Union Minister for Jal Shakti, Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, says that the Centre wants to make water conservation a mass movement. In an interview to Gyan Varma, Mint, the minister said that in the last 70 years, drinking water has been made available in 3.5 crore of a total 18 crore households. The government has set a target of at least four times this number. Edited excerpts.

The union government has completed 100 days in office recently, how has the journey been so far? What is the road ahead for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA)?

The Union government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has done historic work in the last 100 days. India waited 70 long years for the laws passed by the Parliament recently. Lok Sabha has passed 33 bills to meet aspirations of people and to take the country forward. Water (Jal) has become a challenge for the entire world and obviously for India, and dangers emanating from climate change are for all to see.

Scanty, erratic, and changing pattern of rainfall, delayed monsoon — there is grave danger before all of us. In 1951, the availability of water per person was 5000 cubic metre, but now it is 1700 cubic metres, and by 2025, it will be 1500 cubic metres. It is a cause of concern for us. PM was able to foresee the challenge, and integrated different departments working on water-related issues to form the Jal Shakti ministry. After the formation of the ministry, PM wrote a letter to all 2.5 lakh sarpanch, asking each and every village to conserve water, and to especially find ways to store water in fields, water bodies and homes.

The problem is acute because there is 65% dependence on ground water in the country and its consumption the maximum amount in the world. Our ground water consumption is 1.5 times of what the US and China consume put together. It is because of this over withdrawal, our ground water resources are under tremendous pressure.

The union government periodically studies more than 6,000 blocks, of which 1,592 are water stressed - either they have dried up or on the verge of drying up. These 1,592 blocks are part of 256 districts. The ministry has been trying to ensure how rain water can help recharge ground water. We are also trying to restore traditional water bodies which have disappeared. We want to make water conservation a mass movement.

We have rejuvenated more than 50,000 traditional water bodies in the last three months, more than 1 lakh new water bodies have been created.

Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

In the last 70 years, of the 18 crore households, drinking water has been made available to only 3.5 crore households. The government has set a target of at least four times this number. We are confident of achieving this target. We have set a vision for the ministry for the next five years, we will make the country secure in every aspect of water in the coming days.

You have been part of the union government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi since the beginning of the term in 2014, how do you look at the first and second term of Modi government?

The biggest challenge before the country when PM Modi was elected for the first time was to restore the credibility and trust of people in the government and the governance model. It had become common for people to believe that those elected to govern the country are involved in corruption and are frittering away the country’s resources. Corruption had become a major cause of concern for people before PM Modi assumed office and it was a challenge to address the problem. In the first term, PM Modi has given a corruption free government, and achieved development. He has also restored India’s credibility in the world stage. The credibility of the government earned during its first term has helped us make greater promises and set bigger targets for us. It will help us build a New India.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has set a target of providing safe drinking water to every home in the next five years, do you think the government will be able to meet its target?

The union government will achieve its target of providing safe drinking water to every home. We will 100% achieve this target. Five years ago when PM Modi set certain targets, nobody was ready to believe it can be achieved. But now we have succeeded in keeping those promises, and people believe that it can be achieved. It is a big target and technologically it will be challenging, but we have to achieve four times the work done in the last 70 years and it has to be done in four-and-a-half-years.

Even before the scheme was announced, we had called representatives from all state governments, and immediately after becoming the minister, I invited all ministers who are associated with water related issues in different state governments.

Water is a state subject but we tried to convey our priorities and while addressing challenges faced by state governments, so that we can work together through cooperative federalism. Another meeting was called of representatives from different states. India is a big country and same programme cannot work in every state, in some states different regions need different solutions. The state governments would need to come up with plans according to their needs, we are holding 6 regional conferences with state governments. Monitoring by independent third party is an integral part of all these plans.

Some of the states like Bihar have already started a similar programme of providing safe drinking water to every home. How is the national programme different from that of Bihar?

If we talk of different states, Sikkim is one state which already has 99% coverage. States like Gujarat has 79% coverage, Maharashtra has nearly 50% coverage. Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh have around 12% coverage. Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Assam and West Bengal where the coverage is less than 5% even now. The coverage is 1% in some states and at least 50% population lives in these states. The good part is that even state governments have given high priority to these issues. States like Karnataka, Bihar have started big programmes, and Uttar Pradesh government has also started ambitious plan for Bundelkhand region. We have assured the state government that there will be complete convergence of these programmes with the Centre’s ‘Har Ghar Jal’ scheme.

We have examples where union government or different state governments have provided subsidy in several government programmes, primarily in cooking gas and electricity. Is there a plan to subsidise drinking water for economically and socially weaker sections?

We are saying the complete opposite thing. The connection that will be provided to homes will be free of cost, so it will automatically be a subsidy. But this programme can never succeed without community participation. We have decided that supply, operation and maintenance of water supply in a village will be handled by water samitis (groups) of the village. Each village will have a samiti and they will not only manage the system but also protect it. The entire management and maintenance will be handled by the samitis. We have examples in Gujarat and Maharashtra, we plan replicate similar models in the entire country. We have decided that a portion of the total cost of the work in a village will be contributed by the village. For a general village, contribution will be 10% of the cost, while in village of scheduled caste (SC), scheduled tribe (ST) and hilly regions, contribution will be 5%. The village community will have to contribute this amount, and the people can contribute in cash, kind or labour. The contribution of the village will made into a corpus by the government which can be used by the village for operations and maintenance of the system. This system will lead to responsible leadership in the village.

The government has identified some areas where ground water has depleted, what is the strategy of the government for recharge of ground water?

We monitor around 6,800 blocks in the country, out of which 1592 blocks are water stressed. We have started working in these blocks. But recharge of ground water will not happen successfully till the time technology does not play an important role in it. No programme can be successful till the time people do not get involved. It is because of PM Modi that there is a discussion going on in the country.

Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

The biggest consumer of ground water is agriculture, so we have to solve the challenge in the field of irrigation. Both farmers and state governments will have to work towards optimum utilisation of water. States like Haryana have introduced crop diversification. The water of India is the least productive as far as agriculture is concerned. We require 5600 litres of water for growing a kilogram of paddy compared China’s requirement of 350 litres. We have to increase our water use efficacy, we have decided to reduce our water consumption in agriculture by 20%. Just as Haryana has introduced crop diversification, Maharashtra has introduced drip irrigation of sugarcane farming which consumes 80% of irrigation water in the state.

While there is a move for building smarter cities in the country, there are many urban centres where safe drinking water is not available to people in cities. How does the ministry plan to provide so much water to cover both cities and villages?

Our dependence on ground water is 65% whether it is for drinking or irrigation. If we only talk about drinking water then out of the 65%, over 20% water is contaminated. Arsenic is a big problem in Gangetic region along with fluoride and nitrate pollution. Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal are some states where this is a big challenge. Same solution can not solve problems of every region. So we have decided that where ground water is available for drinking we will make village-based schemes, but wherever drinking water is not available in a region, like Bundelkhand, or parts of Rajasthan, we will make multi-village and multi-district schemes. We have to ensure that the grey water discharge from homes in village is treated and waste get converted into wealth whether it is used for farming or recharge of ground water.

When we talk of the Jal Shakti ministry, a big part of the ministry is rejuvenation of rivers. Two rivers that are of prime importance are Ganga and Yamuna, by when do you think both the rivers would be clean?

It is a big question, we want that Ganga should be clean. It is our priority to ensure that Ganga is clean, but the problem cannot be solved till the time the tributaries of Ganga are also clean. Rivers like Hindon and Kali which are most polluted rivers are tributaries of Yamuna and Yamuna converges into Ganga. We will not succeed if we do not see this with a basin approach. We have decided to talk about the entire Ganga basin when we talk about Ganga. I am confident that by the end of this year, no raw sewerage will flow into Ganga from Gangotri to Rishikesh. And in the next two years, the water of Ganga will of bathing quality.

The BJP had promised in its election manifesto for interlinking of rivers, what is the progress in this direction? Which are the target rivers that will be linked first?

This is very important for the country. Even now, one-third of India faces floods every year, and at least one-third of India faces drought every year. The threats of climate change are visible and forecast models are of little help. It has become difficult to predict which areas will face floods and which are will face drought like conditions. In such a scenario, inter-linking of rivers is important for the country. We have identified 30 links where water can be transferred. Some are integrated links and some are individual links. But since water is an issue between states, so states will have to work towards reaching a common ground. There is more or less understanding between Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh on Ken-Betwa. Though some differences remain, we are hopeful of a resolution. We will be able to start the project soon. We will move forward in this direction in the coming five years. It is an important and ambitious project for the country.

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