Bengaluru: Over the next five years, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government will invest Rs 3.6 lakh crore ($49 billion) in the ongoing Jal Jeevan Mission (‘water for life’ mission, JJM), Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced in the budget released on February 1, 2020. JJM has been allocated Rs 11,500 crore ($1.6 billion) for 2020-21. The mission, launched in August 2019, aims to provide a tap connection to every rural household by 2024. In India, only 21.4% of families get piped water at home, as per the latest National Sample Survey (76th round) report.

While JJM is a step towards providing people the basic right to access water, there are multiple challenges ahead, such as finance, water quality and quantity, said Sunderrajan Krishnan, executive director of the Indian Natural Resource Economics and Management (INREM) Foundation, a research organisation, in an interview to IndiaSpend.

“Access to water data has reduced in the past year,” he said, and called it a “regressive measure” that has hit civil society organisations and researchers. Unless the government provides access to data, their quality will not improve, he said.

Krishnan has led a team of researchers working on the mitigation of fluorosis (dental enamel damage and skeletal deformities caused by excessive intake of fluoride) in Jhabua, in central Madhya Pradesh, and showed that the disease is reversible. He is the lead coordinator for Water Quality Network, a platform for researchers, organisations, and communities focussed on water quality, and coordinates a nationwide initiative for district-level action supported by the European Union.

Krishnan was a member of committees of the erstwhile Planning Commission of India, Karnataka Jnana Aayoga a state-run think-tank, and the Indian Council of Medical Research’s Fluorosis Task Force. In an interview with IndiaSpend, he talks about the reduced transparency of data around water, the need to improve communication on water quality, and his views on the government’s water schemes.

Edited excerpts:

The government formed the Ministry of Jal Shakti by integrating the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation with the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation. But can this change the structure of water governance?

From the working of the Jal Shakti ministry and its various components, the current mode of working seems to be the same as before. The separation between previously separate divisions such as the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) and Central Water Commission continues. The existing dynamics I think will remain until there is an institutional change management. The erstwhile sections under the newly formed ministry will otherwise still run in silos.

However, by adopting an integrated view of water, the former ministries and departments could potentially function in a much more effective way. If there is an effort made, let us say, to consider a district as a unit to understand the convergence of programmes under the Jal Shakti ministry, this will help make the system more effective. Change management is a long-term process involving human resource management and integration at various levels in the case of the water sector. All organisations have a work culture which requires time to change.

The government launched the Atal Bhujal Yojana to strengthen the institutional framework for participatory groundwater management and bring about behavioural changes at the community level. It is expected to benefit 8,350 gram panchayats in seven states. How do you assess the programme?

This is a visionary programme that has been in the making for a while. First, it gives primacy to groundwater, an important source of water in India. Second, it accepts that, in order to manage groundwater, strong participation by all stakeholders, particularly the local community, is needed.

But we cannot think of this as a separate programme. If you see JJM, it needs to look at drinking water sustainability. Then groundwater becomes an important aspect apart from [aspects such as] laying pipelines and thinking about the use of surface water. So Atal Bhujal Yojana becomes integral to JJM. If a village needs piped water, it may also require MGNREGS [Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme] for infrastructure-related work or labour for water resource sustainability. This will require convergence of three schemes in this case. But this does not mean that larger issues of energy policy that incentivise increased water-use can be ignored. This programme can be seen only as one step forward.

The Atal Bhujal Yojana is supposed to be executed based on groundwater maps created by existing agencies for gram panchayats’ (village council) use. But can the panchayats make sense of it? This programme is essentially banking on these maps. Further, National Aquifer Mapping and Management Programme (NAQUIM) has not been able to provide anything useful to the scheme in terms of mapping groundwater at the gram panchayat scale.

With the current state of law enforcement [in water], the energy policy on groundwater extraction, food procurement policy with emphasis on rice and wheat, and dependance of several hundred million basic livelihoods on groundwater, the incentive to move from extractive behaviour [in groundwater] towards management-dominated behaviour is very poor.

Groundwater is an invisible common-pool resource with poorly-defined boundaries. The current incentive structure favours groundwater users who are first to deplete the resource (first-mover advantage). Additionally, the one who contributes rainwater-based recharge suffers from free-riding of other users. This just means that any benefit of restraint in use and contribution to recharge has significant challenges.

In India, only 21.4% of households have piped water at their dwellings and nearly 31% access it using hand pumps. In your research and interactions, what are the challenges in providing clean water to households? The Centre has promised HarGharJal (piped water supply) to all rural households by 2024 under the JJM.

JJM is an aspirational programme. One state after another in the past decade has been promising the elusive tap at home. This is also expected to reduce the burden on women upon whom the duty of fetching water falls. At some point, the country has to give all its citizens the basic right of water right at home.

But there are challenges with the scheme, starting with financing. Do the Centre and states really have the money? The government of Telangana had to take [borrow] Rs 36,000 crore ($5 billion) from Indian banks for Mission Bhagiratha (mission for piped drinking water supply from surface water sources). Madhya Pradesh has an estimate for Rs 69,000 crore ($9.6 billion). And do the current water supply departments have the capacity to execute projects in the time-frame?

Also, while 55 litres per capita per day is a humane quantity, the [government must plan for] competition from irrigation and industry, and plan for providing water in summers and during droughts.

Thirdly, when long-distance pipelines are built based on water resources that are located far away, there is neglect of local water resources even if funds are provided for their maintenance. Experience from Gujarat also shows that due to muddy and unclean water, thousands of villages are rejecting surface water pipelines and going back to the local groundwater sources.

Lastly, providing high-quality water at such scale is going to be a challenge unless the root cause of the contamination is addressed. One option could be to delink water for domestic use from drinking water, in which case only a small amount of high-quality drinking water needs to be provisioned. Overall JJM would need a hard look at some of the above fundamentals.

The NAQUIM was expected to characterise aquifers and help groundwater management. Has this project progressed well?

The NAQUIM had a noble purpose, which was to map aquifers, but the methods being used such as airborne radar are quite expensive and not applicable for many of the country's aquifers. NAQUIM is better designed as a participatory initiative with barefoot geologists. But the progress of this programme is slow with very less transparency of information.

The alternatives could have been to deploy a network of geologists, geophysicists along with barefoot and community-based workers to map aquifers. It is doable if we can involve relevant [government] institutions and colleges, take it forward as a one-time initiative over a course of two or three years. But it is difficult, particularly when an organisation [like CGWB] has not handled a project at a large scale which requires the involvement of many people.

The data NAQUIM generates cannot be accessed and nothing much has materialised.

The water quality data on the ministry’s Integrated Management Information System (IMIS) require login credentials to access, which was not the case earlier. It also offered more granular data. Has this affected data access for researchers like you?

The access to water data has reduced in the past year. This is, in fact, a regressive measure and civil society organisations and researchers have been hit hard. Some of the [government] data on ground were fine but there were also inconsistencies. It is probably because this [inconsistencies] was flagged that we are in the current situation of partial data opacity.

Now hardly any data are granular and available on the IMIS. Also, it seems that earlier data have been changed. We have noticed that when we compare the data that we had accessed earlier and compare them to the data available for the same period now, they are different. We are back to the situation that existed a decade back and there is an urgent need to bring back data transparency.

Do you believe that data on water, particularly on quality, are being suppressed?

India ranked well in 2015-16 in the transparency, accountability and accessibility of water quality data. We can question the quality of data, but if access is kept open to feedback, it will improve. Earlier, the attention on drinking water was relatively low, probably because of schemes like Swachh Bharat were the focus. But now drinking water and water quality are getting attention [in media and policy]. It is the responsibility of public authorities to help in consumption and use of data for public benefit.

While infrastructure is one part of the problem, water quality is a challenge. There are 69,258 “water-quality-affected habitations”, home to nearly 46 million people, we reported in November 2018. Has the government taken enough measures under the National Water Quality Sub-Mission (NWQSM), which focused on providing safe drinking water to arsenic and fluoride-affected habitations?

The basic issues that affect JJM also affect NWQSM. There is an additional problem. People are not really asking for safe water primarily because they do not know or have not internalised the risks adequately.

In rural areas, the demand is for bulk water. It is only after this that people check if water looks muddy or smells. For a majority of the population, particularly the poor, quality is not high priority due to a lack of awareness. But when the issue of quality is raised, people lose trust in the public system. That is when priority moves to private solutions like having a filter in the house. When trust is lost, people who can afford private solutions tend to opt for it. This creates a market for ‘high-end’ water.

We find that, in some rural parts, families prefer to pay more for a can of RO water, than pay much less for piped water in a month [which is safe]. This leads to a breakdown of the public service.

Water quality will be a challenge in two ways. Data is an important aspect to ensure that people understand what they are drinking and feel the need for safe water. The other is to provide solutions like safe water sources, water treatment, rainwater or other water sources. Both require people's participation for upkeep and maintenance, along with local finances, which has remained a challenge.

More than 65% of households do not treat their drinking water, but of those who do, nearly 12% (highest proportion) treat it by filtering water through a cloth and only 8% boil water, noted the 76th Round NSSO report. What has been the impact of this? Where is the government falling short?

Purity of water is being gauged through colour, taste and odour. Lack of good data and its translation into messaging is resulting in people following existing practices. Data-enabled behaviour change is key, and this requires the participation of women and children.

People trust groundwater. Even government campaigns [like guinea worm eradication programme or use of India Mark II handpumps] promote groundwater. It requires a sustained campaign to change people's mindset toward water quality. Communication is needed to build public trust, and quality data are required to tell people that the water [quality] is fine.

What are the reforms or changes that need to be made in infrastructure when it comes to water quality? Are there states that have done better than others, and how?

On ground, personnel are very important. They need to be developed as part of a water workforce. Some states such as Karnataka and Maharashtra have started to do this. Although they still have a long way to go, others can learn. West Bengal adopted a government-NGO partnership of water-sample collection that has helped in both expanding the reach of laboratories and in building more communication around water quality data.

Rajasthan has taken a state convergence approach with a water quality task force. Such initiatives can help stitch together as a common framework. Labs need to become people-facing rather than work toward achieving government targets. Alongside, expanding the scope of labs towards contributing data could possibly help.

There is an enormous potential for the water issues to create sustainable jobs and boost the economy. If emphasis is laid on more jobs for women on water, near areas with water-related problems, then it could be a strong impact on the economy as well as society. For example, Madhya Pradesh has women self-help groups under the National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) to operate the midday meal scheme. The water sector could learn from this. It could converge the NRLM along with water programmes for job creation and wealth creation along with women empowerment.

The Fluoride Knowledge and Action Network, which is a network of researchers and organisations to find solutions and increase awareness around fluorosis, is housed in INREM. What is its objective and how is it tackling the water quality issue?

The water quality network helps build capacity in government agencies and civil society organisations to tackle water quality problems. It conducts courses for educating on solutions with learning from on-ground experiences.

Further, it works in partnership with district and state administration to build convergence platforms where water, health, agriculture, and other departments come together to address water quality issues. There has an increased leveraging of new technologies to help support efforts at scale. It is also helping draft state and national policies on water quality for better programming and sustainability.

(Paliath is an analyst with IndiaSpend.)

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