Originally Published 2019-11-02 12:14:41 Published on Nov 02, 2019
If the Jal Jeevan Mission succeeds, water will be the Modi administration’s true revolution
Why Modi's water policy is a timely intervention

In 1951, per-capita water availability in India was just over 5,000 cu m per year. In 2011, it was 1,545 cu m. The figure has almost certainly come down since. Should it drop below 1,000 cu m per year, India will formally become a water-scarce country for the first time in its 5,000-year history. If water availability is a problem, inequality in access is even more so.

India has 180 million rural households. About 33 million have access to piped water; a little over 145 million don’t. The Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM), announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, aims to provide tap water to all of these households by 2024. This means 4.5 times more houses have to be linked to piped water in the coming five years than has been done in the past 72 years.

The mission constitutes one of GoI’s biggest infrastructure outlays. Rs 3,50,000 crore (roughly $50 billion) will be spent on the project. That comes to Rs 70,000 crore a year on cement, pipes, pumps, equipment, construction, wages, conservation, revival of water bodies, skill building, institution creation — everything. Spent wisely, this will be a boon not just to rural society, health and equity, but also to the rural economy.

Yet, JJM is not merely about construction and contracts. It flows from a larger philosophy and an integrated approach to water-related issues that caused the prime minister to merge several departments and create the Ministry of Jal Shakti by the merging of the ministry of water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation and the ministry of drinking water and sanitation. In part, Modi is scaling up his lessons from Gujarat. In a wider sense, he is seeking to inculcate a responsible and responsive relationship with water. At meetings, he frequently uses two phrases: the ‘value of water’, and the ‘water footprint’ of human and economic activity.

The story of Modi’s intense engagement with water as a policy issue goes back to the early summer of 2002, when Gujarat began a familiar cycle of summertime shortages.

North Gujarat, Saurashtra and Kutch had a chronic water scarcity. On an average, dams and reservoirs there were filled to 24-25% of capacity. Exasperated by the endless plans for water trains and tankers, Modi told Gujarat’s civil servants, “I don’t want to just manage the situation, I want a solution.”

Within six years, he had his results. From 2008, the water table in Gujarat has actually been rising. 80% of households in the state have access to piped water. A network of canals takes the floodwaters of south Gujarat to Saurashtra and other water-scarce regions to irrigate farmland, recharge groundwater and fill dams and reservoirs. 2019 saw abundant rains. Those dams and reservoirs — once filled to no more than a quarter of capacity — have been completely filled twice. A pioneering state water grid covers three-fourths of Gujarat — 14,000 of 18,500 villages.

Enlightened water policy needs infrastructure. But more than that, it requires institutions with local and village ownership. Both JJM and the Jal Shakti Abhiyan — a preparatory campaign to empower local communities, in cooperation with state and GoI agencies, and work towards water conservation in 256 water-stressed districts — are designed for village-level ownership.

Intrinsic to JJM is rejuvenation of rivers, as well as other local water sources. Augmenting water availability is the sum of several efforts: conservation and revival; recycle and reuse of water (including grey water); rainwater harvesting; judicious use of water for farming (an expansion of ‘per drop, more crop’); efficient use of water in industry; in situ treatment of waste, rather than transporting it long distances using copious quantities of water.

Labelling products, or pushing industry to benchmark optimal use of water, is a distinct possibility. A relook at water-guzzling sugarcane —with a value chain that sucks in subsidies at various stages — may finally be attempted. Reimagining the public health engineering department (PHED) as not just a technical body but also as a public utility that oversees water entitlements as well as pricing of such entitlements is a goal. Digital sensors could facilitate remote monitoring of household water supply and quality, and eliminate tedious meter readings. In any community, water is intensely political. Modi hopes to decentralise water source revival, recharge and distribution, with the community taking control. Particularly exciting will be the mandatory participation of women — the biggest gainers from assured supply —in water management.

Such devolution will be incentivised by GoI, linked to milestones state governments and gram panchayats must reach, and hand-held by NGOs. For instance, JJM could tie up with the skill development ministry to train village women to measure turbidity and quality.

If all this succeeds, water will be the Modi administration’s true revolution.

This commentary originally appeared in Economic Times.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.