The path to a $5 trillion economy may pass through many investments, breakthroughs, and innovations, but for a country to walk on a path this long, it must have its water reserves well managed.
According to the Budget speech by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, the Jal Shakti Mantralaya has been constituted, integrating the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation and Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation.
This new mantralaya (ministry) will look at the management of India’s water resources and water supply in an integrated and holistic manner and will work with states to ensure ‘Har Ghar Jal’ (piped water supply) to all rural households by 2024 under the Jal Jeevan Mission.
This mission, under the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation, will focus on integrated demand and supply-side management of water at the local level, including the creation of local infrastructure for source sustainability like rainwater harvesting, groundwater recharge and management of household wastewater for reuse in agriculture.
The Jal Jeevan Mission will converge with other central and state government schemes to achieve its objectives of sustainable water supply management across the country.
Also, the government has identified 1,592 blocks which are critical and overexploited, spread across 256 district for the Jal Shakti Abhiyan.
Why Jal Shakti Mantralaya (JSM) Matters
The constitution of the JSM could not have come at a better time. As the nation wakes up to the reality of a severe water crisis that unfolded in Chennai a few days ago and in Shimla last year, it is imperative that the government takes initiatives to take drinking water to every home.
About 800 million people in India reside in villages. While the success of the LPG and direct benefit transfer (DBT) programmes showed what can be achieved with efficient rural governance, the problem of drinking water is one that requires a stronger resolve.
As per the Composite Water Resources Management Index by the NITI Aayog, a number of states in North-East and the Himalayan region are without adequate infrastructure for drinking water.
In Meghalaya, merely 17 per cent of the rural habitations have access to drinking water supply. In Sikkim, the percentage is 35 while in Nagaland and Tripura it is 46 and 52 respectively. In Uttarakhand, one of the hotspots for religious tourism, 56 per cent of the rural habitations have access to drinking water. In Assam, it is 60 per cent.
In states like Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Goa, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Haryana, Chhattisgarh and Tamil Nadu more than 90 per cent of the rural habitations have access to drinking water. Kerala at 22 per cent, Karnataka at 33 per cent, Telangana at 55 per cent, Bihar at 61 per cent, and Punjab at 67 per cent are the states that need urgent attention with respect to drinking water supply.
However, the buck does not stop at drinking water supply alone, for the presence of arsenic and fluoride in water renders it useless for consumption. This is where the JSM will face its biggest challenge.
Currently, only 49 per cent of the rural population has access to safe drinking water. Thus, a population more than that of the United States is without clean drinking water in India.
However, some states have made giant strides in these areas. Gujarat, Sikkim, Meghalaya and Tripura had a 100 per cent decrease in rural habitations impacted by water problems between 2015-16 and 2016-17.
In Haryana, the percentage reduction in rural habitations affected by the problem of quality water supply was 51. In Jharkhand, the percentage was 37, in Karnataka 31, and in Andhra Pradesh 29.
Between 2015-16 and 2016-17, the states that did not show any improvement in tackling the problem of water quality were Uttar Pradesh, Telangana, Rajasthan, Punjab, Tamil Nadu and Goa. No Himalayan or North-Eastern state took any step to improve their water quality in between that time period.
Thus, if the LPG programme was all about getting people to use the cylinders after getting them a connection, the task for the JSM will be to ensure the quality of water is sustained after the rural habitation has been provided with the required infrastructure.
The JSM will also be required to work closely with the local communities in areas where groundwater has been overexploited. As per the index, Himachal Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Haryana, Chhattisgarh, Kerala, Karnataka, Punjab and Maharashtra have fared poorly on this front.
Together, these states constitute over 60 crore people and close to 50 per cent of the area with groundwater. If these states fail to arrest the depleting levels of groundwater resources, we could have a Chennai-like situation in two to four cities each year.
The problem of water management is not restricted to rural areas alone. Madhya Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Bihar, Jharkhand, Goa, Nagaland, Assam, Uttarakhand and Tripura languish at the bottom half of the index when it comes to urban water management. Together, these states constitute over 58 crore people.
Failing to arrest the wastage and lack of water reuse in urban areas is what causes a Chennai or Shimla like situation, and therefore, the JSM must look to work on methodologies that not only generate awareness with respect to water consumption but also reduce its wastage. For water bills above a certain threshold in urban areas, the idea of an additional cess must be debated.
Sustainable farming practices will have to be taken up by the JSM. As of now, 16 states are failing to adopt sustainable agricultural practices. These include Tamil Nadu, Haryana, Goa, Bihar, Telangana, Kerala, Odisha, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Nagaland, Meghalaya, Uttarakhand, Assam and Himachal Pradesh.
Together, these states cover more than 64 per cent of the groundwater area and constitute over 60 per cent of the total agricultural output. Given agriculture warrants 80 per cent of the water demand in India, it will be important for the JSM to inculcate planning of sustainable farming practices for the long-term.
Lastly, water conservation must be the focus going forward. Given the unpredictable nature and unprecedented spells of rainfall these days, it is important to invest in infrastructure that ensures water conservation for drier days.
Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Haryana, Telangana, Goa, Kerala, Karnataka, Bihar, Maharashtra, Uttarakhand, Assam and Nagaland make up for 47.1 crore people, receive over 43 per cent of the total national rainfall, and make up for one-third of the total agricultural output. Yet, these states have not invested enough in water conservation and management.
Each year, over 200,000 people die due to lack of access to safe water, an equivalent of one-third of Sikkim's population. Thus, the importance of JSM cannot be overemphasised. The ministry must look to make the best use of data sciences to plan its investments and policymaking, and engage the local communities for the best results on the ground.
The path to a $5 trillion economy may pass through many investments, breakthroughs, and innovations, but for a country to walk on a path this long, it must have its water reserves well managed, and this is where the Jal Shakti Mantralaya must come good.