According to a report by WaterAid, a water and sanitation nonprofit, released in 2016, India has the highest number (75.8 million) of people in the world without access to safe water. The report titled Water: At what cost? The state of the world’s water 2016 says that a majority of these people come from impoverished communities. They are forced to collect dirty water from open ponds and rivers or spend most of what they earn in buying water from tankers. The WaterAid report considers “chronic underfunding” of vital water resources, “government’s inability to prioritise clean water” and “social exclusion” of the poorest people as factors responsible for the lack of access to safe water.
The Government of India has two flagship programmes to look into sanitation and rural drinking water named Swachh Bharat Mission or SBM and the National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP) respectively. For the urban India, the programmes are the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT), earlier called Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) for water and the Swachh Bharat Mission (Urban) for the sanitation sector. Though there has been considerable focus on the sanitation sector in India in the recent years with the SBM being prioritised, the drinking water sector is still lagging behind.
With the budget 2017-18 round the corner, what are the policy and budget needs for the drinking water and sanitation sector? Should this year’s budget be a mere continuation of the trajectory set last year with the sanitation sector receiving the lion’s share of allocation? Or should the budgetary outlay be responsive towards the drinking water and sanitation needs of vulnerable sections of the society such as the poor and the women? What elements in the budget hold appeal for India's poor? A New Delhi-based public policy think tank, the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability (CBGA), on behalf of People’s Budget Initiative, a network of civil society organisations from across the country, submitted a set of suggestions for the consideration of the Government of India for Union Budget 2017-18. In its submission, CBGA set down the budget questions for the water and sanitation (WatSan) sector and flagged issues emerging from the ground. Here is a lowdown on their suggestions.
Focus on sanitation at the cost of drinking water
While the WatSan sector has been prioritised in the country’s policy agenda through the launch of the SBM, last year’s budgetary outlay for both the Centre and the states has shifted from drinking water to sanitation. The rural drinking water component has been missing attention in the last few years. As per the CBGA, the increase in sanitation allocation has come at the cost of reduced allocations to drinking water.
Budget 2016-17 had been a dampener in its rural drinking water component with the allocation of Rs 5000 crore for the NRWDP being only a marginal improvement from the previous year’s allocation of Rs 4373 crores. Most of the coverage targets had been met as per the Integrated Management Information System (IMIS) of the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, however, slip-back habitations (a phenomenon where the habitations previously covered by the drinking water provisions slip back to being not covered or partially covered) and sustainability of water sources are issues seeking attention. The CBGA suggests that though the fluoride and arsenic contamination in water have been focused on, other water contaminants like iron also need to be looked into. The recent drought situation in the country has exacerbated the drinking water crisis and has even led to slip-backs in toilet usage. There are also serious concerns regarding the quality of water and the issues of equity in accessing drinking water across social categories.
Seeking an increase in the budget for NRDWP
The CBGA believes that the allocations for the NRDWP, both at the union and state level (Rs 2,611 crore in 2015-16 as compared to Rs 11,000 crore in 2014-15), have shifted from drinking water to sanitation. A lot remains to be done to factor in the water, sanitation and hygiene elements given India’s international commitments like the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development where the representatives of the countries gathered at the United Nations headquarters in New York in September 2015 and adopted an agenda to end poverty and promote prosperity for all while protecting the environment and addressing climate change. It has water and sanitation at its core with a dedicated Sustainable Development Goal or SDG-6 on water and sanitation with clear links to other goals. Adequate and appropriate budget is necessary to ensure Goal 6 of the SDG is achieved.
CBGA points to a department-related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Rural Development, which in its 23rd Report on the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation in May 2016 has pointed out the negative fallout of the decrease in the union budget allocation for the rural drinking water programme. The CBGA suggests that the government acknowledge the importance of drinking water and make necessary allocations for it in the forthcoming union budget.
State budgets: A mixed bag
Following the 14th Finance Commission recommendations, the centrally-sponsored schemes (SBM and NRDWP) focusing on drinking water and sanitation, have undergone a change in the Centre-state fund-sharing pattern which has subsequently put more financing responsibility on the states. The fund-sharing pattern for SBM and NRDWP has changed from 75:25 and 50:50 respectively to 60:40. The CBGA has done an analysis of 10 states to examine the priorities emerging in the state budgets for 2015-16 and 2016-17 which indicates that drinking water and sanitation have seen a significant increase in budgetary priority in states like Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh, but the quantum of budget outlay for the sector has not witnessed any visible increase in many other states. States, where the increase in the budget for drinking water and sanitation sector is significantly lower than the increase in the total state budget over the last two financial years, are Odisha and Tamil Nadu.
Sanitation: More access is not more usage
High budgetary commitments have not been able to make the right to sanitation a perceptible reality. As per the Swachhta Status Report (2015) of the National Sample Survey Office, more than half of the rural population (52.1 percent) of the country still defecates in the open which is a key health and sanitation dilemma. India fares poorly on this front, while its neighbour Bangladesh performs way better than us with only five percent of rural people defecating in the open. As per this report, 45.3 percent households in rural areas of India reported having access to a sanitary toilet whereas, in the urban areas, the figure reported was 88.8 percent households. The increase in toilet coverage has been marred by the poor quality of operation and maintenance of these facilities. Thus, access to toilets does not necessarily translate to better usage of toilets. The key policy focus of the government should therefore be on encouraging behaviour change in people to ensure better toilet use. Budgetary support needs to be complemented with smooth institutional fund flow processes to be able to eliminate open defecation in India by 2019.
The CBGA has, in its submission to the Ministry of Finance this year, called for an increase in the unit cost of individual household latrines under the SBM (Urban). The SBM (Urban) is guided by the objective of making 1.04 crore individual household latrines in urban areas with a unit cost of Rs 4000 per toilet, which is much lower than the unit cost of rural individual household latrines. Since the material cost is higher in urban areas when compared to rural India, this amount is not adequate for meeting the demand. Research also shows that some states are allocating higher unit cost (to the tune of Rs 16,000) with their own contribution and the contribution from the urban local bodies. Adequate budget is needed to address the water and sanitation crisis in urban India with necessary transparency and accountability mechanisms.