The missing frontline worker
India is gearing up to take water to every rural household, but a crucial community connection is missing!
The frontline worker, a crucial but missing link in the water space (Image Source: Sunderrajan Krishnan)

Nobody on the frontline

There is a war going on. The generals are plotting. The armoury is ready. Lands are to be won. The people are all charged up. But there is one problem. Maybe it's a big one. There is nobody on the frontline.

This might be futuristic. Wars are probably going to be fought in cyberspace and in the minds of people. The fighters will be electronic.

But, not today. And not for the wars being fought for human development. Climate change is estimated to cause trillions of dollars in damages to Water systems - floods, contamination, droughts. We need action on a war footing. The policy papers show urgency. But not if we see feet on the ground, or the lack of it.

The frontline worker (FLW) is often the enigmatic missionary of development programmes. You want to vaccinate a billion people. Don't worry, there is an FLW nurse reaching out to every community. You want to get hot meals for children everywhere. No problem. There is a nutrition FLW out there doing her job.

You want to reach water to every household, with the community owning up to the local systems. Here, we have a problem.The Water FLW is missing !

India is fighting a water war. This has been going on since long. Every few years, we have a renewed alarm statement, but the crisis continues and it keeps hurting those who can’t fight it.

The country is now aiming to reach water to every rural household. Water that is potable to drink off the tap.

The assumption is that communities at a sub-Panchayat (local governance institutions) collectively manage and maintain water supply systems and sustain them over time. They test water, do repairs, and plan together for the future. All noble goals, and very rightly said.

But, as of now, the Village Water and Sanitation Committee (VWSC) in a sub-Panchayat level is mostly voluntary. Some states have a small remuneration to a water operator whose job is to open and close the tap. Most states don't have that too.

Respecting the last mile

If the imagination is for maintaining water supply systems (pipes, pumps and plants), with community participation, there needs to be someone out there with some responsibility. Vaccines can’t be self administered. Hot nutritious meals for children can't be self cooked in mass by impoverished migrating rural communities. The same holds true for Water, where, a basic primary daily need has to have a dedicated FLW who manages the local system. (S)he has to be paid with respect and to be given responsibility along with it.

But the missing FLW haunts water programmes. Some water conservation programmes such as the Watershed programmes have provision for local resource persons or mobilisers who are hired for a project period. The national employment guarantee programme has people in villages looking at labour hires, accounting and related activities.

Time that we thought of Water as a single whole. An FLW for water can serve multiple needs and programmes. (S)he can support maintenance of infrastructure and bring in newer flavours such as adaptation to climate change, safer water for irrigation, and other future efforts.

By giving respect to the last mile, we have our only chance of fighting the war. The generals are putting their best foot forward. The plans are well laid.

Time to give life to the Water infantry.

About the author: Dr Sunderrajan Krishnan is the Executive Director of INREM Foundation, a research organisation that works on issues concerning water, public health, agriculture and environment.

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