Clean drinking water: Still a pipe dream for Maharashtra?

Latur in Maharashtra has been facing acute drinking water scarcity over the last month and has been in news again, and that too, inspite of having piped water connections and a good monsoon this year!

Indeed, availability of safe drinking water near the house can provide a number of advantages. It can not only lead to better health outcomes, improve ease of living, but also reduce the drudgery of women and girls who are forced to bring water from long distances to meet the needs of the household. But then, this is only possible when piped water connections can deliver safe drinking water at the doorstep, a challenge that most of states including Maharashtra continue to experience.

Safe drinking water has been a priority for the government

Provision of safe drinking water has been the priority of the government since post independence when a programme to provide safe water supply to all villages as part of First Five Year Plan in 1951-56 and the Third Five Year Plan 1961-66 was started. In 1972-73, the Accelerated Rural Water Supply Programme (ARWSP) was launched to support State Governments in areas where acute water scarcity and water borne diseases were rampant.

The ARWSP was modified and renamed as National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP) in 2009-10 that emphasised sustainability, potability, adequacy, convenience, affordability and equity of water resources through a decentralised approach involving Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) and community organisations.

In 2013, changes were introduced in NRDWP that included focus on piped water supply schemes, enhancing service level from 40 lpcd to 55 lpcd, greater thrust on water quality in Japanese Encephalitis-Acute Encephalitis Syndrome (JE-AES) affected districts, waste water treatment, recycling and operation and maintenence (O&M) of ageing schemes. In 2017, NRDWP was restructured to make it more competitive, result-oriented, outcome-based and to provide flexibility to states while implementing the programme and providing piped water supply to all states except those affected by JE-AES.

Jal Jeevan Mission

Under NRDWP, one of the objectives was to “enable all households to have access to and use safe & adequate drinking water within premises to the extent possible by 2030”.
The Government of India has now restructured the ongoing National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP) into Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM) to provide Functional Household Tap Connection (FHTC) to every rural household by 2024. The goal of JJM is to provide functional household tap connection to every household at the rate of 55 litres per capita per day (lpcd). 

Safe drinking water, still a piped dream

Current data on India shows that inspite of the efforts made over the long term, just 18 percent households receive potable water directly at homes. Hand pumps are the most commonly used water sources for as high as 43 percent of the rural population while 47 percent of the rural households are still without access to an improved source of drinking water throughout the year. Further, 11.3 percent households do not get sufficient drinking water from their primary sources throughout the year. So, what can the JJM learn from the earlier experiences to be able to deliver functional household tap connections with safe and continuous water supply even to the remotest villages?

Piped water connections, the case of Maharashtra

While nearly 50.2 percent of the households have access to tap water in the state, less than 32 percent of this water is treated, while only 42 percent of the rural population has access to drinking water within the household premises.

Twenty three percent households get water from bore wells and hand pumps while 24.3 percent depend on open wells, majority of which are unprotected. In addition to this, source failure and slippage of habitations from source village to no-source village are very common.

The task is even more challenging with the growing water crisis in the state where poor rainfall, rapid depletion of groundwater resources and increasing water quality problems are on the rise. Studies from Maharashtra show that rural water supply systems fail or malfunction due to a number of reasons:

  • Poor technical and socio-economic considerations result in inadequate water supply

A study by Institute for Resource Analysis and Policy (IRAP) and CTARA, IIT Mumbai (2018) on rural water supply in Maharashtra finds that norms on per capita water supply needed at the time of planning of rural schemes are outdated and are not based on the real needs of the community. People in villages need water for both domestic as well as productive use, a fact that is largely ignored while fixing per capita supply norms. The amount of water supplied thus remains inadequate forcing households to look for other sources of water. The schemes lie neglected as a result of this and there is reduced willingness to pay for water supply services with some households even diverting water from the schemes for meeting their high priority needs.

  • Access does not ensure continuous water supply

A study by Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) (2015) shows that while a high proportion of rural households use water from PWSS (i.e. household tap connections and community standposts) and hand pumps to access drinking water, majority of the hand pumps and the primary sources of the water available i.e. dugwells get dry during the summer months. People thus resort to taking private wells on lease and depend on tankers to meet their water needs in summer.

Schemes are thus not designed taking into consideration the sustainability of the resource.

  • Access does not ensure safe water

Access to piped water supply to households in the rural villages in Maharashtra does not guarantee that the water is free from contamination.

A study from Maharashtra finds that environmental factors such as the condition of the raw water source and its watershed, seasonal variations, the efficiency of the panchayat water treatment system, and more importantly, stakeholder awareness such as household water treatment and storage (HWTS) and water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) practices affect water quality.

  • There is a mismatch between technology and institutions:

Village Water Supply and Sanitation Committees (VWSCs) are often not capable of managing complex systems and infrastructure in the absence of adequate human resources and financial support.

For example, the TISS study finds that while many of the piped water schemes draw water from dugwells, many are non functioning with them not being laid properly, exposed to the surface and damaged frequently on the roadsides and agricultural fields. The pipelines suffer from leakages due to poor workmanship and use of substandard pipes and improper design. Lack of regular maintenance and poor quality of construction leads to leakage of water from ground level and elevated reservoirs. Poor laying of pipes exposes them to wastewater drains leading to mixing of sewage with drinking water giving rise to water contamination.

  • Inadequate funds and problems with tariff collection

The TISS study finds that only 32.5 percent of Gram Panchayats (GPs) pay electricity bills and 73.4 percent pay the salary of Jalsurakshaks regularly. There is a gap between the water tariff collected and actual expenditure and only 20.5 percent schemes in the GPs are able to meet the expenditures incurred for management of the water schemes through efficient water tariff collection.

Lack of capacities among VWSCs and GPs to motivate users to actively participate in the management of water supply schemes, poor payment of water tariff among users, reluctance of elected GP members to pursue water tariff collection, and the practice of manipulation of income and expenditure for showing efficient functioning of schemes by the GPs leads to failure of the schemes in the long run.

  • Lack of comprehensive criteria for monitoring and performance evaluation

The TISS study finds that monitoring of the schemes is not comprehensive and considers only the number of hamlets being covered, the number of households having access to water supply and the types of access, and not the actual per capita water supply to individual households, the quality of the water supplied and frequency and reliability of water supply that are essential for achieving public health outcomes.

  • Besides this, lack of awareness and poor training and capacity building among the various stakeholders are important factors affecting the implementation of water supply schemes.

While the initiatives of the government such as the JJM are laudable, experts argue that instead of only focusing on creating new infrastructure, it needs to do things differently by shifting focus on first mile communities and encouraging community participation, enhancing capacity building while paying more attention to institutional, economic, social, environmental dimensions while selecting technologies to be used at the ground level while paying more attention to operation and maintenance of the existing infrastructure.

The case of Latur, where, disconnection of power due to lack of payment of dues led to the water crisis stands out as a reminder that mere laying of pipes might not be enough unless issues related to operation and maintenance and funding of existing infrastructure and involvement of stakeholders are given the priority they deserve.