Resolving clean water woes of rural India

Delhi Jun 05, 2020, 02.08 PM(IST) Written By: Rachit Seth

Water crisis Photograph:( IANS )

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Access to clean drinking water in rural India is a massive challenge. Cleaning up water and using it as an economic asset is the need of the hour.

Imagine. Every day you have to carry 30-40 litres of water on your head and walk on rugged paths for 6-9 hours daily. Your back buckling under the heavyweight of the water. 

Your feet hurting, walking 5-7 kilometres daily in the scorching heat. Fetching water doesn’t get you any money. It only gets you survival. Life. This is how 82 per cent of rural households in India get their water. According to the Jal Shakti Ministry, 18 crore people living in rural areas don’t have access to piped water. The source of water being kilometres away. Often dirty and in summer months dry. 

Women in these households perform this task of fetching water daily, which you wouldn’t even dare to do. Access to clean drinking water in rural India is a massive challenge. Niti Aayog report states that 70 per cent of India’s surface water — rivers, lakes, ponds and wetlands etc are polluted. 

This makes the proximity to the source of clean water a serious problem. Our governments, public policy practitioners, non-government organisations and society at large — all stakeholders have come out with various solutions to the problem. Water is a subject which state governments deal with, but the union government has announced a massive integrated plan called Jal Jeevan Mission. Rs 3.6 lakh crore are to be spent on this project which aims to provide piped water connection to every rural household by 2024.

It is essential to understand the water system, its vastness and complexities. First, in any developing country, building and managing water infrastructure is a huge societal enterprise. A large amount of capital expenditure is necessary to build piped water networks. We are witnessing that in the proposed Jal Jeevan Mission.

Second, the storage of water is easy and convenient but the transportation of water is difficult and very expensive. Compare that with the transportation of similar natural resource, let’s say electricity. Electricity is easy to transport, but difficult to store. This is in diametrically opposite to water. No wonder, in India, electricity transportation to remote areas is still an easy task than distributing water. Long-distance transportation of electricity is feasible, but water transportation is required for localised areas.

Third, contaminated water always returns as food on our table. Most of our rivers are lying on deathbeds due to heavy pollution and human exploitation. Agricultural runoff is harmful to rivers because of the use of chemicals for cultivation, which has become the norm today. Any food growing on their banks is laced with heavy toxins and chemicals.

Policy interventions should be simple. Governments should have minimum interference upon the lives of individuals. The problem of access to water to rural India can have multiple solutions. So, what is the one simplest solution to this problem?

We need to clean up our surface water. The 70 per cent polluted surface water sources which Niti Aayog has identified consist of 13,000 lakes, ponds and wetlands, apart from 35 tributaries of major rivers. Even if we clean-up 13000 water bodies. It will solve only part of the problem. We need to begin somewhere. A ‘Swachh Jal Mission’ should be undertaken within the framework of the Jal Jeevan Mission, which if implemented correctly can clean these 13000 surface water bodies. Installing de-silting machinery and
ecological cleaning are the easy ways which we can do it.

Critics may argue that we already have similar mechanisms under the Namami Gange scheme launched by the union government and it is not showing many results. This is because the little emphasis is there on the monitoring of this mechanism in the Ganga cleaning mission. Every district should have a Swachh Jal Centre which can use technology to monitor the pollutant levels in the water bodies. Independent audits need to be done to oversee the entire process.

An awareness campaign which highlights the importance of clean water bodies in rural areas must be launched. An estimated 15 lakh hectares of water bodies will be cleaned up, and an additional 2.33 crore households will have access to clean water, if this mechanism is adopted. This will benefit 13 per cent households, thus lowering the 82 per cent household without access to around 68 per cent. Some progress, indeed.

According to the author’s rough calculations, an amount of Rs 7,000 crore is projected to be spent for 3 years, if this simple mechanism is adopted for 13000 water bodies. This is a small figure compared to what the government intends to spend. 

Water is the lifeline of our existence. It is not just an economic good, but it has cultural, social and environmental significance. Civilizations are born and destroyed by water.

India has a rich culture of preserving water through our step wells and bawlis. Cleaning up water and using it as an economic asset is the need of the hour. As the Sanskrit shloka goes – Prakritih Rakshati Rakshita — Nature protects, if it is protected.

(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)