Skilling and engaging first mile actors to enable local water management: Context, opportunities, and engagement possibilities

There is an urgency to create a database of such skilled persons and engage them in future programs or on a long-term basis through different engagement models. (Image: ForWater Partners)
There is an urgency to create a database of such skilled persons and engage them in future programs or on a long-term basis through different engagement models. (Image: ForWater Partners)

Every year, programs of central and state governments and donor-supported programs train thousands of people who work to implement programs on water and sanitation in their villages. These “first-mile” actors are known by several names depending on the programs they are associated with. Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) alone has 6.9 lakh Swachhagrahis in the program, of which 4.9 lakh are paid under the program i.e. the skills and knowledge they have acquired to work on sanitation has resulted in a livelihood opportunity for them.

Similarly, the ongoing Atal Bhujal Yojana plans to train Bhujal Jankaars (para hydrogeologists) across over 9000 Gram Panchayats on the science of groundwater and ways to ensure local water security. Parallelly, Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM) is working with its own cadre on the ground to prepare village action plans, which require knowledge of sanitation (greywater management) as well as groundwater (source sustainability). JJM has also been training masons, electricians, and plumbers to install and maintain pipeline infrastructure and some states plan to reuse them in other programs by maintaining their details in a database.

In this article, we explore the need to recognize these actors in the water sector for the skills they have acquired. We emphasize the urgency to create a database of such skilled persons and engage them in future programs or on a long-term basis through different engagement models so that sustainable livelihoods can be generated for them while they work to provide water and sanitation services to their communities.

The article is based on our conversation with two well-known experts in the water and livelihoods sectors: Dr Tushaar Shah and Mr Ved Arya.

1. Does every village need skilled people for water management?

There are four distinct lines of work that require skilled human resources in villages:

  1. Water resource management at river basin level or watershed level including rainwater harvesting and storage for supply augmentation;
  2. Groundwater management, especially in areas with overexploited aquifers;
  3. Infrastructure management such as pipeline and canal maintenance;
  4. Service delivery i.e. the distribution of water to users for multiple uses and quality monitoring.

Some of these activities are at an individual level, such as water distribution through a piped network, irrigation services etc., whereas others such as groundwater management require the lens of common-pool resource management. More than one-third of the country’s population lives in groundwater-stressed areas and millions are vulnerable to health issues resulting from drinking contaminated water. Hence, the question no longer is if there is a need, but rather how do we address this need.

2. How has the role of a village water professional (entrepreneur/ manager) evolved in the last few decades? And where are we headed from here?

The water economy is evolving rapidly. Around 60 years ago, tanks played a critical role in village water security, especially in peninsular India. Rural water entrepreneurs and distribution operators, known by several names (Neerkatti, Neeranikkan, Neerganti, Kambukatti etc.), played an active role in ensuring effective water distribution for irrigation. But today, with most irrigation systems dominated by private tubewells, they are not relevant anymore. And instead of watermen, now there are millions of people in villages who are experts in repairing and rewinding water pumps.

Currently, programs like Jal Jeevan Mission are bringing unconnected households into the ambit of piped water supply. It would require a water user association to manage; and an operator to test, treat and distribute water. A trained para hydrogeologist may also be needed to ensure the water source is recharged and the source remains viable throughout the year and sustainable for longer.

Greywater management and sewage treatment have come up as important services in urban areas and with increased sanitation and tap water coverage in rural areas, these services may also become relevant for rural areas. So, to understand what type of skills may be relevant in the coming years, it is important to look at the larger picture of the water economy and where it is headed.

3. What is the biggest challenge with sustaining water security through a skilled cadre?

As large-scale programs of the government and donors are becoming increasingly performance-oriented and participatory, demand for skilled resource persons has increased, as the accountability often lies at the local level. But sustaining their engagement beyond a program lifecycle continues to be a challenge.

When individuals are directly benefited from the services provided, there is a potential market-based model for long-term engagement, even after programs end. For instance, in villages covered by piped water supply, salaried water operators are hired by water user associations (WUAs) and paid for by the consumer households. But in a village where the majority of households have their own drinking water wells, there may be no demand for such operators. A common or public structure like a village tank that requires periodic repair seldom gets the attention of individuals in its command area, even if a local para hydrogeologist may be present to plan and execute the repairs.

As long as the interventions designed have an inherent revenue model, and there are tangible economic benefits, there will continue to be a demand for the skills in the sector. While there could be a variety of revenue generation models, there are only a few examples that demonstrate both demand creation and fulfilment of a need by a skilled cadre.

4. How could a skilled cadre of water managers and entrepreneurs be engaged in the water sector?

The increasing focus on tackling water issues has meant an increasing number of programs and interventions on water. The unmet needs of all such programs have resulted in the demand for a skilled cadre, albeit for the short term. Despite the need, the demand for this skilled cadre is seldom articulated at the end of large programs, and there are only a few models left behind to engage them for the long-term sustainability of outcomes.

Some government departments have tried to create lasting roles for them on a full-time basis such as Jalsurakshaks in Maharashtra and Jalagaras in Karnataka. At the same time, there are other programs such as MGNREGS, NRLM and SRLM, which engage people through contractual arrangements. Part-time or tasks-based engagement can also be seen as the case with Dhara Sevaks in West Bengal and ASHA workers in testing water quality. Some are engaged purely as volunteers for shramdaan. In one way or the other, all these programs contribute to one of the four lines of work described in Question 1.

We could expect a few roles to be institutionalized over time just as a bookkeeper’s role is now institutionalized and paid for by SHGs. Another possibility could be to build skills in local people to leverage MGNREGS funds for water management and in turn draw livelihood for skilled labour through MGNREGS.

In urban and suburban areas, there is a new informal water economy that is booming, which includes water tankers, RO and other water filters, honey suckers etc. Some of these are also becoming prevalent in rural water supply systems now. Increasingly, we see more professionals emerging to provide services like cleaning overhead water tanks. All these imply economic demand for skills in the sense that consumers demand and pay for services from those who have these skills. So, the market may have some answers to the long-term engagement of such water sector professionals.

5. What can the programs today do to create space for skilled people who can take charge of managing water resources locally and sustainably?

With the increasing population, the pressure on India’s water resources is increasing by the day. The communities must be involved in optimizing demand and supply and manage the resource locally across competing uses. But like every other common-pool resource, water also suffers from the tragedy of commons. Managing water must become a skill available with frontline workers who can work with their communities and there is sufficient demand and compensation for their skills.

The first step in the process is creating the demand for the most important skills. It cannot happen without behaviour change at all levels from Gram Panchayats to the Centre. Such a behaviour change can only be effected through mass awareness campaigns which the current programs can take up as a key priority area. Once the need for local water management is established and mainstreamed, interested people can be trained, or people trained by existing programs can be leveraged. In any case, it is critical to ensure compensation commensurate with skills, and livelihood opportunities for frontline workers in the water sector.

Leveraging existing funds through MGNREGS and other skill development programs will ensure the skilled cadre is compensated and continuously engaged towards achieving a water-secure future for all of India. Water security plans and investment in infrastructure for ensuring water security have to become an essential part of MGNREGS, for this to happen. In one way, they already are. But given the primary emphasis is on creating wage employment, this takes a second priority.

Eventually, the current ‘subsidy-driven water infrastructure creation’ should shift to ‘fee-based water service provision’ to increase effective demand for skills. Of course, where the market fails due to the inability of users to pay, the government will need to step in to subsidize but that cannot be the case at scale if we want it to be sustainable.

But most importantly, the current programs have the important role of generating evidence on the nature of crisis stemming from water scarcity in every nook and corner and bringing policy attention to it, so that resources can be allocated to skill more water professionals and engage them to enable local water security everywhere in the country.


All images are by ForWater Partners