Is safe drinking water for all an elusive goal for rural India?

The slipbacks in rural drinking water coverage have to do with poor acceptance of reforms to encourage community participation, and the traditional approach of funding targets for asset creation.
A hand pump in Madhya Pradesh (Source: IWP Flickr Photos) A hand pump in Madhya Pradesh (Source: IWP Flickr Photos)

The goal of securing universal access to safe drinking water continues to be elusive for India inspite of the impressive strides made in the current years. The working paper titled 'Unravelling rural India’s enduring water indigence: Framing the questions, issues, options and opportunities' published by the Centre for Policy Research, argues that although as high as 89% households in India have access to safe drinking water by 2011, the goal of extending safe drinking water coverage to all of rural India seems to be constantly out of reach. 

This has been attributed to problems related to lack of sustainability of water due to high groundwater depletion levels, system sustainability and increase in rural population causing habitations to slip back into 'not covered', 'partially covered' or 'water quality affected' status. However, an analysis of data related to access to drinking water by levels of groundwater stress, maintenance expenditure and rural population growth for different states in India shows no correlation between the two, and access to drinking water has been found to be inversely related to groundwater stress levels, maintenance expenditure and population growth in a number of states and vice versa.

Reasons for slipbacks in coverage

The paper argues that the answer can most probably be found in the overall approach that has been followed in the implementation of the schemes. For example, the national policy on rural drinking water has evolved through three distinct phases with very little central investment in the first phase in the sector until 1972-73. In the second phase, the Centre supported the goal of improved access to rural drinking water by financing it to cover targets of problem settlements. The state engineering departments or boards conceived and implemented most of these schemes.

By 1999, community participation came to be viewed as a critical factor in better design and maintenance. This phase, which continues until now, represents an attempt at introducing reform by asking states to bring in community participation in the design, construction and maintenance of some schemes while other schemes continued under the earlier model of delivery through state engineering departments or boards.

However, the reforms have seen a reluctant acceptance in official policy and this change continues to co-exist with the traditional approach of funding targets of asset creation. Over time, the limited space initially created for a demand driven approach has shrunk in size. Institutional incentives allotted under the current system of inter governmental transfers have often found to reward non performance while implicitly penalising performance. This leads to decay and disuse of schemes and accounts for a large chunk of slipbacks. They also weigh against any attempt to secure locally accountable delivery systems through the ‘demand driven approach’ while traditional structures continue to cater to the difficult situations of problems of adequacy and quality.

A way out

The paper argues that reforming this institutional structure to secure accountable delivery of water supply and not just infrastructure creation, destruction and recreation requires that the incentives offered by the largest funding window in the sector undergo alteration. State governments must seek for performance to be measured in terms of service delivery indicators and not funds for asset creation. They should feel the need to ensure that local bodies are vested with this delivery function to guarantee accountable delivery and that the existing delivery agencies are redesigned to make sure that this devolution is effective. Thus the centrally sponsored NRDWP must be redesigned to incentivise states in this direction.

Performance assessment in the drinking water sector can be done through:

  • Estimation of the extent to which delivery is making a difference to people’s quality of life.
  • Assessing the link between state intervention in drinking water and health outcomes.

Bringing in a new design that eliminates discretion and is linked to performance, faces three sets of challenges:

  • The mindset and entrenched interest that has grown around traditional CSS', both at Central and State level
  • The limitation that will result on the ability to play patron by the party in power at the Centre seeking to secure influence in specific states
  • The growing strength of the ‘entitlement’ perspective in the last decade

The paper ends by arguing that a genuine performance orientation however, needs to recognise the autonomous sphere of the states in decisions on the modes of implementation. A more state dominated political combination at the Centre could be a way out. At the same time, there is need for more work to demonstrate that current solutions are feeding back into the loop and do not represent a break from the expensive cycle of infrastructure creation, to accountable service delivery. The basic incentive structure of the stakeholders in the system has to be altered for sustainable change to have a chance.

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