Any large-scale water security program by the government needs two things: [i] continuous data - given the dynamic nature of water - its annual replenishment depends on how much rainfall occurs and what farmers decide to grow in that agricultural cycle; and [ii] people who understand this data and continue to maintain the implementation post-intervention.
An absence of focus on these two aspects leads to slip-back, where communities return to status-quo or in some cases, situations worse than pre-intervention situations.
Let us take the example of the Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM), one of the largest drinking water programs in the country. Like most participatory programs, this scheme also requires a large amount of village-level information to start with and the collection of baseline data (on demographics, water availability, use, etc.) is the first step. There is a huge opportunity here to enable sharing and reuse of the plethora of data collected by a program like JJM.
This would require data to move beyond the program MIS and be opened up for use by the next program of the department/ ministry. Currently, however, this is not the trend and every new program starts with its fresh cycle of data collection; seldom leveraging what already exists.
In fact, this is not only relevant to future programs but even concurrent schemes within the same department or different departments. Right now, these schemes (for example Atal Jal and JJM) collect the same data separately even when the unit of intervention is the same.
This leads to redundant effort, loss of time and resources, and inefficiencies in the data collection and utilization process. And more often than not results in inconsistencies in data between programs for the same village.
Inconsistencies not only occur across programs but even within the same program as there are no guidelines and standards on how the data is collected or if another source is to be used as a reference.
For instance, we compared the basic demographic data available on JJM public dashboard with the Census 2011 data - the most recent database available on Gram Panchayat (GP) level population demographics. Of the 30 GPs randomly selected from across 7 States, one-third had used Census 2011 as their base data source and uploaded the same data on program MIS.
The other two-thirds, however, had entered different data, which wasn’t necessarily more recent than Census 2011. For example, in 6 of the GPs, the total number of people and households reported in the JJM dashboard was actually lower than Census 2011 data.
Lack of standards is a glaring challenge
What we have observed with the demographic data in the program is only the tip of the iceberg and this problem is not limited to only JJM. Similar observations have been made in data entered into other water programs as well. This makes it very difficult to build trust in the data collected and shared by programs. And without trust, advocating for reuse of data is futile.
Compared to data collected by programs and schemes, there is higher trust in data collected by agencies such as Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), Central Water Commission (CWC), which follow specific standards, procedures, and even deploy technology like sensors, IoT to ensure the accuracy of data. However, these databases are seldom used for local action and intervention planning in programs such as JJM.
Capacities and processes can help build trust in data
To enable a culture of data sharing between programs and reuse of data, the ecosystem must agree to the standards set (process, format, granularity, tools) and have visibility to the capacitated people at ground level who manually collect the data.
So, the critical next step is to train people, make them visible to programs, and ensure the data collected by them moves not only to the next program but also back to villages where it can be used for better planning towards water security.
This would allow for the same set of individuals to collect, interpret and supply data across programs and enable GPs to look at water management as a holistic subject rather than approach it scheme-by-scheme.
The good news is that there is an increased focus on generating good quality data. For instance, the Ministry of Jal Shakti has invested in establishing the National Water Informatics Center (NWIC). It is also making rapid strides in unifying and sharing data under initiatives like India-WRIS and National Hydrology Project (NHP) through collaborations with multiple departments and agencies like CWC, CGWB, NRSC, CPCB, and NIH for variables such as water levels, precipitation, climate, water quality etc.
Most of this data is planned to be acquired, analyzed, and visualized automatically using sensors and telemetry devices. This is commendable because it makes reliable and real-time data available for water management and governance.
As programs and agencies continue to gather more recent information, a platform like India-WRIS could start building up time series databases for every GP, especially for data that directly impact water management, so that all the concerned stakeholders know the latest data source to refer to.
NWIC could also take a lead on setting data collection guidelines, capacities, and standards to be defined to any data collected by any program on water so that any data generated by programs or agencies can get directly integrated in the platform. This is in line with NWIC’s vision to become a single-window data provider for water management in the country.
NHP has already standardized the training of parahydrogeologists/ Jal Doots and made the resources available on the platform to enable building of such capacities at village level.
As every program and state trains more of these professionals, they need to be digitally footprinted so that any future initiative can discover them and leverage their skills and services without creating redundancies in training and data collection. NWIC could start aggregating and showcasing this information as well.
None of this is merely theoretical or feel-good. In fact, The Government of Meghalaya has recently created the Center of Excellence for Natural Resource Management and has opened up opportunities for reuse of trained people, data, and knowledge across the departments in the State.
Through the program portal, it is now possible for any state department or concerned stakeholders to discover NRM professionals at village level, access training content, and view data collected and verified in a particular program.
Using a similar architecture at national level, through India-WRIS, it can be made possible for a large entity like the Ministry of Jal Shakti to streamline its various efforts in water and sanitation and ensure that the outcomes it envisages become a reality even beyond the duration of programs it runs.
Manisha Shah and Amrtha Kasturi Rangan work with Arghyam - a Bengaluru-based philanthropic organisation working on water security for close to two decades.