Bengaluru: In India, 7% of the population, or 91 million people, are without basic water supply, as per a 2019 joint report by the World Health Organization and the United Nations Children's Fund. Despite a 14 percentage-point jump in basic access to water supply over 17 years to 2017, nearly 600 million Indians face "high to extreme water stress".

As the Centre readies the annual budget, expected to focus on reviving India's pandemic-hit economy, experts emphasise the need to ensure basic access to water and sanitation. The water budget is even more crucial this year--access to clean water, handwashing and sanitation is vital to control the spread of COVID-19, but is a key challenge for India, as IndiaSpend reported in June 2020. The pandemic has claimed more than 153,000 lives in India so far.

In a series leading up to the budget, we explain how critical sectors and important schemes are being funded by the government. In this fourth part of the series, we explain how funds have been allocated to drinking water and surface water schemes such as river cleaning, conservation and irrigation over the last five years, and what more needs to be done.

Water is crucial for agriculture, industry and homes, but in this explainer, we focus mostly on drinking water and sanitation, which gets the bulk of the allocation. The government is running a mission-mode project to ensure that piped water reaches all villages in India by 2024.

In five years to 2020-21, the government allocated an annual average of Rs 27,413 crore ($3.8 billion), or 1.1% of the budget, to the departments of water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation, and drinking water and sanitation, all merged to form the Ministry of Jal Shakti in 2019.

Around 71% of the allocation went to the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation, the rest (29%) to the Department of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation.

Drinking water and sanitation are state subjects but the Centre allocates funds and support to the states on the basis of their needs and contexts. The central government financed the erstwhile rural drinking water programme, now subsumed under the Jal Jeevan Mission. State governments run state-specific piped drinking water projects such as Sujal in Odisha and Mission Bhagiratha in Telangana.

India's water budget is big compared to other South Asian countries', as we detail later, but studies estimate that this must exceed 3% of the estimated gross domestic product (GDP) in 2030 to provide for sustainable water management.

While provision of clean water and sanitation has improved, more investment is needed to protect water resources such as by groundwater recharge, which takes more than mere pipes-and-taps infrastructure, experts told IndiaSpend.

More than 70% of allocation to department of drinking water and sanitation

The department of drinking water and sanitation handles drinking water related policy and support, while the department of water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation creates policies on groundwater, irrigation, flood control and multi-purpose projects. They were merged under the Ministry of Jal Shakti formed in 2019.

Between 2016-17 and 2020-21, Rs 1.37 lakh crore ($18.8 billion) was allocated to the water ministry (this also includes the years before the formation of the consolidated water ministry). Of this, more than 71% was allocated to the department of drinking water and sanitation (for supply of clean drinking water), while the department of water resources got 29% (for groundwater management, irrigation, flood control and multi-purpose projects).

In five years to 2020-21, the allocation to the water ministry was 1.1% of the Union budget. While the highest allocation during this period, as a share of the Union budget, was in 2017-18 and 2018-19 (1.3%), spending was highest in 2017-18 (see figure below).

India's dependence on groundwater is a challenge for sustainable water management as many parts of the country are water-stressed: only 230 billion cubic metre (bcm) of the 400 bcm (58%) groundwater is accessible due to factors such as topography and technology, as IndiaSpend reported in June 2019.

While the pandemic helped highlight the place of water and hygiene in public health, it is also important to ensure continued behaviour change towards water and sanitation, said Bishwadeep Ghose, country director, India, at Water for People, a non-profit. Surface water has continued to get more focus and investments when the dependence is overwhelmingly more on groundwater, he pointed out.

"India is right now at a stage where water [also] needs increased allocation and utilisation, but more importantly accountability," said Sunderrajan Krishnan, executive director of the Indian Natural Resource Economics and Management (INREM) Foundation.

Nearly half (48.3%) of the households (in urban and rural India) did not have exclusive access to drinking water and one-fourth of households accessed it through a public, unrestricted source (23.6%), IndiaSpend reported in June 2020 based on National Sample Survey data.

Shift from Swachh campaign to drinking water?

In the 2020-21 budget, the government allocated Rs 11,500 crore to the department of drinking water and sanitation for the Rs 3.6-lakh-crore ($49 billion) Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM) to provide a functional tapwater connection in every rural household by 2024 and supply at least 55 litres per capita per day.

However, despite spending 90% of the allocated Rs 89,956 crore over five years to 2017, the NRDWP had "failed" to meet its targets, said the government's auditor, IndiaSpend reported in November 2018.

In three years to 2014-15, the department's expenditure was focused on drinking water, which shifted to rural sanitation between 2015-19, owing to the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) drive, according to an analysis by research organisation PRS Legislative. "However, since 2019-20 the allocation towards both the schemes has been approximately equal," PRS said.

This year's budget might increase the allocation for JJM, given the emphasis on household tap connections, said V.K. Madhavan, chief executive of the non-profit, WaterAid India. "In effect, the substantial investment in the Swachh Bharat Mission will get replaced by investments in the Jal Jeevan Mission."

The allocation for JJM almost doubled to Rs 11,500 crore between 2016-17 (for the erstwhile rural drinking water programme) and 2020-21, Accountability Initiative estimated in February 2020. The government released 32% in 2020-21 (as of January 25, 2021) and 89% in 2019.

States like Odisha, Telangana and Bihar have invested in their own piped drinking water projects including Odisha's Sujal, which is expected to provide 24x7 drinking water to 1.5 million city residents. Mission-mode programmes such as JJM provide capital and impetus to state-run water projects, said Madhavan. "It would be fair to say that while central investment is necessary, it is not sufficient for it to find reflection in state priorities." How enthusiastically the state bureaucracies adopt and implement central programmes is a crucial factor in their success.

As on January 27, 2020, two in three of 191 million rural households did not have a functional household tap connection, even after the number of households with connections doubled from August 2019, according to the JJM dashboard.

Irrigation got most from water resources department

While access to water for drinking and domestic needs is important, surface water schemes for irrigation and river conservation are also critical. Up to 42% of the department of water resources' allocation of Rs 39,153.9 crore between 2016-17 and 2020-21 was to the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana (PMKSY, prime minister's irrigation scheme). PMKSY received its highest allocation in 2020-21, at Rs 5,127 crore, and 57% of the allocation for the department.

The Jal Shakti ministry, the Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare, and Department of Land Records in the Ministry of Rural Development implement different aspects of irrigation programmes such as the Accelerated Irrigation Benefits Programme and the PMKSY-Har Khet Ko.

The flagship programme to clean the Ganga received a budget allocation Rs 800 crore in 2020-21, a 68% fall since 2016-17. The revised estimate for 2019-20--signifying the estimated spending that financial year--was half the budget allocated for the year, and half the estimated spending in 2018-19.

The overwhelmingly bigger allocation for drinking water supply than for all other programmes including irrigation and groundwater recharge must be corrected to promote sustainability, said Ghose of Water for People, adding that managing water demand is crucial given overexploitation of groundwater.

Upto 90% of the groundwater extracted in India is used for irrigation, and the country accounts for almost one-fourth of the total groundwater extracted globally--more than what China and the US together extract--according to a March 2019 WaterAid India report.

Global perspective and achieving goals

At $213 million, India got the second biggest chunk of international aid for water and sanitation in 2017 in central and southern Asia; Sri Lanka led at $345 million, as per the 2019 UN-Water Global Analysis And Assessment of Sanitation and Drinking Water.

The Sustainable Development Goal-6 aims to ensure countries achieve universal access to safe drinking water as well as sanitation and hygiene for all by 2030. Securing water for communities across the world by 2030 could cost just over 1% of global GDP, the World Resources Institute (WRI) estimated in this January 2020 analysis: "In the United States, France, China, and India, water scarcity is the primary driver of costs, from a cost perspective, limiting sustainable water management."

It would take India 3.2% of the GDP it is estimated to have by 2030 to deliver sustainable water management, the WRI noted.

"India's investment in water and sanitation as a proportion of GDP is among the highest as compared to several countries in South Asia as well as countries like Vietnam which have recorded significant progress," said Madhavan. "Nepal is an exception and spent 1.3% of their GDP in 2019-20. However, studies by the World Bank suggest that the capital investments required to achieve SDG Goals 6.1 and 6.2 alone will require a three-fold increase over current investment levels globally."

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