Home / Economy / ‘Drinking water availability can result in a 2-3% jump in GDP’

Jal Shakti minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat has been tasked with what many believe holds the key to help the BJP secure a third consecutive victory in the next Lok Sabha polls. He has been entrusted with providing tap water connections to all rural households under the Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM) by 2024, drawing comparisons with the Ujjwala Yojana that helped the party win in 2019. In an interview, he spoke about the top performers. Edited excerpts.

What has been the Jal Jeevan Mission’s progress?

Prime Minister Narendra Modiji took the initiative to bridge the huge gap between urban and rural India in terms of ease of living. It was started in 2014 so that every person gets a house, toilet, electricity, cooking gas, bank account, and every village gets a road. These were the deliverables between 2014 and 2019. From 2019 to 2021, big work is happening in the field of clean drinking water, which is a deliverable that people are witnessing and which is going to bring a change in their lives.

Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM) is aimed at providing a solution to problems, and then there are huge indirect benefits, be it in terms of health and sanitation. There are around 50,000 habitations in the country where drinking water is laced with arsenic and fluoride. This is where there is chemical contamination. But where there is bacterial contamination in places such as ponds, that number is multiple times than this. If we solve this issue, it is going to give a big boost to the health indicators and, naturally, the economy. Drinking water availability can result in a 2-3% jump in the GDP.

The way that PM Modiji has designed the JJM is that the vision is not only to create infrastructure for water supply. The nomenclature given by him is a functional household tap connection. There are three indicators of functionality—quantity, that is, 55 litres per capita per day of drinking water; quality and regularity.

We had got the functionality testing done by independent agencies for around 40% of the rural households covered under the scheme. This happened three months back.

What was the takeaway?

It’s been good. Some states are doing surprisingly good, and there is a need for course correction in some states.

Goa, Telangana, Andaman & Nicobar and Puducherry have declared achieving the 100% target before deadline. Which are the other states that are on track?

States like Tripura are doing exceptionally good because the day when they initiated, they were much-much below our national average. But now, they are almost on par with the national average. Haryana has done remarkably good. Himachal Pradesh is doing exceptionally good, and they will be able to complete it by 2022.

In India, the highest numbers are always in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and then followed by Rajasthan. In these four states, Bihar has done good because they initiated their programme before the launch of JJM. While Bihar is not a problem, the remaining three states worry me.

Will they be able to meet the 2024 target?

They have to. Everyone has to do it. We are pushing hard. We are also giving incentives.

There were reports of dead bodies floating in the Ganga, post which studies were done to ascertain any impact on the water. What were the findings?

Ganga is such a huge, continuously flowing river over 2,500km. The water quality getting affected because of this number of dead bodies is not possible. This has been ruled out, and that can’t even happen. Putting unburnt or semi-burnt bodies in the Ganga is not a new thing.

Did the report negate this possibility?

I can say this 100%. This (study) was not done by a single agency, but we have got reports from multiple agencies such as IIT, Wildlife Institute of India and Indian Institute of Toxicology. We should not be worried at all.

Water has also acquired a strategic connotation. A case in point is what China plans to do to divert the water that flows into the Brahmaputra.

They haven’t built the dam yet. For almost 10 years, they were denying and refuting that they were doing any work, and they don’t have any plans for the diversion of water or creating infrastructure on Brahmaputra. But last year, Powerchina (Resources Ltd) had announced that they are planning to tap the hydel power potential in the Brahmaputra (known in China as Yarlung Tsangpo). This year, while announcing the five-year plan, the Chinese government has declared that it is initiating the construction of run-of-the-river projects and hydroelectricity projects on the Great Bend, right above Indian territory, where the Brahmaputra takes a U-turn, to tap the potential of almost what they are expecting is 60GW. It’s a huge thing. So, it’s a point of worry for us also.

India’s strategy is to harness hydropower resources by building our projects quickly to establish a prior use claim as per international law. What is the status?

Constructing projects quickly is not easy, but we are working on that for our water security also. See, the Brahmaputra river has a huge quantum of water flowing into it. That is almost equal to 500 BCM (billion cubic metres) of water. Nobody can tap that water; nobody can stop that water. If we speak in the overall annual context, the water that flows into the Brahmaputra river in our territory, 70% of it comes from our catchment area. So, China won’t ever be able to stop that. The water comes from our north-eastern region in the Barak valley and Brahmaputra valley as well. There are almost 126 tributaries that replenish this river.

The challenge before us is not that it will affect the overall quantum of water. But since all the rivers in our territory are rain-fed, the water in the lean season comes from the Tibetan plateau, from the snowmelt of the snowcapped mountains. For that water, if China builds diversion structures along with the run-of-the-river projects, then during the lean season of 4-5-6 months, it is going to be critical for us and for Bangladesh also and the entire ecology. So, we are making our plans for that.

So, what capacity are we constructing?

Let’s not discuss this. Strategically, it is not to be discussed and disclosed. We have our ambitious plans for the water security of the nation and to maintain the ecology of the river Brahmaputra and the entire Brahmaputra basin.

Given the Chinese perfidy, one doesn’t know what they promise and what they do.

If you look it up, they were claiming that they were not doing anything and they don’t have any plans. But simultaneously, in the last 7-8-10 years, if you Google the images, you will find out the infrastructure they have created there. They have brought rails (links) there. They have brought roads there to facilitate the construction activity that they have envisaged and declared now.

So, ours will not be run-of-the-river projects, but dams?

Yes, it will not be run-of-the-river projects; ours will be dams. There will be water storage. If we don’t do water storage, how will we bring water downstream in the lean season?

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