Evolution of state's role in rural drinking water governance in India

Need to nudge state governments to evolve a detailed roadmap (planning, implementation and operations related strategies)—immediate, medium and long-term—for ensuring drinking water security.
Demand-responsive approach became the mainstay of the project with the initiation of sectoral reforms (Image: India Water Portal Flickr)
Demand-responsive approach became the mainstay of the project with the initiation of sectoral reforms (Image: India Water Portal Flickr)

A recent paper ‘Changing Role of the State in Rural Drinking Water Governance in India’ by NC Narayanan et al examines the major interventions in post-independent India’s rural drinking water sector—in the context of the ongoing Jal Jeevan Mission—to assess the progress made in the provision of the service as well as discern the challenges that continue to persist.

A historical understanding of the approach to drinking water supply within the development sector over the latter half of the twentieth century is required to illustrate the influence of global water policy paradigms on India’s domestic strategy. The paper details the emergence of the major models for rural water supply provision that came to be advocated at the global level by global financial institutions and intergovernmental initiatives.

The sector witnessed a steady shift away from the traditional state led top-down approach from 1980s, first witnessed in the community management approach and subsequently through demand-responsive approach that became the mainstay following initiation of sectoral reforms.

The push to universalize service provision by 2024 marks the return to the earlier supply-driven approach led by the state and by the emphasis on community participation it appears to be a prolongation of the dominant blueprint of the past three decades of experience. The failure to clearly define the role of the state is contributing to absence of focus on state capacity at different levels to ensure sustainable service provision. This is partially a consequence of the superficial consolidation of elements from former models of service provision in Jal Jeevan Mission.

This paper calls for recognising the responsibility of the state-level institutions in supporting local governments in ensuring sustainability of the schemes through adopting a more measured approach to planning, operations, and overall management of the rural drinking water infrastructure.

Reviewing the experience with different models for organising service provision in the sector, the paper identifies the following critical challenges in the sector:

Need for candid reflection on the role of the state

Sectoral reforms in rural drinking water (from the 1990s) fundamentally evolved from the idea of ‘state failure’. Consequently, the models (community management and demand responsive approach) promoted through the reforms forbade any direct role for the state in service provision.

The state’s role was restricted to facilitation in planning and implementation as well. While building the physical infrastructure for service provision was tenable without the direct involvement of the state, ensuring the overall sustainability of services has proved a more complicated task. Slip-backs (as well as low reliability) have been attributed to operations (O&M) and institutional failings (poor financial management and inability of the community to manage the operational expenses) at the community level.

At the global level, solutions to these shortcomings have included professionalisation of community management along with the provision of direct support to community service providers, the adoption of a wider range of service delivery models, and addressing the sustainable financing of infrastructure maintenance expenditure. While these are reasonable fixes to improve sustainability, how are they going to be operationalised?

While policy pronouncements in the sector (especially from global agencies) have continued to identify the gaps in the demand-responsive approach, the most critical missing link is the role of the state. Can state be more than a facilitator (and regulator) in bringing more formality and professionalisation in the management of rural water supply schemes? These can include support to local governments and community-based service providers, as well as the state creating reasonable conditions for sustainable self-supply by communities. While the role and capacity of communities have continuously been debated, a serious reflection on the role of the state in sustaining rural water supply schemes has been conspicuously absent.

One of the reasons for this myopia is the persistence of the strong aversion of the global financial (and policy) orthodoxy towards the state as a critical actor in drinking water provision. For context, the Jal Jeevan Mission has a 4-tier institutional structure for planning and implementation. While the central, state, and local governments have specific roles, the central elements of the program’s institutional design are drawn extensively from Swajaldhara which did not envisage the state as a service provider despite the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments.

The Jal Jeevan Mission institutional framework would be more unambiguous if it explicitly acknowledges local governments’ responsibility as service providers. It is also pertinent to highlight that the panchayat raj institutions do not have the required autonomy and institutional capacity to effectively manage service provision on the ground. Capacitating panchayat raj institutions   and creating an effective governance ecosystem at the state level is critical to achieving improved outcomes in the sector.

Comprehensive planning for long-term sustainability

Sustainability of rural drinking water supply programs has been perhaps the biggest challenge for decades. Different approaches have been developed for this purpose. Demand responsive approach and community management were two models that were promoted for the last three decades but their limitations have led to the discussion around long-term service delivery. Therefore, merely creating infrastructures (be it handpump or pipe water systems) and changing approaches would not be sufficient to ensure sustainability. Before adopting a particular approach for a particular region, the meaning of sustainability has to be understood.

Several studies on sustainability have been carried out across developing nations but the first comprehensive understanding of sustainability in Indian policy document came through the 12th five-year plan recommendations and later through the National Rural Drinking Water Programme guidelines. Despite these, there is a gap in the understanding of sustainability among various scholars. The Jal Jeevan Mission guidelines also has a huge deviation on the meaning of sustainability vis-à-visits predecessor, National Rural Drinking Water Programme. It has limited the meaning of sustainability to that of functionality and source conservation. Therefore, comprehensive planning at state to panchayat level including a framework on the sustainability components of rural drinking water supply is needed to ensure better outcomes.  

Assess capacities at the state level for enhancing sectoral outcomes

While the Jal Jeevan Mission does provide for multiple possibilities for organizing the service provision, there is a need for reviewing the roles of the state (at different levels) to evolve an appropriate framework—which is legally enforceable—that enables the local government to fulfil its constitutional mandate.

The ongoing Jal Jeevan Mission provides an opportune moment to take up a comprehensive assessment of state capacity for the successful completion of the program. This would also enable the state governments to immediately introduce course-correction to ensure sustainability of rural drinking water services in the long run. In this regard, disbursal of central funds needs to be tied to the state's overall performance. Holding local governments singularly responsible for failure/slip-backs without providing them the required technical and administrative resources along with institutional autonomy would not lead to progress in the sector.

Therefore, fixing accountability at the state level would dissuade the creation of perverse incentives for the states where greater failure has led to increased central fund allocation in previous schemes. This would nudge state governments to evolve a detailed roadmap (planning, implementation and operations related strategies)—immediate, medium and long-term—for ensuring drinking water security. There is a need for evolving an independent long-term monitoring mechanism for continuously tracking the performance of states. This requires taking a broader view of the state’s performance in the sector, rather than assessing success or failure through the currently prevalent target-based approach of number of service connections provided or capital expended.

The full paper is available here

Suggested citation Narayanan, N. C., Prince, R. K., & Ganapathy, G. (2023, February). Changing Role of the State in Rural Drinking Water Governance in India. (ADCPS Working Paper Series № 2023-001). https://www.cps.iitb.ac.in/wps-2023-001

This document is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 License.

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