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Gujarat has joined Haryana and Telangana in providing every household of the state with a piped water connection. In 2021, Orissa’s Puri had become India’s first district to provide piped drinking water to every home. This is something to celebrate. Being able to give all citizens piped water would be a major milestone in the nation’s march along the path of development.

“In Gujarat, a total of 91.73 lakh households in rural areas are provided water through tap connections under the mission. The 100% coverage of rural households is possible by laying 63,287 kilometres of distribution pipelines, 3,498 underground pumps, setting up 2,396 high tanks, 339 wells, 3,985 tube wells and 324 mini schemes and 302 solar-powered drinking water distribution systems," said a Gujarat government official. This list of facilities to enable the provision of piped water supply to the state’s houses does not mention water treatment plants. Hopefully, these would be added, too.

This water work in Gujarat, as well as the ones completed and ongoing in other states, draw on the Jal Jeevan Mission announced by the Union government in 2019. The Mission seeks to provide functional household tap connections (FHTCs) to all rural households, cities, presumably, being assumed to do this on their own.

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Piped water delivered to the home is a remarkable productivity-boosting piece of infrastructure. The burden of fetching water for the home falls on women, for the most part. In several parts of the country, fetching water calls for several hours of trekking, while carrying heavy pots and pails filled with water. If the water is delivered home, this releases women from drudgery and millions of person-hours for more productive activity.

The Jal Jeevan Mission also calls for grey water management, that is, recycling used water. If that were to happen — the Mission is open-ended on this, and leaves it to local agencies to supplement resources as well — water scarcity would be managed to a large extent. India accounts for 17.7% of the world’s population but only about 4% of the world’s fresh water. India has to plan and conserve water usage.

Clean drinking water is another source of systemic improvement in productivity. It would reduce morbidity and mortality (fewer incidents of illness and death), and also malnutrition (parasitic worms ingested through unclean food and water not just cause disease but also depress the absorption of nutrition from the food consumed).

For this last result to be consolidated, clean drinking water has to be supplemented with a proper sanitation system, the infrastructure to collect, treat and dispose of sewage. This is a tall task, more difficult than supplying drinking water. While the Swachchata Mission focused on building toilets at home, the business of building sewer networks and drainage systems, complemented with treatment plants, remains a distant dream.

In the absence of piped water to the home, water-scarce areas saw toilets being used not as sites for flushing down the drain precious water fetched from a distance away with much labour, but as structures for sheltered storage. While the government declared India to be Open-Defecation-Free (ODF), some villagers and tigers (who did not understand the concept) staged man vs animal encounters while the human part of this duelling duo was stalking the starlit countryside in search of a place to defecate. The maneater of Champaran, who was killed recently, found his last victim while the man was soiling both the open ground and the official boast on the region’s ODF status. Piped water supply would change this state of affairs.

When Lee Kuan Yew set about modernising newly independent Singapore, he set a goal of providing water through the tap that people could drink straight off — a feature of the developed world then not available anywhere in Asia outside Japan. He achieved his goal. India has been consoling itself, taking comfort in the water purifier industry that came up because of the undrinkable water delivered through the tap at home, on par with the inverter back-up and power generator back-up industries that came up on account of inefficiencies in the power distribution system.

If the Jal Jeevan Mission is completed as envisaged, by 2024, India might put the household water purifier industry firmly in the past, along with those vintage film and cricket stars who peddle its products.

It is worth noting that piped water to the home represents an example of public expenditure that smells as sweet, whether called a freebie, welfare expenditure, revdi or by any other name.

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