covered by the state government through additional funding from the department for development of north eastern region.
Overall, some northeastern states, such as Meghalaya, are behind the targets in creating water supply facilities. “Most far-flung difficult-to-reach areas, cut off from the modern world, have been tapped now. The rest of state will not be as difficult and we’ll catch up,” says Dylan Sangma, a Meghalaya official in charge of the works.
(This is the final part of a four part series on India’s water crisis and the ambitious Jal Jeevan Mission)
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