Public spending in participatory water projects: A chimera or an oasis?

Updated on Jan 31, 2022 01:09 PM IST

We have a curious situation at hand: While the framers of schemes see the importance of getting the citizen involved in decision making and managing her resource; the implementers tend to leave them out opting for status-quo

With another Union Budget around the corner, we are at an important crossroads for publicly funded programmes in water that seek to be participatory. (Pramod Thakur/HT Photo) PREMIUM
With another Union Budget around the corner, we are at an important crossroads for publicly funded programmes in water that seek to be participatory. (Pramod Thakur/HT Photo)
ByAmrtha Kasturi Rangan, Abhishek Srivatsava

The Union Budget 2022-23 will be released on February 1. Allocations for water --- both provisioning drinking water and ensuring resource management --- to the ministry of jal shakti was 51,501 crore in 2021-22, an increase of 323% over the previous year. This is understandable, given the prime minister’s focus to provide tap connections to every household. The ministry’s programmes to spend this amount are also veering towards what civil society work in the water and sanitation space point at: Community participation is critical. Since they will be the ultimate custodians and users of the infrastructure and practitioners of management methods, ensuring that they become champions of the programmes is will be the bedrock to ensure the success of these schemes.

This is encouraging and points towards the right intent and resources aligning to make participatory water management happen. Unfortunately, a look at the expenditures shows us that the reality is different. Participation as an idea is not new. Take for instance the Groundwater Management and Regulation scheme (2012-17). While the scheme focused on multiple things, there was an outlay of 575.38 crore under the Participatory Groundwater Management (PGWM) component. However, no money was spent on PGWM, as per a recent audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India.

It is telling that, rather than being dropped, this component was repurposed as the prime minister’s ambitious project - Atal Bhujal Yojana --- with 6,000 crore outlay. However, critics point out that this programme, much like its predecessor, is struggling to spend allocations – and this is especially true of soft-spends that ensure community participation and engagement. Against a total work budget of around 3,000 crore to date, the seven programme states have spent only 39 crore (1.35%), according to the programme’s dashboard. Within this, no amount has been spent on training and awareness generation - the implementation partners or the communities.

We have a curious situation at hand: While the framers of schemes see the importance of getting the citizen involved in decision making and managing her resource; the implementers tend to leave them out opting for status-quo.

One of the reasons for this is that the processes for understanding, measuring and, therefore, auditing community participation are hard. Did women attend the village meeting? Did vulnerable communities get a say in how much water they would need allocated to them? Are farmers adopting cropping patterns that could give them gains while saving water? We need a better way to both ensure these things happen on ground and monitor them as they happen - thus being able to account for every penny spent on these tasks.

This is exactly what Meghalaya is attempting in its Community Led Landscape Management Programme – an effort to hand back natural resource management to its citizens. What began in 400 villages has now quickly expanded to cover all the villages of the state. This has been possible because they are already well on track to achieve this programme’s goals much before the end date of the project in July 2023. Village committees are in place in all 400 villages. By using technology to identify appropriate areas to site structures, the government is also ensuring that funds are also well spent, rather than wasted and planning in 380 villages has already been initiated through their village facilitators. The digital tools they have adopted have helped them follow participation in real-time; empowered community volunteers with skills, data, and knowledge; and created auditable pathways for paying their community facilitators.

This has emboldened Meghalaya to go a step ahead and open the entire programme resources. The plans have been made, and more than 900 content pieces used for capacity building and 6500+ people trained, publicly through a Centre of Excellence - that they hope will become the nerve-centre for all development programmes in the state. These, because of the tools they are using, are updated in real time, obviating errors in data entry and delays in data upload.

Over the last 1.5 years, the community volunteers have also built a wallet of certification in their accounts and some of them have even been certified by the Agriculture Skill Council of India. They can share these with other programmes, ensuring a steady stream of livelihoods beyond the current programme.

With another Union Budget around the corner, we are at an important crossroads for publicly funded programmes in water that seek to be participatory. Meghalaya is showing us that it is possible to do participation at scale and empower communities while satisfying audit requirements. We would be well served to learn from their example and ensure that participation is achieved in practice, while leaving behind clear audit trails and empowering the people who are leading and implementing successful water management strategies in their villages.

Amrtha Kasturi Rangan and Abhishek Srivatsava work with Arghyam – a Bengaluru-based public charitable foundation – an initiative started by Rohini Nilekani on Water Security.

The views expressed are personal

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