Friday, 10 January 2014

"Water-Stressed" India

Photo Credit: USAID
The data released by the National Sample Survey Organization has once again brought the focus on the abysmal state of drinking water and sanitation in India. According to the report more than half of rural households in India don’t have toilet infrastructure and drinking water facilities within their homes.  Even the Census 2011 data released last year showed that 36 per cent households still have to fetch water from a source located within 500 metres in rural areas and 100 metres in urban areas.

The UN report on “Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation-2012” reported that India houses 16 per cent of the world's population as compared to only 4 per cent of its water resources. 45 percent of India's children are stunted and 600,000 children under five years of age die each year largely because of inadequate water supply and poor sanitation.

In this context, UNICEF came up with the report “Water in India: Situation and Prospects” with the aim to contribute to efforts by the Government of India and partners to manage water resources more effectively during implementation of the Twelfth Five Year Plan. According to the report, the total utilizable water in India is higher than the current usage of water. However, because of the spatial variation in distribution of water, 71 per cent of India's water resources are available to only 36 per cent of the area. The current levels of service provision in many locations do not meet the minimum rights, and the monitoring of water supply is done in terms of coverage and not end use. Another reason for water crisis is the increase in population which has resulted in a reduction in per capita average water availability in the country. The national per capita water resource availability has declined considerably over the years and of particular concern is the disparity in water footprints of the rich and the poor.

So what is the way forward? Given these social realities of India, the report argues “that redefinition of needs has to become part of public debate, including how much water should be given free, how much should be at an affordable price, and to whom should this subsidy go?”There is sustained pressure from various quarters of society to transform the role of government from service provider to facilitator so it can provide the requisite level of financial and policy support to communities and community-based institutions. Today one of the biggest challenges for India lies in devising a “sensible mix of decentralized responsibilities and authority to local institutions and also providing large-scale investment to redirect the surplus water to water deficit areas.”

The advent of the Independent Regulatory Authorities or IRAs at the state level are new mechanisms which are expected to usher in sweeping fundamental and comprehensive changes in governance in this sector.
India can also explore the prospects and challenges of public-private partnership in water management. There have been a few success stories of PPP model but there are concerns about their ability to deliver services without interfering with the idea of human right to water. Further, the water privatization agenda in the PPP model needs better scrutiny from the water pricing perspective.
New models for community’s self- regulation and capacity building by civil society can impact the overall framework of people-centred development with more political and financial powers for the community to implement water-related projects.

India has an enormous governance deficit when dealing with changing water scenarios. With the overlapping powers and responsibilities of central and state governments, the overall sustainable vision for water development, conservation and management remains missing.
Understanding that there are social differences within communities, water is also a social factor and its access is socially constructed. Therefore overall water coverage data does not give an understanding of who is accessing and who is not. Further disaggregation of data at household and caste\community level will be a better indicator of individual's water access. Also de-linking water from land tenure may be the first step towards looking at water from a much more equitable lens.

Amrutha Jose Pampackal and Hansa Kaul

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