Safe Drinking Water : The Task Ahead

Submitted by Hindi on Mon, 09/26/2016 - 12:03
Kurukshetra Ministry of Rural Development, May 2010

More than 3.5 million hand pumps and over 100,000 piped water supply schemes have been installed in the country under the Rural Water Supply Programme. The total estimated cost for operation and maintenance (O&M) of this, at the present value, would be around Rs. 2,000 crore per year (10-15 per cent of the capital cost). A majority of the schemes remain non-functional and many others become permanently defunct due to lack of proper maintenance and repairs for want of funds.

The Constitution of India through the provisions of Article 47 guaranteed the states to provide clean drinking water and improve public health. The constitutional jurisprudence ofthe country developed by the judiciary has placed drinking water as a derivative right within the purview of right to life under Article 21. Since Independence various programmes have been undertaken by the Government to provide water to the rural habitations. With over 700 million people living in around 1.60 million rural habitations, rural India still sustains around 70 per cent of total population of the country. Provision of safe drinking water to sucha huge population is a complex challenge.

Drinking waterWater is a state subject, and the schemes for providing drinking water facilities are implemented by the states. In addition, the 73rd Constitutional Amendment, which provided for the constitution of Panchayats at the District, Intermediate, and Village levels, also provides in the Eleventh Schedule of the Constitution that Drinking Water and Sanitation are matters that could be devolved to the Panchayats through State legislations. Under the provisions of Article 243G of the Constitution, most states have devolved powers and responsibilities in respect of Drinking Water and Sanitation to the Panchayats.

Traditionally water supply in India was limited to major towns and cities and that too were within the boundaries of state/provincial units. With the spread of the process of urbanization and declining public health standards in both urban and rural India, post-independent India took a serious initiative in the form of laws and policies.

A two-way approach has been adopted by India, in this regard, viz:

1. Legislations focusing on water supply and at times on water supply and sanitation, to bedriven by the state agencies.

2. Policy initiatives by the central government in order to assist and supplement the states’activities with the overall objective of providing safe drinking water and thereby promotingpublic health.

As far as the institutional structure for rural drinking water supply is concerned, the Ministry of Rural Development, Department of Drinking Water Supply, is responsible for planning, policy formulation, direction, financing, monitoring and reviewing the implementation and progress at the central level. The Ministry had set up the National Drinking Water Mission Authority with the Prime Minister as Chairman and an Empowered Committee headedby the Cabinet Secretary to review the progress of implementation of the programme. At the State level, the Public Health Engineering Departments, Panchayati Raj Departments, Water Boards, etc. are executing the Programme.

Evolution of Water Supply Programs in India

The first protected water supply system was initiated in Ernakulam town in 1914; and inTrivandrum, in the 1930s. More than 80% of the rural population did not have access to safe drinking water, which explains the deplorable conditions of public health as prevailed in the immediate days of independence of the country. The provincial governments depending on the financial resources at their disposal carried out the responsibility of water supply.

The water supply and sanitation were recommended priority areas by the Bhore Committee (1946) and the Environmental Committee (1949) with elaborate plans. Although no immediate measures were adopted by the Central government, in the year 1954, it providedassistance to the states to establish special investigation divisions in the fourth Five YearPlan to carry out identification of the ‘problem villages’. The Accelerated Rural Water SupplyProgram was introduced in 1972-73 by the Central Government keeping in mind the magnitude of the problem and to accelerate the pace of coverage of problem villages. The program provided assistance to the states and the Union territories with 100% grants- in- aid to implement the schemes in such villages. This program continued till 1973-74. But with the introduction of the Minimum Needs Program (MNP) during the fifth five year plan (1974- 75) with the objective of socio-economic development of the community, it was withdrawn. The Programme was however, reintroduced in 1977-78 when the progress of supply of safe drinking water to identified problem villages under MNP was found to be not focusing enough on the problem villages.

There were international initiatives, which boosted India’s striving towards providing 100%coverage of rural and urban population with safe drinking water. These initiatives include the WHO movement on health for all by the year 2000(1977), the Alma Ata Declaration on Public Health (1978) and the programmes which began as part of the international water supply and sanitation decade. The drinking water programmes were taken up with a ‘mission approach’, enriching them with scientific and technological input in order to ensurebetter performance with less cost. A Technology Mission(TM) was set up by the central Government in 1986 to assist the state in drinking water supply. The aim of the mission was to set up small projects and identify the causative factors for public health problems arising from drinking water sources in a scientific manner. TM has been renamed as the Rajiv Gandhi National Drinking Water Mission [RGN DWM] with the broad objective of providingsustainable safe drinking water to all ‘uncovered’/‘no source’ villages and creating awareness among the rural people about the hazards of using unsafe water. The Department of Drinking Water Supply was created in the Ministry of Rural Developmentby the Central government, and is acknowledged as the nodal agency with the responsibilityof providing safe drinking water to all rural habitations.In February 2006, the Governmentlaunched the National Rural Drinking Water Quality Monitoring and Surveillance Programme.This envisages institutionalisation of community participation for monitoring and surveillance of drinking water sources at the grassroots level by gram panchayats and Village Water and Sanitation Committees, followed by checking the positively tested samples at the district and state level laboratories.

The Current Dilemma

As of the Tenth Five-Year Plan, Rs.62,614 crore has been spent on providing safe drinkingwater. One would argue that the expenditure is huge but improvements have been slow due to difficulty in delivering services and in promoting development at district and local levels to enforce and monitor the large programs. Water systems are not properly monitored and are hindered by poor finances and community involvement. Water contamination continues to cause waterrelated diseases even in large cities such as Delhi because most municipalities do not have systems for monitoring water quality.

More than 3.5 million hand pumps and over 100,000 piped water supply schemes have beeninstalled in the country under the Rural Water Supply Programme. The total estimated cost for operation and maintenance (O&M) of this, at the present value, would be around Rs. 2,000 crore per year (10-15 per cent of the capital cost). A majority of the schemes remain non-functional and many others become permanently defunct due to lack of proper maintenance and repairs for want of funds. It is, therefore, necessary to give highest priorityto O&M. Most states face resource problems and, therefore, tend to neglect maintenance. Funds under the Minimum Need Programme (MNP) and the Accelerated Rural Water Supply Programme (AR WSP) are already available to meet some of the O&M costs.

In the context of obligation to provide drinking water arrangements, in the recent years Indiadeveloped a twist in its strategy from state as the service provider to state as the facilitator. This facilitating role envisages more decentralization of the drinking water sector. The shift from a supply based approach to demand-driven strategy seeks for community participation. The externally funded water supply and sanitation projects speak about public-private participation.

Monitring water quality

The Way Forward - Some Suggestions

Emphasis must be laid on the participation of stakeholders at all levels, from planning, design and location to implementation and management. Suitable institutional and funding arrangements through community participation need to be evolved to get the installations working. The problem of poor maintenance can best be tackled by decentralizingO&M by making the beneficiaries and panchayats stakeholders in the system. Theresponsibility of O&M should rest with the panchayats, as already conceivedin the sector reform program. ‘Village Water Committees’ should be actively involved in the maintenance of drinking water supply schemes and a system of beneficiary participation introduced. Participation of village women and NGOs/voluntary organisations shouldalso be encouraged.

In view of the increasing problem of water quality and the resultant health hazards, it isnecessary to institutionalise water quality monitoring and surveillance systems. Water quality surveillance should be done by an independent organisation, more appropriately by the Health Department which should be provided with adequate funds for the task. Routine analysis of water samples for their physicochemical and microbial quality should beundertaken and monitored at the state level by the Public Health Department.

The community has to be made conscious about water quality through health educationand awareness campaigns and water testing kits shall be made available to a range of institutions, including schools and colleges and qualified NGOs in the area.

All possible measures should be taken to remove the disparity in access to potable wateracross regions and socioeconomic groups.

The choice of technology in case of schemes related to water quality (detection of fluoride, iron, arsenic), shall be district/block specific. Further research is required to improve available technologies for treatment of chemically contaminated water, in terms of their simplification and increased cost effectiveness.

The three major and widely prevalent problems in sustainable supply of drinking water — scarcity, brackishness and excess fluoride content — are manifested mainly in the low rainfall and high potential evaporation areas. An integrated water management approach is, therefore, necessary to solve these problems.

(The author is Assistant Professor , Department of Social Work , Assam (Central) University, Silchar -788 011; e