Budget 2019 talks big on water

But have the crucial schemes received more money than last year? We talk to some experts in the water sector to find out.
Indian children tapping water (Image: Global Water Partnership, Flickr Commons, CC BY NC-SA 2.0) Indian children tapping water (Image: Global Water Partnership, Flickr Commons, CC BY NC-SA 2.0)

Nirmala Sitharaman, Finance Minister alluded to gaon, garib and kisan as the centre of all policies of this government, while announcing a clutch of schemes aimed at the rural and urban poor. Her budget speech last week reiterated the government's commitment to ensuring piped water supply to all households in India.

Though some have hailed this as an attempt by India to break into the middle-income league and become a global economic power, the facts on the ground tell a different story at least for the Swacch Bharat Mission (SBM), the government's push to achieve total sanitation in India. While SBM did increase the national spotlight on the issue of sanitation, the scheme saw patchy implementation and India is far from being a Swacch Bharat today. Official estimates state that over 9 crore (90 million) toilets were constructed from 2014 when the Swacch Bharat Mission was launched under the Modi government as one of its flagship schemes. Yet, a government survey in 2017 showed that 6 out of 10 toilets built under the Swacch Bharat Mission did not have water supply, and were hence unusable.

Focus on water

This year’s budget tries to bring back the focus on water. For this, the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation (MDWS) and the Ministry of Water Resources and Ganga Rejuvenation (MoWR) have been merged into the Jal Shakti Ministry, which will execute the government's mission to provide clean and piped drinking water to every household in the country.

"Given that close to half of Indian districts and several cities are facing a severe water crisis, the 2019 budget’s clear focus on water is promising and this is the right time and situation where such a policy press is very important," says Raman VR, Head of Policy, WaterAid India, New Delhi.  

Do we have the money to provide water for all by 2024?

Considering the prevailing water crisis in the country, the government has identified as many as 1,592 blocks in 256 districts which are facing acute water crisis, and where over-exploitation of groundwater has been reported. Nirmala Sitharaman, the Finance Minster was emphatic about dealing with the issue of water security.

“The government took steps like creation of Jal Shakti Ministry by way of integrating several ministries with the mandate of water supply or management. The Jal Shakti Abhiyan was launched for ensuring India's water security. Identification of water stressed districts, blocks, towns and cities is being done for the mass campaign on water conservation. Very senior officials have been appointed as nodal officers for these areas and the Jal Jeevan Mission was declared to fulfill the concept of Har Ghar Jal or piped drinking water to all households by 2024 as a priority. All these are definitely timely and encouraging measures for the water sector," says Raman.

Ensuring equity and sustainability remains a concern

“Under the Jal Jeevan Mission, the government will focus on rainwater harvesting and water conservation in 256 districts in the first phase and carry out other initiatives including renovation of traditional water bodies and tanks, reuse of water and recharge structures, watershed development and intensive afforestation,” said U P Singh, Water Resources Secretary at a workshop organized by Arghyam at New Delhi recently.

Himanshu Thakkar, co-ordinator of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, is cautiously optimistic about the seemingly greater political attention to water as a national issue. "The finance minister said that the Jal Jeevan Mission would include creation of local infrastructure for source sustainability like rainwater harvesting, groundwater recharge and management of household wastewater for reuse in agriculture. This is welcome and one has to see how it will be planned along with ensuring equity and sustainability." 

New ministry, old water problems

"There needs to be a realisation that such important missions like the Jal Jeevan Mission will need higher levels of resource allocation, compared to what is available in the current budget outlay. The overall allocation for the new Jal Shakti Ministry is Rs. 28,323 crore, which is marginally higher compared to Rs. 28,094 crore that was received by both the previous water ministries together in 2018-19. The outlay was Rs. 27,107 crores the year before (2017-18). Also, no specific allocation has been made for the Jal Shakti Abhiyan, which leads to an assumption that this mission will be mostly drawing from budgets for other development programs," Raman points out. 

Thakkar points to the Finance Minister’s budget speech, where Nirmala Sitharaman said the government would also explore the possibility of using additional funds available under the Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority (CAMPA) for this purpose. In his view, the legal tenability of using CAMPA funds for non-forest activities is questionable.

It is thus an anomaly that while India is grappling with one of the most severe water crises in decades, with a number of states reeling under drought-like conditions, there has been no sharp increase in budgetary support for the water sector. Raman VR from WaterAid elaborates:

"The budget for Jal Jeevan Mission seems to be continuing under the erstwhile National Rural Drinking Water Program (NRDWP), and not under the name of the new scheme. This may appear like a higher allocation, but would require a much higher annual allocation than this, for achieving the goal by 2024. It is to be noted that the NRDWP used to have close to Rs. 10,000 crore rupees annual allocation till 2015-16."

Piped water supply to all likely to cost upwards of Rs. 5 lakh crores

Based on estimates from the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation in 2017, provision of piped drinking water for all households required close to Rs. 500,000 crores. Even if states are expected to put in around half of what is required, the per annum allocation requirement for a 4-year period will be over 60,000 crores, to cover hardware, human resources, water quality infrastructure, operations and maintenance costs, citizen’s engagement, and special arrangements for quality affected as well as other marginalised populations, according to Raman.

Rahul Bannerjee, an Indore-based social activist and development researcher, concurs too.

"The outlay for the National Rural Drinking Water Programme is Rs. 9,150.36 crores. Now according to the Census 2011 there are 6,40,867 villages in India, with a population of 83.31 crores. Assuming a 10 percent increase in population since then and an average household size of five, the outlay per household works out to Rs 500. This outlay is highly inadequate." 

Raman further elaborates that it is unclear how much of the budgetary allocation for water will go towards ensuring access to piped drinking water for the urban poor, as no earmarked allocation could be found in the budget document. Presumably this would also draw from AMRUT or the Smart Cities programme. Further, the allocation of Rs. 800 crore under the Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Rurban Mission may help peri urban areas, census towns and urban growth areas too, to some extent. While the current allocation appears to be only a good start, the mention that the government will look for additional funds from other sources for this purpose is promising. However, this will depend on how much can be pooled from other potential sources.

Budget ignores sustainability of agriculture

Vikrant Tongad, a Greater Noida based environmental activist is concerned about how farmers will respond, if at all, to these water conservation measures. "From water conservation under the watershed programmes, the focus has shifted to direct irrigation outcomes at the farm level. Yet no new incentives have been brought in to reduce water footprint by way of micro-irrigation. There is a dire need to promote sustainable uses of water by weaning away farmers from water-intensive crops like rice and wheat. In the absence of incentives to use less water and power, farmers are unable to move to a 'more crop per drop' regime." 

Rahul Banerjee agrees that agriculture has been passed over in the Centre's grand water plan for India in the next 5 years. "In agriculture the subsidy provided for the use of chemical fertilisers is Rs 79,996 crores and the outlay for other aspects of green revolution agriculture is Rs 12,560 crores. There is no subsidy whatsoever for organic manure and the outlay for organic agriculture is a paltry Rs 2 crores. The subsidy for short term credit to farmers is only Rs 18,000 crores and the outlay for the "per drop more crop" irrigation scheme is just Rs 3,500 crores. Soil and water conservation have a farcical outlay of Rs 28.7 crores and rainfed area development and climate change mitigation have been provided a laughable Rs 250 crores."

"Thus, the agriculture budget is one that will lead farming more and more into the abyss that it already is in instead of turning it towards a more sustainable future." 

So, from the perspective of the water and agriculture sector, the 2019 budget is high on optics even with a meagre allocation and lack of clarity on how the actual delivery will happen. "The budget is an overall disappointing one. Despite clear indications of a looming water crisis both on surface and groundwater front, it fails to address the issue squarely in the face. Nal se Jal would remain a pipe dream only for want of requisite water in the system," sums up Manoj Misra, forestry and wildlife expert, and the head of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan. 

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