India’s experience with delivering safe drinking water in rural areas is a mix of good and bad. The good news is that the infrastructure is in place. Estimates from 2008-09 government data indicate that 93% of rural habitations have access to drinking water facilities. The bad news is that access has not translated into supply of safe water. According to the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program projections, less than 40% of rural India is likely to be drinking safe water in the next 10 years. So where has all the water gone?
India’s rural drinking water policy is a classic case of policy gone wrong because it focused too much on infrastructure creation and too little on outcomes from infrastructure. Consequently, significant sums of money have been pumped into asset creation. According to 2008-09 government estimates, Rs72,600 crore has been spent since the First Plan (1951-56) on the provision of drinking water. Drinking water infrastructure received a significant boost in 2005, when the United Progressive Alliance’s first government launched Bharat Nirman, a flagship programme to improve rural infrastructure, including water supply facilities.
With Bharat Nirman, funds increased (allocations rose from Rs3,645 crore in 2005-06 to Rs7,120 crore in 2009-10) and infrastructure improved. Pipes were laid and hand pumps installed, but water quality remained much the same. The success of the programme has been measured in terms of physical infrastructure built rather than communities’ access to the service. Funding is tied to physical targets such as construction of water supply facilities and to use government language, “coverage” across rural habitations, and while there is some talk of quality, it isn’t measured. The result: a system with no incentives for ensuring the actual delivery of services, operation, maintenance and quality standards of water systems, monitoring water quality and so on.
Closely linked to the provision of safe drinking water is the issue of sanitation as poor sanitation facilities result in bacterial contamination of water. In fact, India’s sanitation record is abysmal. According to the United Nations Human Development Report 2006, a mere 33% of India’s population has access to sanitation facilities. The rural scenario is even worse at 18%.
Part of the problem is that sanitation has been accorded low priority. But worse, when money has been spent, it addressed the wrong problem. In 1986, the government launched the Central Rural Sanitation Programme to construct toilets in every village. By 2001, the programme had covered a mere 20% of rural households. And even if toilets were built, they were rarely used. In Himachal Pradesh alone, of the 400,000 toilets constructed, a mere 3% were being used. The problem was not one of infrastructure (or lack of it). Rather, it was lack of awareness of the links between sanitation and health, which meant that people did not quite see the importance of toilets.
The good news is that sanitation policy has recognized this problem. In 2003, the Union government launched the Nirmal Gram Puraskar (NGP)—an incentive scheme that offers rewards of up to Rs50 lakh (based on population) to panchayats (rural councils) of villages where everyone uses toilets. NGP recognizes the central role that local governments can play in motivating communities to change their behaviour and also offers a new mode of fiscal transfers that can create incentives for change. This is combined with a programme called the Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) that provides health education to create awareness and demand for better sanitation facilities in rural areas.
Both TSC and NGP have been successful in accelerating access to sanitation. Between 2001 and 2005 alone, 2.8 million toilets were constructed with usage ranging from 60% to 80% all over India. This is, of course, a small dent; according to projections, even at this enhanced rate of construction and usage, it will take till 2024 before India achieves 100% sanitation.
The sanitation story holds important lessons. It shows that government can learn from past mistakes and innovate to find solutions—so change is possible. More importantly, it demonstrates the critical role that local governments and community ownership can play in ensuring outcomes. And this means more than just infrastructure. Interestingly, rural water policy has long recognized the importance of local governments in operating and maintaining water supply facilities. The recent national rural drinking water implementation framework note explicitly refers to this. In practice, however, very few state governments have taken steps to push for real devolution of authority to local governments. Ultimately, reforms are about political will and if there is one thing that India’s rural water and sanitation story can tell us, it is that this will is severely lacking.
So, despite some good stories, India is many miles away from achieving the millennium development goal of providing safe drinking water and improved sanitation facilities for all. It is ironic that achieving these goals doesn’t require much infrastructure, but infrastructure is all we seem to have got.
Yamini Aiyar is a senior research fellow and director of the Accountability Initiative of the Centre for Policy Research.
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