Rural development minister Raghuvansh Prasad Singh is particularly fond of telling this story. A village head from Maharashtra convinced his doctor son to start his practice in the village. The son didn’t regret it; long queues outside his clinic were a testimony to both his popularity and the ill health of the villagers.
The good doctor’s father then started a total sanitation campaign. It did so well that the village won a Nirmal Gram Puraskar (NGP, or Clean Village Prize), a government award of up to Rs5 lakh given to villages having, among other qualities, flush toilets in every household and school. As patients dwindled, the son was forced to shift his clinic to the nearest town.
Unfortunately, this experience is isolated and the bulk of India’s villages still go without basic sanitation. It could have been worse, but for the introduction of NGP on 2 October 2003—coinciding with Mahatma Gandhi’s birth date—as an incentive?scheme?under?the?Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC).
TSC itself was launched four years earlier in 572 districts and gives a subsidy of Rs1,500-2,000 to build a toilet. Till April 2007, NGP was awarded to 4,959 villages and another 500 are in the queue.
As a result, sanitation coverage has now crossed 45% of all villages, compared with 31% in 2005 and 22% in 2001. Though there are still 25 districts yet to be covered, the target of covering all households by 2012 is seemingly within reach.
Encouraged by its success in sanitation, the government is setting up a similar award for water supply, where progress is dismal and the targets under Bharat Nirman—the ambitious four-year rural infrastructure programme—are likely to be missed.
The Sajal Gram Puraskar, the new prize, will have an uphill task. With only 30% of the average target under drinking water supply having been met in the first two years of Bharat Nirman, it’s clear that the shortfall won’t be made up in the next couple of years, especially in terms of covering new habitations and in those areas where water quality is poor or laced with arsenic and fluoride. A covered habitation means a locality of 100-250 people with a safe source of potable water (tap or hand pump) placed within 1.6km and supplying 40 litres per capita a day.
About Rs50,450 crore is needed meet these targets by the end of the 11th Plan, or by 2012. The allocation this year, the first year of the Plan, has gone up 42% more than last year to Rs6,500 crore, but it’s still not enough to make a good beginning, said a senior official in the Planning Commission, which has done the evaluation and monitoring of Bharat Nirman.
The official, who asked that he not be named because he is not the spokesperson, said that “at least three to four times the amount of money is needed for the water sector which has been neglected for too long.” The money is also too little to help state governments, many of which are hard-pressed to raise even 25% of the cost that they have to put up as their share for implementing Central sector projects.
Almost all the states have slipped behind in completing projects on time. In terms of the pending projects in Swajaldhara, the key scheme in water sector now replaced by the Accelerated Rural Water Supply Programme (ARWSP), the time lag is as high as four years against the time frame of 18 months.
The social costs of these slippages are prohibitive. Annually, 0.4-0.5 million children under five years succumb to diarrhoea. Maternal deaths account for almost 25% of the world’s childbirth related deaths. Almost half of the population of children under the age of five are malnourished and 34% of newborns are underweight.
Sundar Subramaniam, independent consultant and author of a 2002 Planning Commission report on water, says that “just because a habitation is covered, does not mean that the people there actually use the facility. There can be several reasons for disuse: bad water, poor maintenance or collapse of the institutional arrangement.”
India’s drinking water scenario is plagued by two problems. First, a rising number of “slipped-back habitations”, which means areas with safe and adequate water earlier have now dried up or the pumps and pipes are broken. Second, there are a large number of areas where the water is dangerous to drink because of severe groundwater contamination, lack of recharging of water and poor sanitation.
To fix this, the rural development ministry has now decided to take help from the country’s space programme, says Santha Sheela Nair, secretary, water supply. Data mapped by the Indian Remote Sensing Agency, Hyderabad, together with the Central Ground Water Board, are being used to prepare ground water prospecting maps for all major states. Local governments are also being told to give priority to build water supply infrastructure under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.
Nair also said that “all programme funds need to mesh together.”
The 11th Finance Commission grants of Rs4,000 crore a year for water directly to panchayats will now be dovetailed into the states’ plans, as well as the funds for watershed development. “Sanitation programmes will benefit from convergence with environment and health ministries and will be a part of the overall health campaign and awareness policy as well,” she adds.
For years, experts have asked for treating sanitation as a part of the health campaign. Abusaleh Shariff, principal economist at the National Council of Applied Economic Research, said “poor sanitation imposes the maximum physical and health burden on women. As a result, maternal mortality on the ground is actually much higher than the official 40% of all women’s deaths. Our health policy should combine hygiene and sanitation and safe water along with nutrition, food and childcare and not just depend on doctors and medicine.”
TSC has made a difference because it is demand-driven and community-led, but focuses on individual latrines. Local governments play a pivotal role in the programme and the costs of subsidies are now shared between the Centre, state and beneficiaries. The Swajaldhara programme did the same, before being replaced by the “engineer-driven” ARWSP.
Joe Madiath, secretary, Gram Vikas, an Orissa-based non-governmental organization that has done pioneering work in sanitation in more than 350 villages, is not surprised at the slow pace of progress. Madiath says the first important job in sanitation is to change the culture of open-air defecation, which is prevalent in almost 90% of India. “It is the remaining 10% that most wins?the?NGP?awards,”?he adds.
The second most important job is to realize that good, lasting toilets with water connections cost money. He says the government’s subsidy of Rs1,500-2,000 simply allowed the digging of three pits and putting a pan on it, with hardly any accompanying infrastructure. It requires more investment. Gram Vikas toilets cost at least Rs3,500 and each user pays for it.
Unless government agencies realize that giving a poor person proper water supply and sanitation facility is adding to the dignity in his life, targets will continue to remain elusive, he adds.
A TRICKLE PROGRESS UNDER BHARAT NIRMAN (Graphic)