New Delhi: More Indian homes have access to a phone than a water tap or toilet within the house. While at least the physical presence of toilets has increased due to the Swachh Bharat Mission, public attention on the need to expand access to safe water has dropped off the radar.
In an interview on the eve of World Water Day on 22March, Parameswaran Iyer, secretary in the ministry of drinking water and sanitation, talks about the government’s plan to provide piped water to every Indian household, the programme’s sustainability, and linkages between water access and Swachh Bharat. Edited excerpts:
According to census figures, more households in India have access to a phone than a water tap within their homes. Government schemes at least since 1969 have tried to improve the coverage. Why has this been such a hard problem to solve?
I think a fair amount of progress has been made. Nearly 80% of India’s rural dwellers receive the prescribed 40 litres of water per person per day through some source—a dug well, a nearby river, a handpump, etc. If you look at only piped water supply, which includes both private connections as well as public stand posts, about 56% of India’s rural households have access. When it comes to individual households with a water tap inside the house, that ratio is about 17-18%. There are these three different ways of looking at access to water. In the end, people would prefer to have piped water supply in their households. That is the aspiration. And we are developing a road map to achieve that over a period of time. There are a variety of reasons as to why drinking water supply, particularly in rural areas, is challenging. Drinking water is different from any other form of infrastructure. We need to worry about where we source the water since groundwater levels have been depleting fast; we need to think of ways to incorporate operational and maintenance expenses, which are significant; and we need to decentralize water management to the lowest appropriate level. There are also issues related to the charging of user fees.
You mentioned coverage. In rural areas, it stands at about 17%. The government’s goal is to push that up to 90% by 2022. Is this achievable?
We have taken a first step towards that goal by restructuring the national rural drinking water programme and turning it into a performance and results-based scheme. In a major reform, the government decided in November 2017 that only the first instalment of central funds will be released to states through the current method of using a formula, which includes criteria like degree of scarcity, population, the geography of the terrain, etc. Further release of funds will now be based on an evaluation of performance and sustainability, which will be undertaken by an independent third party. It is a very good step to link funding with performance and results. This will incentivize states which deliver results.
But it looks like the country will miss the 35% coverage target set for March 2018 in its march towards the 2022 goal...
We are taking a look at these targets again. We want to make sure the process we have initiated is followed—on how the water is supplied. It’s not just about reaching a target, which may then not be sustained. So, it needs to be done in a sustainable way. And that’s what we are working towards with the state governments. India is a large country. States are at different levels of coverage of piped water supply. Every state has different issues, so a one-size-fits-all approach won’t work.
Several parliamentary standing committees have also pointed to the worrying trend of slip-backs, where habitations which do get water lose that status in a few years. One report said that nearly 140,000 habitations slip back each year.
One of the major focus areas, going forward, is how do you ensure sustainability of the water source and prevent it from getting depleted. What we are going to try and do going forward is to make sure there is integration with water conservation measures undertaken under MGNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act). So, when we increase water supply, particularly in rural areas, we need to make sure measures to preserve source sustainability are taken, in terms of water conservation and watershed development activity. That is one way to make sure whatever extraction takes place is sustainable as a result of adequate recharge.
Will user charges also be used as a mechanism to limit water usage?
I think efforts are under way in that direction across all ministries. There is an economic as well as social cost to water. It’s important to have an appropriate pricing mechanism. It has to be balanced with affordability as well. But there is increasing emphasis on the fact that there is a cost to water. Ultimately, it will be the states and local bodies which deliver the service that will take a call on pricing.
The government has been claiming significant improvements in toilet coverage due to Swachh Bharat. How usable will these new toilets be without easy and adequate access to water?
Clearly, there is a connection between water access and sanitation. We are addressing that in a couple of ways. Any village which has become open defecation free (ODF) will get priority for water supply through piped water. That’s a policy decision which has been taken. So, there is now an incentive for villages to become ODF. At a technical level, the emphasis is on kam paani wala toilets which have a steeper slope, and hence use very little water to flush. The typical toilet pan takes anywhere between four-five litres per flush. We are introducing a technology where the water consumption is about 1.5 litres per flush. So, these new toilets will need less water. But obviously, the more villages get piped water, the easier it will become to use these new toilets.