Is India’s Water Mission A Pipe Dream?
India, the world’s second most populous country trailing China by a thin margin, hosts 18% of global population in a land area of 3.28 million square kilometre equalling 2.4% of earth surface. To add to the disadvantage of high population density in many parts of the country, it has only 4% of world water resources. No wonder, India figures among the world’s most water-stressed countries.
The government think tank Niti Aayog has made an obvious admission in a report that a large number of Indians living in villages, small towns and cities remain exposed to “high to extreme water stress.” Not only are people perforce doing with insufficient water for drinking and other daily chores, in most cases what is available is not actually safe for human consumption. The point is buttressed by the BJP led government recently informing the Rajya Sabha that in almost all districts in the country groundwater, the principal source of water supply, contains more than permissible toxic metals making it poisonous. From arsenic to chromium to cadmium to uranium to iron, all these are found in more than permissible limits in drinking water whose consumption is health damaging.
According to the Ministry of Jal Shakti, over 80% of the country’s population uses groundwater, which itself is a depleting resource, a cause of major concern. When so many, including new born babies and children are drinking water with traces of toxic metals and chemicals, a major fallout inevitably is widespread waterborne diseases that claim hundreds of thousands lives. The more common waterborne diseases in India are: amoebic dysentery, hepatitis A, cholera, typhoid, malaria, giardiasis and shigellosis.
All this apart, the presence of arsenic raises the risk of skin diseases and cancer, drinking water with high levels of iron over long periods could cause Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s by disturbing the nervous system and kidney ailments could be traced to cadmium in water. For over half the country’s 1.4 billion people, their home is in villages and their falling sick results in pressure building up on the rickety healthcare system in rural India.
That shortages of water and its stinking quality – as much as 70% of water here is contaminated – have assumed crisis proportions become clear from following research findings: (i) Around 85% of rural population and half the urban population fulfil their daily needs by using groundwater, which continues to fall annually by 10 to 25 mm; (ii) Alarmingly, India is the world’s largest user of groundwater extracting more than the US and China put together; (iii) Unless corrective steps are taken on an urgent basis, as much as 40% of the country’s population would possibly have no access to drinking water by 2030. In any case, according to Niti Aayog developed composite water management index, India’s water demand will far exceed supply by 2050; (iv) As is experienced in many parts of the world, the quality of groundwater is compromised with its depletion. Quality fall is particularly acute where there is high population density and also in places of intensive cultivation drawing irrigation water. The green revolution of the 1960s and use of high-yielding seeds for a variety of food and commercial crops have led to high use of groundwater. Availability of subsidised electricity for farmers in many states has worked as an incentive to be indiscriminate in using groundwater. At least 65% of farm irrigation comes from groundwater; and (v) No wonder World Resources Institute finds India among 17 countries in the world experiencing extreme water stress. All these problems will get further exacerbated by climate change, already experienced in growing frequency of floods and droughts across the country.
New Delhi and also the states, which primarily are responsible for making water available to citizens will do well to remember as climate change is making rainfall pattern increasingly unpredictable – the current season is witness to that with unusually high October rains likely to affect the rice crop –importance of groundwater will be felt more, underpinning its replenishment. A World Bank study says groundwater in almost two-thirds of the country’s districts has hit threateningly low levels. Expectedly, fall in groundwater levels has is a contributor to contamination.
The study bares the fact that poverty is 9-10% higher in districts where groundwater level has sunk below 8 meters and the phenomenon makes small farmers particularly vulnerable to economic distress. It says: “If current trends persist, at least 25% of India’s agriculture will be at risk.” Water scarcity is heightening with every passing year. In the current worsening water scene, the authorities must not lose sight of two realities: First, India is one of the largest water consuming countries per unit of gross domestic product (GDP). Second, among the most water-intense economies, the country is also the largest net exporter of virtual water, that is, the amount of water that goes into making of products exported, from rice to wheat to textiles. Poor appreciation of the crisis that loomed over decades and the resulting policy pitfalls have for long exposed the majority of countrymen to very low and poor quality water.
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India nurses aspiration to become a $5 trillion economy by 2029 through annual GDP growth of 9% and also covet a place among developed countries in 25 years (Narendra Modi announcement from ramparts of the Red Fort at last Independence Day celebrations). All that is fine, but the country must at the same time seriously address the issue of saving new born babies and children dying at a rate higher than global average. Much of that mortality is because of drinking of sub-standard water. Diarrhoea is a common ailment in India, especially among babies and children.
Professor Michael Kremer won the 2019 Nobel for economics along with Abhijeet Banerjee and Esther Duflo for developing an “innovative experimental approach to alleviating global poverty.” The three economists have often worked together over more than two decades in several low and middle income countries on small and specific problems through carefully designed field experiments and recommended the “best solutions.” At a recent water and health related conclave in Delhi, Professor Kremer said an important finding of his field study in a number of districts was that nearly 30% infant deaths could be prevented by making available safe drinking water to family households. Sustainable access to potable water delivered through pipes could cut one in every four deaths of children, says Kremer. But water, subject to regular testing at sources and final delivery points of prescribed quality and quantity, will have to be supplied.
Coinciding with Independence Day celebrations in 2019, the government made a bold but highly relieving decision that under the Jal Jeevan (water is life) Mission (JJM) attempts will be made to build a robust enough water infrastructure in rural India, where over half the country’s population lives so that every household and public institution such as schools and panchayat offices get potable drinking water through pipe by 2024. JJM proposes supply of 55 litres of water per person per day in every rural household. But as unfortunately happened, the country was hit by Covid-19 pandemic triggering multiple lockdowns which forced labourers to return to their villages, suffering untold privation. Laying ductile iron (DI) pipes for conveyance of water from principal sources to distribution points is highly labour intensive in spite of use of all the high-powered machines to cut trenches through the ground.
Therefore, en masse labourer migration to villages and restrictions on assembly of people in the open during the Covid resulted in serious delays in JJM work execution. DI pipe laying work since has resumed in force. But for the Covid related time lost, Tata Metaliks managing director Sandeep Kumar says: “I don’t think JJM giving piped water connection to every rural household will be completed before 2030.” (Incidentally, Tata Metaliks, a Tata Group constituent, is among the country’s leading producers of DI pipes. The other industry leaders are Welspun Corporation, Electrosteel Castings, Jindal Saw and Rashmi Metaliks. This industry has enough capacity to generate export surplus after fulfilling domestic demand rising annually at the rate of 12%. Moreover, some Indian groups own pipe manufacturing units in West Asia, Europe and the US.)
New Delhi is, however, showing its commitment to make up for as much of the lost time as possible by heftily raising the 2022-23 budget allocation for JJM to Rs60,000 crore from the earlier year’s Rs40,000 crore. The enormity of challenge in providing Har Ghar Jal through pipe becomes evident from this set of statistics of Jal Shakti ministry: Of the total rural households of 191.467 million, 32.363 million had tap water connection at JJM launch. Since then, the coverage has risen to 102.11 million, still leaving millions of households without piped drinking water connection.
Alongside the attempts to improve safe drinking water in rural India, the government cannot any further postpone the task of relieving the water stress of households in urban cities and small towns. Parallel to providing clean drinking water universally, the government will have to take forward the programme of linking of rivers and storage capacity of fresh water that comes as nature’s gift by way of rains, which have a seasonal pattern about them with 50% precipitation happening in just 15 days. Unfortunately, in the absence of preservation of the precious resource, most of the rain water goes into the seas through the rivers.