In the first part of this article published last week, I dealt with two basic issues connected with the government’s nal se jal (water on tap) announcement — the likely complications arising out of conflicts or lack of convergence among entities having constitutional jurisdiction over the subject of water and the most natural consequence of massive expansion in demand for domestic water in villages. See: Tap water in rural homes will increase consumption
Now I will address the issues connected with sufficiency of water resources to meet the demand and the quality issues. In the third part, I shall discuss the need to engage with the interface between the social reality and the drinking water infrastructure.
As is common knowledge, groundwater is the principal source of drinking water to most rural habitations. There are but few rural locations that are served by surface water. Large cities have water supplied from surface sources like rivers, dams and reservoirs. Also, in remote and sparsely populated tribal areas some tribal people still fill their pots directly from flowing streams.
Surface water for drinking
The campaigns against guinea worm and an increasing awareness about microbial contamination have seen more or less the end of use of surface sources for drinking water where they existed. Thus, groundwater is by and large the most common source of drinking water. The conditions and abundance of that resource varies by location.
Following an intervention by UNICEF that saw development of India Mark IV hand pumps and subsequent upgrades, most villages in middle and lower Gangetic plains and the entire northeast have easy access to groundwater that they tap by hand pumps. In several parts of these Eastern regions, there could be a hand pump in practically every household that claims some social standing. In hamlets and clusters of poor, landless, Dalit homes, there is a shared hand pump, usually installed by a public authority.
As electricity supply increases its reliability, a rather unlikely development by and large, a small electric pump replaces the hand pump within homes. The hand pump is also the ubiquitous source of drinking water in most of the other states like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, etc. too. In Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, etc., for a long time dug wells supplied drinking water.
Role of dug wells
I remember visiting my ancestral village in Maharashtra and the daily trip we would make in or running behind the bullock cart in which water filled from a distant well would be ferried in large drums! In many places, this tradition continues till this day. More conscientious villagers have one or many pulley wheels fixed on a pucca wall at the mouth of the well. Women use the fixed rope and bucket to fill their respective vessels.
In more fractious villages, every woman brings her own rope and bucket, which she puts in the well water, often leaning over the wall as she stands over the slippery floor and pulls it up after it fills. The dependence on dug wells is increasingly proving to be unreliable in view of increasing pumping from groundwater aquifers for irrigation. In all regions of prosperous dairying and agriculture, use of dug wells for drinking water is now just a memory.
Village water supply
First, in such prosperous places and gradually in most other villages, well-administered states have installed a village level water supply system characterized by a motorized bore well that fills an overhead tank and supplies water to a number of stand posts in different parts of the village. In some more prosperous villages, the system is extended by providing single tap connection to each house and fixed charges are levied on them.
As is to be expected, timely payment of water charges by citizens and the overall rate of recovery are less common than one would like to see. Arising out of this and due to cash flow problems, in a large number of cases there are issues connected with the state of payment of electricity bills by the Gram Panchayat, with the state of repairs of the system and the state of the stand posts.
But given that now water is a fundamental right and the fact that it is so essential, by and large these systems function. But there is a major issue here of competitive extraction of groundwater by farmers to irrigate crops. Since in most villages, farmers and the Gram Panchayat draw water from the same aquifer, such high rate of extraction then reduces water availability and deteriorates the quality of water in the Panchayat bore.
States have formed laws to regulate minimum distance between the Panchayat bore and the farmers’ bores. However, the act of drawing water from a bore well in your own farm is socially legitimized and there is often a conflict between law and legitimacy.
The laws are implemented less rigorously than one would like to see, and only in times of stress. When bore wells fail and alternate sources are difficult to quickly tap, district authorities supply water to the village with tankers and this tanker economy brings in its own set of issues: vested interests of contractors who run the tankers, their links with local politicians and so on.
As I turn to quality issues, let me be blunt and say that other than chlorinating the water in overhead tanks to combat microbial contamination, governments are usually in a denial mode so far as dissolved impurities of salts, fluoride, iron or arsenic are concerned. So long as people are obtaining drinking water under self-provisioning mode through dug wells or private hand pumps, the state can remain an aloof spectator.
However, with centralized Panchayat level systems, the matter is different. The state provision of safe drinking water is the responsibility of the state, specifically Gram Panchayats and if they recognize the problem of dissolved contaminants this legal obligation would need them to install corrective measures. The technical knowledge, the sensitivity for quick action and the funds are all in short supply and so denial of the issue is the most convenient resource.
An effective Nal se jal program will have to comprehensively address the associated water purification issue for microbial and dissolved contamination if it is to stand the scrutiny of an alert media keen to prove that everything that the government does is all wrong.
Sanjiv Phansalkar is associated closely with Transform Rural India Foundation. He was earlier a faculty member at the Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA). Phansalkar is a fellow of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Ahmedabad. Views are personal.