The problem of drinking water in India is becoming more acute by the day, as one can see people queuing up at wells, water tankers, and common water points during summers in most parts.
Access to water in India is mostly determined by a household’s resources. If a household has financial resources, they can install a tube well with high-power motors to draw water, or they can purchase water. The poor depend on community or private tube wells or a piped water supply at a common point in their locality. They must spend a lot of time fetching water, tackling petty disputes, and often face humiliation if they have to get water from private tube wells.
The water access problems faced by the poor was aptly described by writer Munshi Premchand in the short story Thakur ka kuan (1932), wherein a Dalit woman “Gangi’ tries to steal water from the well of the thakur (upper-caste landowner) at night for her sick husband, fearful that she would be assaulted for it. Despite her best efforts, she could not get water.
Efforts by various state governments to solve these issues have yielded varied results. The Har Ghar Nal Ka Jal scheme launched by the Government of Bihar in 2016 is worth studying, as the plan was to provide access to water to every household in rural Bihar. The success of the scheme is still being measured on various parameters, but one aspect was clear: bringing drinking water to the doorsteps of the poor and marginalized brings dignity to their lives.
The Mukhyamantri Gramin Peyjal Nishchay Yojana (hereafter referred to as Peyjal scheme), one of the four components of the Har Ghar Nal Ka Jal scheme, has the objective of providing safe drinking water to all the households in 58,612 (51 percent) of rural wards of 4,291 gram panchayats out of a total 114,691 wards in 8,386 gram panchayats in the state.
The water requirement for the scheme is being fulfilled through borings, submersible pumps, and distribution pipelines implemented by the Department of Panchayati Raj, Government of Bihar. The rest of the wards (49 percent) are affected by quality issues such as iron, arsenic, and fluoride that will be covered by the Public Health Engineering Department (PHED).
To assess the functioning of the Peyjal scheme in terms of reach, benefits to the community and challenges, the Bihar Gram Sabha Yojana Society (BGSYS) and the Department of Panchayati Raj, Government of Bihar, conducted a study in 84 wards of 57 gram panchayats in 40 blocks of 19 districts. The selection of wards was done by random sampling depending on the presence of the functionaries of the Bihar Gram Swaraj Yojana Society (BGSYS) and the Department of Panchayati Raj.
Focus group discussion with open-ended questions was used as a tool in the study. Nearly 5,900 villagers participated in the focus group discussions. The study was supplemented by Rapid Rural Appraisal (RRA) conducted by Sehgal Foundation in ten wards of the ten gram panchayats in Muzaffarpur and Samastipur districts of Bihar. The attempt was to choose wards with a high Scheduled Caste population. The Scheduled Castes are the most deprived and landless. So, their opinion on drinking water access would demonstrate how the marginalized sections have benefited from the Peyjal scheme.
Reach and benefits
The study showed that infrastructure such as pipelines, taps, boring, submersible pumps, and tanks have been completed in 51,578 (88 percent) of 58,612 wards. 94 percent of beneficiaries in 51,578 wards say that they get water every day while the rest do not.
Ninety-seven percent of the beneficiaries who say that they get water everyday were of the view that the quality of water is good. The quality of water was not good prior to the introduction of the Peyjal scheme. Insects were frequently found in water, and the water had several quality issues. Health issues such as gas and indigestion were quite common due to the poor quality of water.
The average distance of a community tube well from the households was 200 to 350 meters before the Peyjal scheme. About thirty families collected water from one tube well. Average water collection time was 30–60 minutes per collection and crowding near water collection points led to frequent conflicts or disputes. Some women said they had to collect water from some other house or courtyard as the community tube well was located quite far away from their houses. They felt embarrassed that they had to fetch water every day from someone else’s house.
Prior to the Peyjal scheme, in summer, community tube wells dried up and supplied only dirty water as the water level went down; the people had no option but to use dirty water or live without water. Access to water improved a lot after the implementation of the Peyjal scheme. The average distance from which they collect water is ten steps from their house as the water tap is in front of their house. Every household has a tap, so water collection time is less than five minutes, and there is no dispute or conflict during water collection.
The supply of water is regular after the scheme was introduced; water is supplied mostly for two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening. Moreover, the quality of water is quite good, and insects are not found in water. The scheme has reduced the drudgery of women as they no longer have to spend one or two hours a day carrying water from long distances. They are now relieved of the hard labour of getting water every day from a community tube well. The children who used to help their mothers fetch water can spend their time playing and studying.
The responsibility for carrying water from common tube wells or water sources to homes lies with women in most regions of India. Bihar is no different. Women carry water several times a day even when they are ill or pregnant. The Har Ghar Nal Ka Jal scheme is reducing the drudgery of women, which had not been addressed for several years.
Kavita Devi of Bijauliya gram panchayat, Samastipur, Bihar says, “Pregnant women of their village have benefited a lot from the Har Ghar Nal Ka Jal as they do not have to carry heavy pots/matkas or buckets for a long distance now, as they have taps in front of their houses.”
During the RRA, few women in two of the villages said that though the water boring has been done one and half years back under the Peyjal scheme, the water connection has not yet been provided to the households.
Non-completion of the Peyjal scheme in nearly 12 percent of the total wards (as pointed in the survey) may be due to various reasons such as the contractor not completing the work, litigation due to land allocation for infrastructure, payment issues to contractors, conflicts between ward members and Mukhiya in giving contract, or some other reason. These issues can be sorted out by the intervention of the Department of Panchayati Raj in a timely manner.
In the Peyjal scheme, an Anurakshak is appointed in every village/ward and is given the responsibility of taking care of the maintenance of pipes, tanks, other infrastructure, and collection of monthly user fees from the beneficiaries. The person is paid an allowance of Rs. 2,000 per month. The survey shows that Anurakshak or Ward Sachiv have been appointed in only 61 percent of the wards, which affects the maintenance of the infrastructure of Peyjal scheme, thereby affecting services.
As the scheme is new, the issues of pipe breakage or tank cleanliness may not be common, but these issues need to be tackled immediately as the infrastructure ages. In nearly 27 percent of the wards where the Peyjal scheme is functional, the pumps do not have an official electricity connection. The pump is being managed with a temporary electricity connection. This occasionally affects the supply of drinking water to the households.
The irregular payment of monthly user fees of Rs. 30 per household by the community is also a big issue that will affect the functioning of the program. The survey shows that only 16 percent of the users pay the fees regularly, which can be addressed by monthly community awareness cum collection drives by ward members.
Women have benefited immensely from the scheme, so existing women collectives or self-help groups should play a leading role in user fee collection drives. These organizations can convince women of the villages to pay user fees regularly, as the fees can be used to maintain the infrastructure.
During the RRA, the community expressed concern about the wastage of drinking water due to open taps and broken pipes, irrigation of kitchen gardens, and washing animals. Regular discussion on these issues in SHG meetings and community vigilance and pressure can help check such wastage.
Gram panchayats can be given templates of a wall painting by the Department of Panchayati Raj with water-saving messages that encourage maintaining the infrastructure of the scheme. Making the community aware should not be one-time event; it should be done regularly in every ward of the gram panchayat.
The Mukhyamantri Gramin Peyjal Nishchay Yojana has tremendous potential to address the need for clean and safe drinking water in rural Bihar. The survey and RRA show that the community is quite satisfied after getting piped water access at the household level. Women in particular have been relieved of the burden of fetching water from long distances.
The awareness-generation drives in the community to save water of the Peyjal scheme and payment of user fees regularly can make the scheme successful and help the community to benefit for a number of years. It will also reduce the dependency on line departments for approval and budget for small repairs.
It is important to note that even flood plains of Bihar are witnessing a reduced groundwater level from April to June every year, which shows that floodwaters are not being conserved in ponds, and the capacity of thousands of ponds have decreased due to siltation. Desilting of ponds through various schemes by gram panchayats should be planned and implemented regularly so that groundwater is replenished every year. Otherwise, huge extraction of groundwater for the Peyjal scheme and irrigation may affect the quality of water. Hence usage and replenishment should be a strategy to work with in future.
About the authors
Vikas Jha is principal lead, Local Participation and Sustainability, Sehgal Foundation, Gurugram. He has a PhD from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and a post graduate diploma in Policy Studies from the University of London.
Om Prakash is the head of Capacity Building in the Department of Panchayati Raj, Bihar Government. He is a development activist working in the field of sanitation, rural development, and panchayati raj.