Water governance: India’s unsung success

Water governance

New Delhi has mounted a comprehensive campaign to ensure water availability for all genuine users in the right quantity and quality.

By Anand Mishra and Rajesh Mehta

A little over one year has passed since the Narendra Modi government returned to office for the second time with a huge mandate. Looking back, among the most successful accomplishments of the government – which has not hogged the limelight – has been in the water sector. A silent revolution has been ushered in on multiple fronts in the water sector over the last few years and the most promising aspect of this development has been its emphasis on generating inclusiveness and to take the interest and opinion of the last person in consideration, in the true spirit of Deen Dayal Upadhyay’s Antyoday philosophy.

India is still a heavily agricultural economy, despite the share of farming in the GDP declining to just 16.5 percent, in 2019-20. Critically, however, it employs nearly 45 percent of people. Agriculture accounts for nearly four-fifth of the water consumption which is enough to signal how important is preservation and sustenance of water resources, not just for the survival of the agriculture sector, but also for maintaining peace and stability of the society. On the other hand, the industry’s rising importance to the economy will take its share in total water consumption to 18 percent by 2050, up from 10 percent in 2010. So, from an economic perspective, water availability is sine-qua-non for national well being for India.

As such, an integrated approach to water management is necessary for improving surface and groundwater availability, reverse the depletion of the water table, improve efficiency in water use, and improve service delivery in terms of the provision of potable water to every household.

Realizing the necessity of ensuring efficient water governance to ensure water security, the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has resorted to active and judicious interventions at multiple levels to address individual elements of water management. Continuing with the process of reorganization and reforms to properly reorient programs for higher efficiency – that it had started in its previous stint – the Ministry of Jal Shakti was formed in May 2019 by merging the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, and the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation. The idea was to bring all water-related works under one department. This reorganization brought much needed unity of effort and synergy in working. For robust water governance, besides the legal and policy framework, the Ministry of Jal Shakti has also put in place several agencies, institutions, and autonomous bodies to work on several water-related issues in a coherent manner.

Making judicious interventions

The flagship programs of the Ministry of Jal Shakti include Jal Jeevan Mission, Jal Shakti Abhiyan, Swachh Bharat Mission, Namami Gange, PM Krishi Sinchayee Yojana, and Atal Bhujal Yojana. Of these, the Jal Jeevan Mission is perhaps the most necessary public service delivery project undertaken by any government. Announced by Modi on Aug 15, 2019, the mission aims to provide tapped water to 157 million households – that are yet to get a tapped water connection – by 2024. The project, to be implemented in partnership with States, has an outlay of USD 51 billion and will monitor service delivery through sensor-based IoT solutions for quantity, quality and regularity. Explaining the motive behind the mission, Mr. Bharat Lal, Additional Secretary and Mission Director, Jal Jeevan Mission says, “Government is committed to improve the lives of people and in last six years, a number of steps like housing, cooking gas, toilet, electricity, social security, healthcare, etc. have been taken up. In this context, to improve the ease of living in villages, Jal Jeevan mission is being implemented. There is a paradigm shift from “mere water supply infrastructure creation” to “service delivery of clean water.” People are willing to pay for improved services and culture of utilities is taking roots.”

Commenting on the rationale of Rashtriya Jal Jeevan Kosh, a novel method to generate funds for the mission, he notes, “To enable NRIs and other people, organizations, etc. who wish to contribute for clean water supply and grey water systems in any village(s), schools, etc. in India, Rashtriya Jal Jeevan Kosh has been created wherein one can contribute and see that in the village such a system has been created. This is to enable people to participate in this noble and transformative mission to improve the lives of people especially women.”

The progress of the mission has been excellent, with more than 20 million households provided with tap water connections in last one year. One hundred thousand families are being given tap water connections on a daily basis now. More commendable fact, however, is that last year, seven million people in Arsenic contaminated areas and close to half a million people in Fluoride contaminated areas were provided with safe drinking water.

The Jal Shakti Abhiyan, on the other hand, is an intensive, time-bound, mission-mode water conservation campaign built on citizen participation to accelerate water conservation across the country. In its entirety, it is among the most ambitious and comprehensive public work programs in Indian history. The scale of ambition can only be gauged by the fact that Modi has termed it a “Jan Andolan,” or a people’s movement, which harnesses the creative energy of people at large. What makes this project different from the previous ones is the comprehensiveness in its approach that targets major silos of water conservation and rainwater harvesting, rejuvenation of water bodies, watershed development and reforestation. This holistic approach ensures that the efficacy of the project is not compromised by the omission of any important cog.

Namami Gange, the third major initiative, is a program to revive and revitalize holy Ganga, the conscience keeper of Indian civilization. The program is geared to restore the wholesomeness of the river and maintain its geo-hydrological and ecological integrity. The program strives to maintain water security in the entire Ganga basin, with policies and programs on demand side management, floodplain protection, conservation of wetlands and springs, improving groundwater through aquifer recharge, reuse and recycle, and improving water use efficiency. So far, 313 projects have been sanctioned under the program with a capital outlay of INR 290 billion, of which 122 projects have already been completed. The integrated and comprehensive approach of the program has ensured a sharp increase in the speed of execution of projects, which is reflected in the spike in expenditure which went up from INR 1.71 billion in 2014-15 to INR 26.73 billion in 2019-20. A total of 152 sewerage infrastructure projects – a critical cog in having a clean river – have been sanctioned to create 4.86 billion liters-a-day treatment capacity in the Ganga basin.

Namami Gange has emerged as a model for other river systems like Yamuna, Cauvery, Godavari and Narmada. Commenting on the success of the initiative, Mr. Rajiv Ranjan Mishra, the Director General of National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG) says, “Holy Ganga gives sustenance to 45 percent of our population ensuring food and water security. Namami Gange, the mission for Nirmal-Aviral Ganga (pure and continuously flowing Ganga) has achieved several milestones in pollution abatement, urban renewal, improving ecology, flow turning into a jan andolan (peoples’ movement.) It has evolved a scientific framework for river rejuvenation contributing to economic and ecological transformation.”

The fourth big pillar of the Jal Shakti project, the Swachh Bharat Mission is the world’s largest sanitation and behavior change program that has already achieved a historic milestone with all States and union territories of India declaring themselves open defecation free (ODF). The numbers show the audacity of this ambitious mission. More than 600 million people have quit open defecation, over one hundred million toilets have been built and more than 600,000 villages have declared themselves ODF. Through this single project, India helped cut the open defecation globally by half. In recognition of this project, Prime Minister Modi was awarded the prestigious Global Goalkeepers Award by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2019. Nothing could have been the most appropriate tribute to Mahatma Gandhi on his 150th birth anniversary than to declare India ODF, which Modi did on Oct 2, 2019. The second phase of the mission, now underway, focuses on the next phase of integrated sewage management which is to ensure solid and liquid waste management.

Among the other programs, the National Aquifer Mapping Program is the world’s biggest program of its kind. It envisages the formulation of aquifer management plans to facilitate sustainable development of groundwater. So far, over a million sq km have been mapped, and another 1.5 million sq km will be mapped in the near future. The Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana (PMKSY), which aims to complete long pending irrigation project, is being implemented with the vision of ensuring “Har Khet ko Pani” (Water for every field) and improving water-use efficiency as encapsulated in the idea of “More Crop Per Drop.” The Atal Bhujal Yojana (or simply Atal Jal), on the other hand, is a scheme to improve groundwater management through community participation.

Inclusivity means success

While numerous programs were envisaged earlier too, their limited success can be attributed to their inability to enlist the support of people at large. In contrast, each of the Jal Shakti program’s projects/programs/ initiatives has kept people at ground level at the center of the plan. For example, Gram Panchayat and/or its sub-committee i.e. village water and sanitation committee, paani samiti (water committees), are envisaged to plan, implement and manage the local water supply systems under Jal Jeevan Mission. Also, self help groups, and NGOs are supposed to act as support agencies to enhance community capabilities to take ownership and support programme implementation. Local villagers are to be skilled as masons, electricians, fitters etc, to maintain the system. The idea is to not only create a pool of skilled labor force to take care of the system but to simultaneously increase the employability of the teeming millions in hinterlands. Most importantly, five persons in each village, preferably women, are envisaged to be trained to check the quality of water supply using simple ready-to-use test kits. Similarly, Namami Gange has engaged youth at various stages and activities to spread awareness and sensitize people about the need to maintain the river ecology.

Swatch Bharat Mission, on its part, has put women in the leadership role and has ensured that at least half of the members in Village Water and Sanitation Committee/ Pani Samitis are women. Considering that they are the worst sufferers of the despicable practice of open defecation, it is only natural that they should lead the war against it. The role of women is evident from the fact that in 2019, more than 295 thousand women volunteers were working to make India open defecation free. Inspiring stories like an 80-year-old lady selling her jewelry to construct a toilet, or a 16-year-old girl fighting against the entire village to have a toilet at her home, showcase the groundswell of women support that the program has.

Leveraging technology to deliver tangible improvement in quantity and quality of water available for use is another area that has been accorded high priority. The Department of Science and Technology is using a decision support system for identifying and selecting appropriate technological tools for optimal water management. These solutions target all nodes for improvement, ranging from water harvesting to desalination of seawater. Through the Water Innovation Centre programme, DST has set up seven Water Innovation Centers to conduct networked research for addressing prevalent and emerging critical water challenges, such as deteriorating potable water quality, increased salinity of aquifers, and declining water tables. DST is also aiding technological development for optimal use of water in industry and to ensure near-zero liquid effluent discharge.

Lingering challenges

However, there are thorny challenges that need long and persistent efforts. According to Indian Council for Agriculture Research (ICAR), the total per capita annual water availability in India has declined to 1,508 cubic meters (m3) in 2014 from 5,177 m3 in 1951 and could decline further to 1,235 m3 by 2050. More disturbingly, water productivity in farming is quite low. Beyond decreasing water tables and reducing water availability, the quality of what is available is a major cause of concern. Faulty agricultural practices are leading to fertilizer induced toxicity and contamination in aquifers and industrial waste disposal.

Indian municipalities or water boards are broadly ill-equipped. The financial condition of the water utilities is very weak largely because of a huge component of ‘non-revenue water’ (NRW). While domestic supply of water is either free or heavily subsidized, collections from other segments is also poor.

Further, leakages result in loss of up to half of the water pumped to the consumers. In addition to these, quality of water is another challenge given that most water bodies within or near the habited areas are heavily polluted. Finally, because water resources is a state subject, and there are a plethora of agencies working in different directions, because of which projects get mired in inter-agency processes, resulting in delays at the local level. These lingering issues need immediate and resolute interventions.

India accounts for nearly 17.5 percent of the global population but has only four percent of global freshwater resources on less than three percent of global landmass. For a country as water-stressed as India, ensuring water security is a function of multi-layered, multi-stakeholder and multi-jurisdictional endeavor. Not only are there varied and complex challenges, but there are also legal, institutional, technical, financial and behavioral issues that need immediate and simultaneous addressing. With rain-fed agriculture slated to remain essential for food security for the livelihood of nearly half of the country’s population, and industry’s share in overall water consumption rising steadily, we cannot afford to lose time.

Commendably, the government has mounted a comprehensive campaign to ensure water availability for all genuine users in the right quantity and quality. The progress has so far been excellent on project identification, planning, execution, and institutional and administrative rearrangement. Furthermore, the focus on including all sections of the community, especially the women, has made the programs and projects inclusive and societal. But endogenous problems like overpopulation and urbanization, and exogenous shocks like climate change would throw up uncertain and varied challenges. This essentially means that efficient water management will remain a work in progress in which right institutional, procedural and functional mechanisms will ensure success. India must not surrender the praiseworthy start it has made.

(Anand Mishra is a research scholar at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Rajesh Mehta is a leading international consultant and policy professional.)


Why clean water matters to young girls? (September 10, 2019)

Solving water problems of India’s schoolchildren, drop by drop (November 9, 2017)

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