Providing safe drinking water to every person in rural India will be a huge challenge for the govt

The government of India has committed to providing every person living in rural India safe and adequate drinking water. That means enough water to drink, cook, bathe and water livestock that is safe for these purposes. By its guidelines, this is quantified at 70 litres per capita per day (lpcd) by 2022. This means a family of five will get 350 lpcd preferably from a tap in or near its house. How feasible is this and what are its financial and environmental costs? Are there plans to handle the downstream effects of the enormous amounts of waste water this is likely to produce?

To meet this commitment, the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation needs to raise service levels by 175% from the current 40 lpcd. The 2017-18 budget has allotted Rs 6,050 crore for this, up 25% from Rs 5,000 crore the previous year (revised estimates are higher at Rs 6,000 crore, making this a nominal increase). States are expected to provide a matching amount, taking the total funds for rural drinking water to Rs 12,100 crore. Is this enough?

The government plans to provide this water through piped schemes. But the implications of moving to PWS from hand pumps, that supply over 60% rural households with drinking water, are huge. According to its plans, the Government will provide 90% of rural Indian people a piped water connection in the next five years. For this, it must invest Rs 61,600 crore, or about Rs 12,320 crore a year, to ensure they get enough water of a stipulated quantity (norms stated by the Bureau of Indian Standards). Therefore, it will take a major effort to provide 90% of all people in rural India a piped water connection. Currently, of 176 million rural households, only about 27 million (15.3%) have access to piped water. This is way below the half-way mark of 88 million households that should have been achieved this year under the Ministry’s perspective plan.

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

Execution of rural drinking water projects has been tardy. Till December 2016, only 44.5% funds had been used and 53.5% works completed. In the preceding five years, expenditure has averaged 78%. As there has been no major institutional shakeup in the state public health engineering departments (PHEDs) that execute these schemes, it is reasonable to assume this year’s expenditure will be in the same range or about Rs 9,360 crore.

At an operational level, piped schemes pose other problems. The public health engineering departments (PHEDs) that are tasked with this work are short-staffed especially engineers. In Bihar, Rajasthan, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh, they have no staff below the block level. Shifting to PWS will therefore entail involving private operators with attendant problems of tariffs and allegations of profiteering. Connections costs are between Rs 1500-2000 per house or Rs 300-400 per person and the tariff collected, about Rs 30 per house. Research shows these schemes recover only about 40% of their running costs.

Their maintenance record is abysmal. A look at the expenditure on maintenance by PHEDs shows they spent just 5% of the allotted funds in 2016-17 and about 15% in the preceding two years. There is anecdotal evidence the PHEDs’ time to fix a complaint is upwards of 30 days in most states.

Piped schemes installed so far, especially those covering multiple villages, have been less reliable than hand pumps. They fail because of power fluctuations that burn out motors, leaking pipes and when sources dry up. It costlier to fix these than a hand pump and the local hand pump mechanics are not trained or equipped for the job. Piped water schemes are hard to install and run and are financially unviable.

In contrast, the hand pump economy is well-entrenched and lubricated. The average hand pump is designed to provide about 15 lpcd drinking water to about 300 people and costs anywhere between Rs 50,000 and Rs 250,000 to install, depending on the soil conditions and depth. This works out to Rs 170-800 per person. Operational costs are low unless major repairs are needed that average once in two years. In many states, there is an army of ‘barefoot hand pump mechanics’ who charge reasonable rates to fix faults. A huge economy has been built around hand pumps. There are millions of suppliers, drillers and repair people, barefoot hand pump mechanics, servicing this demand promptly and at low cost.

In conclusion, piped schemes will saddle panchayats with an expensive system they have no ownership over and cannot manage.

A looming water crisis is the next problem with supplying more water. According to the World Resources Institute, 54% of the country faces high to extremely high levels of water stress, i.e., people in these areas do not have enough water through the year for their daily needs. India’s water shortages are due to pollution and overexploitation. Piped systems are supposed to use surface water, but more than 80% is unfit for human use without treatment per the Central Pollution Control Board. Surface water sources are also unevenly distributed so where they are far from the point of use, large, complex systems will be needed, that are costly and prone to leakage and breakdowns. The other source, groundwater, is severely exploited in densely populated regions as well.

Overall, India is currently consuming about 76% of its usable water resources. Of this 87% goes to agriculture, 15% to industry and energy and 7% for domestic purposes. The rest is for ecological flows, however inadequate, and none for additional supply. This leaves little ‘head room’ for expanding water supply. The best one can hope for is to meet future demands due to population growth and changing lifestyles.

The final problem with providing more water is disposing the large amounts of waste water higher supply levels will generate. Assuming conventional sewage treatment plants are financially and technically unviable in villages, the choice is to make unconventional plants such as artificial wetlands. These require land and capital investments; their running costs are relatively low. Land for such purposes is not readily available in most parts of rural India, especially in densely inhabited areas where such structures would be most useful.

They can be paid for out of the Swacch Bharat Mission funds and other pots of money, but a quick look at the kind of projects being prepared under this component shows wetlands are not on the list. It is unlikely this option will find currency with engineers or local politicians who profit from infrastructure-heavy projects. Urban India has largely messed up sewage treatment and unless timely steps are not taken, rural India will follow a similar trajectory. There is evidence that providing piped water in Haryana has led to severe pollution of its other surface water bodies.

Therefore, to meet the NRDWP target a few things are needed. Providing water through handpumps is more realistic than moving to PWS given the time frame, costs and vast market for manual supply systems. A realistic supply level is needed, say 55 lpcd, against the 70 lpcd proposed, so water resources aren’t stretched to the breaking point. The issue to be considered is quality over quantity since this water must meet the highest (BIS) standards, being for human consumption. This is critical since surface water must be treated before being supplied.

Augmenting and conserving water is necessary. It makes practical sense to use both surface and ground water simultaneously and judiciously. Rainwater harvesting and conservation must be promoted to make more water available locally. This is an inexpensive way to increase the quantity of both surface and ground water. Water conservation especially in agriculture is imperative to reduce consumption by the largest user. This can be effected by changing crops and irrigation systems from flood to drip systems or sprinklers. Wastewater treatment systems must be built along with the supply infrastructure, alongside increased capacities and additional human resources to manage these systems.

Institutionally, if PHEDs are to make and manage all this, they will need more staff especially at the lower levels. Panchayats bear the primary responsibility for planning and monitoring and need to be empowered and trained to discharge these functions. The existing network of training institutions and their curriculum must be revised to reflect government priorities and schemes in some level of detail. Mass information campaigns are needed to inform people about the programmes and what they mean so they can make appropriate demands on policy makers and executors.

Published Date: Feb 12, 2017 11:49 am | Updated Date: Feb 12, 2017 11:49 am

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