The Union government, which will likely miss its deadline for supplying safe drinking water to the countryside by next April, wants states to spend more towards this ambitious project and is looking to improve its performance by roping in local bodies.
The government wants to change the funding model under the Accelerated Rural Water Supply Project, or ARWSP, part of the Bharat Nirman programme, which envisages providing safe drinking water to 604,000 villages by 2009.
The Rs1.76 trillion Bharat Nirman programme, launched in 2005, aims to improve or create rural infrastructure including roads, electricity and telecom connections, housing, drinking water supply and irrigation networks.
Until May, only 64.5%, or 390,000 habitations, of ARWSP’s 2009 target had been covered, according to the latest figures available with the government.
The situation is particularly alarming in “quality affected” habitations. Until May, only 48% of 217,000 such habitations had been covered (or treated) under ARWSP. These are areas where the water has excessive arsenic, fluoride, salinity and nitrates. Such substances are highly harmful, especially arsenic, which can cause diseases such as cancer.
The Centre now wants states to not only rely more on their own resources to treat habitations in such areas, but also put in place an effective coordinating mechanism headed by local bodies to fight these problems, according to a cabinet note reviewed by Mint.
“The Centre’s (monetary) support for quality affected (habitations) is up to 75% so far. The ministry of rural development as also the Planning Commission are in favour of reducing the Centre’s support to 50%,” said a senior government official, who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak to the media. He added that a cabinet note suggesting a change in Centre-state ratio in funding quality affected projects from 75:25 to 50:50 under ARWSP has already been moved.
The 11th Plan (2007-12) allocates Rs39,490 crore for rural water supply. During 2008-09, Rs7,300 crore has been allocated for ARWSP. India’s policy planning is carried out in five-year blocks; each of these is called a five-year plan.
The cabinet note also suggested that the states share equal responsibility of connecting more villages to the safe drinking water network. Until May, 67% of the targeted 55,000 uncovered habitations, that have not been connected to the network so far were covered by the project. The government wants to maintain the status quo (by equally sharing the expenses) as regards uncovered habitations.
This ratio, both in the case of quality affected habitations and uncovered habitations, is, however, proposed to be retained at 90:10 for special regions that need more Central support, such as Jammu and Kashmir and the North-East, the cabinet note said.
Chetan Pandit, chief engineer at the National Water Academy, a Pune-based think tank involved in water planning, said when it comes to managing rural water supply it’s not just about allocating money and resources. “Ensuring safe drinking water depends a lot on coordination between ministries. For instance, the environment and rural development ministries have to play active roles in getting pollutant-free water to villages and cities. But then there are technological difficulties too. For instance, nobody really knows what to do with arsenic. Even if you separate arsenic from the water, how do you dispose it?”
Jacob Koshy contributed to this story.