India’s deepening water crisis - need for a response at scale

Capacity building and data should not be seen as one-time activities but as a foundation for impactful, sustainable, large scale programmes.
Residents of a village built a farm-pond and repurposed it to suit their needs (Source: IWP Flickr photos) Residents of a village built a farm-pond and repurposed it to suit their needs (Source: IWP Flickr photos)

The water crisis in India has been in the making for sometime now, and the current COVID-19 pandemic has further brought to fore the challenges of safe water and hygiene, necessary for survival. Given that approximately 600 million people are affected by some kind of water problems, we need to find solutions now, and we need these solutions to work at scale. 

The government has placed importance on Water as the resource for meaningful development of the country, by initiating a couple of ambitious large scale programmes. Last year, the central government announced an aspirational mission to provide access to piped water connection to every household in India by 2024. We now also have a dedicated programme for groundwater management called Atul Bhujal Yojana, across seven states. Despite being a groundwater dependent country, this is the first time we have had such a large-scale focus on groundwater management.

These ambitious programmes are definitely a move in the right direction but providing safe water on a sustainable basis, in an inclusive manner, can be a bit more complex than building toilets and getting people to use them. Laying down pipes and connecting them to a water source is perhaps going to be the most seductive choice for the government given the infrastructure involved. But ensuring water flows through those pipes is going to be trickier. 

Groundwater is known to be a more complex resource to manage given its invisible nature. Estimating availability of water in these aquifers has been a major challenge, which further translates into allocation of water for multiple users. The lack of standardization in methodology, and granularity of data to make such critical decisions is an impediment acknowledged by Central Groundwater Board. To add to this complexity, legally at least, the ownership of the resource is linked to land rights in India, which is in direct conflict to its nature of being a Common Pool Resource (CPR). 

There is a growing recognition by the government on the need for involving CSOs in supporting large scale programmes at various levels, especially for community engagement. This is possibly stemming from the belated acknowledgement of the fact that without meaningful community involvement and ownership, these programmes are likely to fail the equity and sustainability test. Through the work supported by Arghyam and others, we have seen that the most crucial aspect to effective management is to make the invisible, visible. In all of our collective efforts, the quantum of success was a function of community involvement and ownership. 

In large scale programmes, community participation is often defined in a very restricted form, such as contribution for O&M of structures or shramdan (voluntary labour) for implementation. We believe the absence of community participation at the planning and monitoring level often is the reason for the breakdown of these programmes in the long run. This is where partnerships between government institutions, CSOs and communities in a sustained way can be a game changer. Provided the historical mistrust between Samaaj, Sarkaar and Bazaar can be bridged. 

When we talk about scale, the role of NGOs is frequently brought into question. Can NGOs scale their model of impact? Will the model yield the same results in different settings? Why does the NGO supported work become difficult to scale through the Government systems? Most NGOs, believing in quality of outcomes operate in a deep touch mode. In any unit of change like a panchayat, the process usually starts with building rapport with the community, mobilising them into collectives, empowering them to articulate their aspirations into actionable plans, followed by supporting them in the implementation process. This crude depiction of the process, makes it very time and cost intensive, though effective and impactful. Most often than not, the resources required for this process like experts – social & technical, community mobilisers or even financial resources are not available for scaling the same across 100s of panchayat where similar approach might be needed. 

The question to be asked, therefore, is: is there a way to scale these approaches within the constraints of the resources and time available? This is where we need to differentiate ‘scaling what works’ from ‘designing interventions to scale’. We believe that there are a set of principles that are critical while designing participatory, people centric interventions at scale. 

Nudging  a people’s movement, through knowledge and interactions

An essential component for making the planning and implementation inclusive and sustainable, is to ensure the demand for interventions comes from the community itself. Community participation and mobilization is one of the most rewarding processes of an intervention but the process to scale it remains elusive. Organizations like Paani Foundation has successfully managed to create bottom up demand and participation through strong campaign designs for its initiative, the Water Cup in Maharashtra. This serves as a great case to understand what works at ground level. 

In small scale interventions, the process involves interactions between community members, experts, government institutions and many more actors. Mapping these interactions ab-initio not only helps in understanding the roles of various actors but also captures the interdependencies between them to design targeted interventions. When adopting an intensive approach, the number and quality of interactions between actors, defines the effectiveness of the interventions. But as we scale this approach, the number of interactions reduce due to the lack of resources – of both money and people. Interactions limited to just trainings of community representatives and experts often end up being one way transfer of information, in a very limited time, making learning and retention difficult. In turn, the application of this knowledge becomes even more challenging for the community resource persons, especially when they are planning and implementing water security measures. Advancements in technology and increase in cellphone penetration across the country can be a game changer to ensure access to knowledge to them at their convenience, when they need it, where they need it, and in languages they need it in. 

Empowerment through data and evidence

Along with capacities of community resource persons, it is also important to support them with access to real time, dynamic data for decision making. The lack of common data standards, methods and formats has been a challenge in the sector for years. While designing for scale, it is important to enable access to data by communities, that is readable and useable. If the community sees value in collecting data and its translation into their plans, they will be incentivised to keep it updated, for example, making water budgets every year. This can be done collaboratively - the Sarkar can assume responsibility to enable open data in formats that are easily usable; the Bazar can play a key role in making the data easily accessible through innovation in technology, processes, design, visualizations etc. 

It is time for us to re-write the narrative of water programmes in India. To do this capacity building and data should not be seen as one-time activities but as a foundation for impactful, sustainable, large scale programmes. This can then transform the journey for the community resource persons from receivers of knowledge to active participants of community transformation and change. Thus, investment in human assets through capacity building and data, are not expenditures that get written off in programmes but contribute to building assets – just like the check dams, the ponds and other physical structures that get constructed. 

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