(Photo: Mint)
(Photo: Mint)

Under NDA, rural drinking water takes a back seat

Since 2014, the NDA has cut funding for rural drinking water and focused more on sanitation, leaving millions without access to safe and assured water

Water is central to human sustenance but millions of Indians do not get enough of it. In 2015, 163 million Indians lacked access to clean water near their homes, the highest figure in the world according to WaterAid, a non-governmental organization focusing on global water issues. Most of these Indians live in rural areas where both the quantity and quality of water is inadequate. Under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), these issues have been addressed slightly but remain prevalent—in part because of a diminishing focus on rural water supply.

Water is a state subject but the Union government influences its supply through the National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP). Launched in 2009 by the United Progressive Alliance-II (UPA-II), NRDWP provides state governments with the funds to build the infrastructure, such as piped connections, to deliver water to rural households for domestic use (broadly drinking, cooking and sanitation).

When the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was campaigning for the 2014 general elections, it promised to provide drinking water for all rural households in its manifesto as part of a broad push to improve infrastructure in rural India.

However, it has actually slashed NRDWP’s funding. In 2014-15, only 0.6% of total government funding was allocated to NRDWP and by 2018-19 even this had shrunk to 0.2%. In an NRDWP budget brief, Accountability Initiative, a non-profit research organization, points out that not only has allocation decreased, but actual fund releases have also fallen sharply. In 2017-18, just 72% of allocated funds were spent by NRDWP.

This funding cut comes even as the ministry of drinking water and sanitation’s overall spending has increased. The majority of the ministry’s budget is now allocated to the Swachh Bharat Mission (72% in 2018-19), the BJP’s flagship scheme to improve sanitation in rural India. Improving sanitation is important, but water supply and better sanitation go hand in hand. NRDWP primarily focuses on providing potable water through piped household connections, but this water can be used for other purposes, including sanitation. “It’s counter-intuitive to expect sanitation to improve without better access to water," says V.K. Madhavan, chief executive at WaterAid India.

The lack of funding, combined with poor fund management, was an important factor behind NRDWP failing to meet important targets, according to a 2018 Comptroller and Auditor General performance audit. For instance, the programme was meant to provide at least 35% of rural households with piped water supply by 2017, and 80% households by 2020. Official data reveals that India is a long way from meeting these targets. Just 18.2% of rural households had piped water supply in 2018-19.

There is also significant variation in piped water coverage across states. Some states such as Gujarat, Sikkim and Himachal Pradesh have provided piped water to more than half the rural households, while others such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have minimal (less than 5%) piped water coverage.

These disparities could be a reflection of state priorities and geography. For instance, the Himachal Pradesh government has spent the most on water supply and sanitation over the last eight years (in terms of the share of state government spending), according to data from PRS Legislative Research.

The states with fewer piped households often rely on other sources of water supply. Uttar Pradesh, which has very few piped households, still has high water coverage because of handpumps and borewells drawing water from the high water table in the Indo-Gangetic plains. According to NRDWP official data, 99% of habitations, areas with around 20 households, in Uttar Pradesh had access to 40 litres per capita per day (lpcd) of water, compared to a national average of 81%.

In addition to piped water supply, NRDWP also targets providing rural populations with 40 litres of water daily to cover domestic uses (such as drinking and sanitation). On this measure, water coverage has increased from 70% in 2011-12 to 81% now. However, in 2012, the target was increased to 55 lpcd, more than the World Health Organization’s recommended amount of around 50 lpcd. Here there is a bigger shortfall, with less than 50% of habitations providing 55 lpcd with no significant improvement in recent years.

The quality of water supplied is also a major issue. According to one study in The Lancet, 105,000 children lost their lives in 2015 to water-induced diarrhoea. Official NRDWP data reveals that around 60,000 of all habitations are exposed to water contaminated by arsenic and fluoride, two particularly pernicious chemicals.

To address this, the NDA launched the National Water Quality Sub-Mission within NRDWP to treat water in 28,000 contaminated habitations. The number of contaminated habitations has decreased since 2011-12 but the share of these habitations that are being treated for contamination has also decreased.

Water quality remains a persistent issue partly because of India’s reliance on groundwater, which is prone to being contaminated by chemicals. Nearly 88% of the piped water provided through NRDWP comes from groundwater. More than quality issues, reliance on groundwater could simply be unsustainable given the rapidly depleting groundwater levels driven by agriculture use.

Water access to all rural households will require addressing this issue of water scarcity and much more investment, especially if India is to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goal of clean drinking water for all by 2030.

“Providing safe and assured drinking water to everyone requires a national focus, which it hasn’t had under this or even the previous government. The issue has not received the attention it deserves," said Madhavan of WaterAid India.

This is the eighth of a 12-part report card series on NDA-II.