Inside India’s new plan to deliver water
A few years ago, many scholars were drawn to a curious social phenomenon in Denganmal, a parched hamlet in Maharashtra. Dire water crises had turned the village’s monogamous population into a polygamous community over time.
The village’s men take up to three wives just to fetch water from far-flung sources. More wives mean more hands to draw water and, hence, less hired labour. Sociologists labelled them “water wives”.
“This is a common feature in the community where women are looked upon as a human resource for family labour,” says Archana Tamble, a researcher with Savitribai Phule University, who has documented the trend.
The emerging crisis
Many Indian regions are hurtling towards Day-Zero conditions, when taps and tube wells will simply run dry, according to the state-run think-tank Niti Aayog’s Composite Water Management Index 2019.
Nearly 820 million people in 12 major river basins of the country face “high to extreme” water stress. Of these, 495 million inhabit the Ganga basin, accounting for 40% of the country’s gross domestic product. At the last count, 256 districts, or more than a third of a total of 743, faced water stress.
As the clock ticked, Prime Minister Narendra Modi used his Independence Day speech in 2019 to launch an ambitious national programme, the Jal Jeevan Mission, to tackle the crisis on an unprecedented scale.
Apart from mass-mobilisation campaigns to conserve rainwater and restore traditional water bodies, the mission has a never-before target of providing every household with a functional piped water connection that delivers 55 litres per capita per day by 2024.
In many large states, it’s tough for rural households to get to a water source. By the World Health Organization’s standard, a household is considered water-stressed if it spends more than 30 minutes getting to its water source.
Here’s how some Indian states fare. According to a National Sample Survey Organisation survey, in Jharkhand, it takes women 40 minutes one way, without taking into account the waiting time. In Bihar, it’s 33 minutes. Rural Maharashtra clocks an average of 24 minutes.
The contours of the mission
The piped water mission aims to change this drudgery. The programme has entered a critical stage, as officials race to meet the deadline amid a raging Covid second wave. The programme requires states and the Centre’s newly formed Jal Shakti ministry to work in tandem, from devising plans to monitoring and implementation.
Senior bureaucrat Bharat Lal in the newly formed Jal Shakti ministry, the head of the piped drinking water mission, says progress has been satisfactory so far. Some states of course need to ramp up, he says, pointing to a high-tech dashboard in his office showing real-time, geo-tagged location of every household connected so far with piped water.
“From around 17% households (before the start of the mission), we are now at about 37%. That growth is quite good, although I don’t want to sound hyperbolic,” Lal says.
The mission prioritises habitations with contaminated water, such as with arsenic, where community water purification plants need to be installed. About 32,000 such plants have been installed so far.
Disadvantaged areas with Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes also figure in the priority list, as are 61 districts in five states which are Japanese encephalitis-endemic. The mission also prioritises 117 so-called aspirational districts with low human-development indicators. Drought-prone and desert areas are also high-priority zones.
India has 190 million rural households, according to Census 2011. At the start of the mission, slightly more than 30 million households had piped drinking water. Since the mission’s launch in August 2019, nearly 40 million new households have been added, official data show.
The challenges ahead
To meet targets, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman hiked the allocation for the Jal Jeevan mission for 2021-22 to ₹50,011 crore from ₹11,000 crore during 2020-21. There is, however, a set of challenges.
Experts say excessive focus on numbers alone and achieving targets — given the mission’s deadline of 2024 — could be short-sighted.
“Ultimately, the biggest red flag is sustainability. We have data to show the biggest failure is often of sustainability of resource,” says Shashi Shekhar, former water resources secretary and senior fellow, World Resources Institute India.
Groundwater is the source for 85% of piped-water plants. “The same source is used for agriculture and industry. There is no control over the amount of water that is extracted,” Shekhar says.
Experts say the programme must not be contractor-driven, but led by local communities. “It might be successful today, but will it be successful in future because of source sustainability? Is the community ready to take over ownership of such high-cost projects? These are the concerns,” Shekhar adds.
The country’s public water-supply systems are leaky. In large cities, much of the assured supply is hogged by the rich. Urban demand is currently 135 litres per person per day, three times as much as rural India’s 55 litres, excluding agricultural use.
Experts say no water-efficiency programme, such as the Jal Jeevan mission, can be successful without making India’s agriculture efficient. About 90% of India’s available water goes into farming. This figure is 64% for China and 60% for Brazil, according to WaterAid. It takes India about roughly 5,000 litres of water to produce 1kg of rice, in contrast to China’s approximately 3,000 litres.
“Agriculture’s demand for water is disproportionately huge. One of the reasons is free electricity and lot of incentives for crops such as paddy,” says Alok Nath, a former official of the Indian Council for Agricultural Research.
Despite its water scarcity, India has turned out to be a virtual water exporter because it exports water-intensive foods more than many countries.
Virtual water exports refer to the molecules of water used to produce exported goods. Such exported water molecules, in India’s case, are a net 95.4 billion cubic metres a year, according to the Water Footprint Network. This is way higher than that of China and Russia.
Groundwater accounts for 90% of India’s irrigation source, but its scarcity is frightening. One way to measure this is the depth at which water is available. In 1998, the average groundwater level depth before the monsoon season was 7.5m.
By 2018, this had gone up to 9.2m. Punjab’s groundwater levels have plummeted by 10.6m from 7.2m in 1998 to 17.8m in 2018, while in Madhya Pradesh groundwater levels have fallen by 5m.
Agriculture’s demand for water continues to grow. The government’s minimum support price scheme incentivises production of water-intensive crops, such as rice and sugar cane in areas where ground water is scarce. Electricity subsidies have prompted farmers over-extract groundwater cheaply.
According to a study by scholars Reena Badiani (World Bank) and Katrina Jessoe (University of California Davis), cutting agricultural electricity subsidy by 10% can lead a 7% decline in groundwater extraction.
“The Jal Jeevan mission’s focus to improve India’s water-use efficiency right from the household-level,” says Avinash Arora, editor of the Water Policy journal. “It might be better to start on the farmer’s field,” he says.
(This is the first of a four part series on India’s water crisis and the ambitious Jal Jeevan Mission)
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