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30 years of liberalisation, but no clean water to drink

Billions of rupees have been invested to remove waste from rivers and provide constant access to safe drinking water. But on the ground, it's still all dirty

A 'sadhu' takes a dip at the confluence of Ganga and the Bay of Bengal on the occasion of Makar Sankranti in Kolkata on 14 January. (AFP)

When the world was wrapping up 2020, looking forward to the delivery of covid-19 vaccine, a news development from a coastal city shook India. An 11-year-old boy in Kerala’s Kozhikode district had died within days after suffering from diarrhoea and fever. Soon, more people were admitted to the hospital with similar symptoms. North Kerala was put on high alert.

After an urgent investigation, the state health minister announced the cause: shigellosis, an infectious disease caused due to contaminated water. Waterbodies in the region were immediately sanitised.

It’s been close to 30 years since July 1991, when licence-permit raj came to an end, India opened to the global economy and economic liberalisation began life here. A necessity as basic as clean water, whether in our drinking taps or rivers, however, remains a distant dream.

Over the years, states, as well as the Central government, has invested billions of rupees to provide water to citizens. Between 2014 and 2019, the investments in water-related infrastructure increased at a 15% compounded rate, reaching $21 billion in the year ended March 2019. Yet, only a little over 21% of Indian households, a majority of them in rural parts, have access to piped water, shows the latest data by the National Sample Survey Office. To put things in perspective, India is home to about 17% of world’s population but has only 4% of the world’s freshwater resources and pumps out 25% of the world’s groundwater.

Our country’s main source of drinking water is groundwater, which is being overexploited. Data by the Central Groundwater Board shows the contribution of groundwater is nearly 62% in irrigation, 85% in rural water supply and 45% in urban water supply. Most people in rural areas depend on community wells and hand pumps. Globally, five of the 20 world’s largest cities under water stress are in India, with Delhi being second on the list, according to a study published in the Global Environmental Change journal. What’s more, about 200,000 people die every year due to inadequate water, sanitation and hygiene.

“The irony about liberalisation is that you would want to give people a choice but in water, there’s no choice,” points out V.K. Madhavan, chief executive of WaterAid, a non-governmental organisation that works in rural and urban areas for Clean Drinking Water Sanitation and Hygiene. “The packaged water industry is one of the fastest-growing (reports show it is expected to reach over 400 billion by the end of 2023, from 2019’s value of 160 billion). What does it suggest? The failure of the state to provide clean water (water is a state issue).”

He points out that the government’s emphasis has consistently been on developing water infrastructure like borewells, but not enough attention is paid to maintenance. “If you look at the number of installations for access to water resources, you will realise it has increased. But nobody checks whether they are working after a year,” adds Madhavan.

Hoping for change

Last year, when the Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman presented the Union Budget in Parliament, she allocated 115 billion for the Jal Jeevan Mission, the Central government’s ambitious programme to provide piped water to all households in the country by 2024. The allocation was 15% more than in the previous budget.

Besides focusing on increasing local water sources, the scheme looks at recharging existing sources and promoting water harvesting and desalination. “Water stress-related issues are now a serious concern across the country,” Sitharaman stressed in her 2020 speech.

If India manages to provide piped water to every single house in the country, it will be able to shift United Nations General Assembly’s Sustainable Development Goal 6, which is about “clean water and sanitation for all”. “That’s because we have the world's second-highest population. It will be a huge development in India's water story,” believes Sushmita Sengupta, manager of the water programme at the Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment.

Madhavan is also hopeful the Jal Jeevan Mission will be a "massive game-changer but it remains to be seen how they will ensure sustainable source of water and maintenance of the infra.”

The river story

The Indian government’s work on river management can be perhaps best explained through the Namami Gange programme. More than six years ago, the National Democratic Alliance government launched the 200 billion project to clean the severely polluted river Ganga, held sacred by millions of Hindus across the world. But the development work has constantly been under the scanner, with the National Green Tribunal questioning authorities for the slow pace of cleaning-related work.

In fact, a 2020 report by the Central Pollution Control Board stated the quality of the Ganga water deteriorated owing to the discharge of untreated or partially treated sewage despite curbs on human activities during the covid-19-induced lockdown.

“We are not thinking holistically,” Sengupta insists. “We can’t clean rivers till we treat the sewage. The push for more industries will result in even more waste. We need to actively involve communities, whether it is laying down pipes, managing infrastructure. We need to plan with them... work at the grassroots level with them. Water pollution is a very serious problem and it's going to hurt more while we are staring at one of history's biggest water shortage crises.”

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