Banda and Bengaluru: 2024, the year in which India elects its 18th Parliament, is also the year the Union government has said 100% of rural households will have tap water supply connections under the Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM).

JJM was announced with an estimated outlay of Rs 3.6 lakh crore ($43 billion) by Prime Minister Narendra Modi from the ramparts of the Red Fort in Old Delhi on Independence Day 2019, where he spoke of the struggle of women and girls in rural India to access clean drinking water. The primary objective is to provide Functional Household Tap Connections (FHTC), which provide at least 55 litres of water per person per day.

Nearly 75% of rural homes now have tap water connections, but less than half the villages have 100% FHTCs, according to JJM data. As the deadline for 100% coverage approaches, state administrations race to meet the target of covering the remaining 45 million households. Experts say that the scheme, while important to provide equitable drinking water access to the entire population, must move away from the legacy of supply-centric schemes that dominated water management. For the JJM scheme to sustain, it will have to ensure enough water for the taps to flow, through community participation. But this may not be the immediate focus as the government races to tick the full coverage box, experts said.

JJM covers three in four rural households, a marked improvement from 2019 when only one in six households had a tap water connection, according to government data. In the last financial year, the scheme, which has been allocated Rs 70,000 crore ($8.4 billion) for 2024, reported 30 million household connections – the highest since 2020-21, when coverage had increased 290% to 32 million.

Political rivals, the Bharatiya Janata Party and Indian National Congress, have mentioned water management and conservation in their manifestos (here and here) indicating the significance of water-related concerns that affect the country.

Household tap coverage has increased 60%

Kallu Prasad Sahu, a septuagenarian in Uttar Pradesh’s Banda, which is located in the water-stressed region of Bundelkhand, is one of many in his village of Mohan Purwa that have a tap water connection. More than three quarters of the 639 households in the village have connections, according to JJM data.

But that does not mean that he is getting water. Sahu said that he accesses water from the well or handpump. “I have had a JJM tap water connection since January this year, but I have never received any water through it. It does not even have a tap,” said Sahu. “I have heard that a tank will be made in the village, but I do not know when.”

A pipe without tap in Mohan Purwa under JJM.

In Adhawan village, around 45 km away from Sahu’s, all households have connections, according to JJM data. But Ram Babu, a resident, does not know when the water supply will come as it is dependent on the electricity supply.

“Sometimes it comes twice a day, and on others it does not because there is no light [electricity],” he said. Based on the village’s JJM data, Adhawan is a Har Ghar Jal certified village, which means that the Gram Sabha passed a resolution after ascertaining the claim of the water supply department that all the households, schools and anganwadi centres are getting tap water supply in the village.

Banda goes to polls on May 20, in the fifth phase of the general elections. When Khabar Lahariya and IndiaSpend reported from Banda in September 2022, only 17% of the district had coverage which was Uttar Pradesh’s average coverage, one of the lowest in India. In less than two years, 98% of the district and 83% of the state is reported to have household tap water connections. In the last financial year, Uttar Pradesh more than doubled the tap water connections provided to 1.2 million households, compared to 2022-23.

Across India, nearly 45 million households (23%) are yet to have tap water connections.

Before the launch of the JJM, despite various schemes over the decades to provide drinking water supply, around 43% of India's rural households were dependent on hand pumps for drinking water as their principal source, according to the Drinking Water, Sanitation, Hygiene and Housing Condition in India report of the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), conducted between July and December 2018.

Nine states and two union territories have reported 100% coverage. The top three states with the most number of rural households, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Maharashtra, reported a coverage of atleast 80%, with Bihar reporting near complete coverage at 96%.

Biswanath Sinha, director, policy and technical support, WaterAid India feels that 100% may be achieved in 2024 based on the current momentum. However, there is a danger of habitations being left out, he said.

“These are typical settlements far from the main villages, and [far from] the main source of drinking water. In the case of multi-village schemes, wherein numerous villages are covered by a single water source, the tail-end villages run the risk of not availing water adequately and regularly.”

JJM implements single and multi-village schemes. The former delivers water from a borewell (groundwater) to habitations through a tank, while multi-village schemes use surface water, the scale of which is larger in comparison, and which may be more suitable in groundwater-contaminated locations.

IndiaSpend has written to senior officials at the Union government’s department of drinking water and sanitation for their comment on completing JJM coverage in 2024, support and training for community participation and local elected governments, groundwater mapping and resource management, and sustainability of the scheme through funds for operations and maintenance. This story will be updated when we receive a response.

Water resources needs to be managed by the community

A 2023 report on JJM by Rural Evidence and Learning for Water (REAL-Water) program for USAID questioned the long-term sustainability of drinking water schemes and their water sources. It said that the rural drinking water progress “is hampered by a lack of local planning and rushed efforts to achieve the 2024 deadline.”

While policy and state and national planning is comprehensive, the JJM applies a top-down approach which may not be suitable for community-based management–involving the local population in decision making, implementing the programme and managing water resources–that is envisaged in the programme, the report said.

Water resource management through participative community actions may be better suited to smaller schemes “compared to the more technologically sophisticated multi-village schemes and piped water network infrastructure envisioned at the larger watershed and aquifer scale.” Multi-village scheme will require well-defined institutional structures involving different panchayats and local stakeholders across villages and jurisdictions, the report suggested.

“The increase of reported household tap water connections has been very dramatic over the last year,” said Vivek Grewal, managing partner at WELL Labs, and author of the 2023 report. “Anecdotal reporting from some areas in states like Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh however suggests that while much infrastructure has been built, the water is not yet flowing [through the taps].”

The implementation of JJM is based on a village action plan (VAP) prepared by local stakeholders including village water and sanitation committees and panchayats, who are supported by external consultants for detailed project reports, and by contractors who build the infrastructure. JJM has Implementation Support Agencies which are NGOs who support various tasks including awareness campaigns.

Experts said that this process is not necessarily followed, which leads to gaps in accountability at various stages. This can affect the overall sustainability of the programme. If communities are not engaged in sustaining FHTCs, it will make it difficult to sustain operations and maintenance through water tariffs from households.

The government too has told Parliament in February that lack of dependable drinking water sources in water-stressed areas and lack of capacity of the local village communities to manage and operate in-village water supply infrastructure are a few of the challenges in JJM.

Potentially, JJM is a very promising programme and if implemented in its correct spirit, it is likely to solve many impending problems around domestic water in India, said Himanshu Kulkarni, scientist emeritus, Advanced Center for Water Resources Development and Management (ACWADAM), who is also associated with the Shiv Nadar Institution of Eminence, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (Mumbai) and the Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay.

“However, given the legacy of implementation of such programmes at the massive scale at which quality of service becomes important, it often boils down to focusing on water infrastructure, an aspect that cannot solve issues on its own,” he said. “Water is not infrastructure alone, it is a resource and a system.”

The National Rural Drinking Water Program (NRDWP), the drinking water supply scheme that preceded JJM and also provided drinking water access to rural households, has been subsumed under the JJM. IndiaSpend had reported that the NRDWP had failed to meet its targets, based on the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report.

The design of JJM is not very different from NRDWP, except that there are household tap connections instead of standposts, said Bishwadeep Ghose, country director, Water for People India, an organisation working on water access and sanitation. “But when a large time-bound scheme is announced with huge public investment, it creates a huge amount of pressure on the government execution systems, which are not really primed for such complex projects.”

Under JJM, the demand for water is much higher than under the NRDWP, said Sinha. Therefore, he explained, it is not enough to lay pipelines, it is equally important to focus on enhancing existing water sources and ensuring that this demand can be sustained. This means that alongside physical infrastructure, the scheme needs to focus on water harvesting, in order to maintain adequate supply of both surface and groundwater.

Ascertain demand for all users

Ram Babu in Adhawan is concerned about the water wastage he witnesses since water connections have been provided. He said that although a few people were appointed to inform people about conserving water and managing it, they have not been visiting lately. “People used to take livestock to the pond, now they are using piped connections and wasting water,” said Ram Babu. “It is important to inform users about conserving water, and improving their awareness.”

Ram Babu’s observation underlines the importance of having clear guidelines on what the piped water can be used for, how it can be managed, and how the needs of agriculture and related activities like livestock can be met without stressing the supply.

India predominantly depends on groundwater for its water needs. It is the largest groundwater user globally, at an estimated 251 km³ per year of extraction, and uses 89% of its groundwater extraction for irrigation, said a 2022 United Nations report. This was more than China and the US combined, which were the next largest users.

Based on Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) 2023 data on groundwater extraction, 87% is for irrigation, 11% for industry and 2% for domestic use, including drinking water. While drinking water is a small percentage of domestic use, it is crucial.

Parts of India have persistently faced droughts and inadequacy of water, including inadequate rainfall which impacts reservoir water levels. For example, according to the weekly reservoir storage data as on May 9, 2024, southern India has deficient storage based on comparison with the average over the last 10 years.

“The total demand for quality drinking water will be less than 1% of the total water used in a village which has basic irrigation access,” said Kulkarni. The solution to sustainable drinking water does not wholly depend on the drinking water supply itself, but on other uses like agriculture, especially monoculture cropping of water intensive crops, he said.

Rice and wheat, two of India’s most important food crops, are also the most water-intensive. Producing a kilogram of rice requires an average of 2,800 litres of water, while a kilogram of wheat requires 1,654 litres, IndiaSpend had reported in June 2019.

Sustaining the water resource

The 2023 REAL-Water report said that while water source sustainability finds extensive mention in the JJM guidelines, it was not evident on ground, indicating that it is “largely viewed as a pro-forma exercise in the planning process”.

Large contractors work in multi-village schemes which often use surface water and comprise less than a quarter of the total villages, while most are single village schemes which are groundwater dependent, said Grewal.

Given that the groundwater is decentralised, the management of the resource also needs to be decentralised involving local communities who benefit from water supply schemes like JJM, said experts.

Ghose of Water for People India felt that once the target of 100% coverage is achieved, people will realise that resource management is vital for sustainability, which will again shift the focus to groundwater management. He said that a piped water supply scheme managed centrally, but dependent on groundwater, which is a resource that is decentralised, is mired with risks. This is because multiple users would have to come together to manage groundwater to ensure sustainability, rather than central management.

For this, capacity of communities and departments would have to be built, an issue also raised by the December 2023 Parliamentary Standing Committee report.

The committee said that participation of user groups is necessary to make the government's efforts to conserve, augment and manage ground water resources successful. It also said that aquifer-based management of groundwater was the “need of the hour” with focus on recycling, reuse, participatory recharge and demand- management.

“Not only conservation efforts but also maintenance and monitoring of water storage structures could be assigned to user groups/beneficiaries who are best suited to the purpose,” it said.

It sought information on the human resources available at the state-level groundwater department, because strengthening it was a prerequisite for attaining better regulation and management of ground water resources. The government said that 20 states and Union Territories did not have groundwater departments and that the water ministry was working with states to strengthen groundwater organisations.

India’s Aquifer Mapping and Management Programme (NAQUIM) or a similar community-involved mapping process becomes crucial for states to make provision of potable tap water supply.

Experts have pointed out that the key to delivering on the programme is sustaining existing water resources. For example the catchment [watershed or area of land that drains rainfall, snowmelt to streams and rivers, and where water collects during precipitation] of a reservoir which delivers water to a multi-village scheme needs to be sustained in JJM. “I am unable to clearly see the connection between the groundwater source for a village under JJM and the aquifer it taps,” Kulkarni said. “Is it not necessary to manage and govern aquifers to ensure domestic water security under JJM?”

Less than two thirds of villages have certified functional connections

According to JJM data, 54% of the villages that reported tap water connections have been certified under the Har Ghar Jal Status. Certified means that three stages have been successfully completed. This includes all households being provided connections after verifications, the water supply department certifying water supply to homes (called reported villages), schools and anganwadis, and finally a gram sabha resolution ascertaining the department's claim.

While in Uttar Pradesh, 60% reported villages are certified, in Bihar only 1 village of over 32,000 is and in Telangana none of 11,551 reported villages have been certified.

Har Ghar Jal Declaration Stages

As a part of the process of certification, according to JJM guidelines, a copy of the certificate provided by the implementing department, the resolution passed by the Gram Sabha, and a small video capturing the Gram Sabha is uploaded on the JJM dashboard, and the village is marked certified in the JJM monitoring system.

But there can be discrepancies or anomalies in the process. For example in Ram Babu’s Adhawan, a certified village, the video uploaded shows an elderly woman, instead of a gram sabha resolution, claiming there is water available in the village which has helped people and livestock, and reduced diseases.

Anticipating anomalies in reporting, concurrent monitoring has recently been initiated, said Sinha of WaterAid. He said that functionality can be affected due to a range of reasons.“It [reporting] is designed to cover 21,000 villages covering all the districts and the states with a basic objective of surveying the functionality of household tap connections (FHTCs) at the households and institutions. Hopefully, this will put some light on the real status on the ground.”

“... the term tap in JJM is not just the access point to water but also is an acronym for transparency, accountability and participation (TAP), three important tenets of the programme called Jal Jeevan Mission,” said Kulkarni. “The programme should focus a little more on these three.”

Sinha noted that the success of the mission eventually, during implementation, will depend on technical competence of the implementing agency and community participation; and post implementation success will depend on the efficiency of water tariff collection, grievance redressal, regulation of the quality of water, and sustaining the source of drinking water.

Mithilesh Dhar Dubey, principal correspondent with IndiaSpend, shared inputs from Banda.

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