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The search for a water revolution

The Statesman

As the adversities of climatic aberrations start making inroads into global water resource development strategies, the need to protect and conserve freshwater resources and impetus to search for alternate water sources has soared. To meet growing demands, the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation had launched the Jal Kranti Abhiyan (JKA) on 5 June 2015 with the major aim of involving grassroots involvement of all stakeholders including Panchayati Raj institutions and local communities (e.g. Participatory Irrigation Management (PIM).

Other objectives include encouraging the adoption/utilisation of traditional knowledge in water resources conservation and management, and utilising sectoral expertise from various administrative levels, NGOs and civil society. The key theme running through all is to fuel rural development efforts by innovating a variety of water security measures.

At the core of JKA sits the Jal Gram Yojana (JGY), an initiative to identify at least one water-stressed village in each of 672 districts in the country as Jal Gram. This will be supplemented by rigorous annual review on improvements, challenges and future needs. In a decentralised approach, a host of local inhabitants will be thoroughly trained, especially the rural women, to become Jal Mitra/Neer Nari. Main activities planned under JGY will include rainwater harvesting, artificial recharge, wastewater recycling, water-efficient irrigation practices, developing mass awareness and capacity building, to name a few.

A major component of JKA is the development of 1,000 hectares of Model Command Area (CMA) in selected states, targeted to conserve water resources via artificial recharge, water-efficient micro-irrigation practices (drip and sprinkler), solar panels (to reduce evaporative losses), watershed management etc. States selected for CMA so far include UP and Haryana in north India; Karnataka, Telangana and Tamil Nadu in the south, Rajasthan and Gujarat in the west; Odisha in the east and Meghalaya in the north-east.

JKA is indeed a laudable move by the government and could be a torchbearer if explored to its full potential. But there’s no harm in drawing an analogy with a previous initiative on similar lines. In 2009 the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation (MoDWS) launched a similar programme named National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP). Arguably, NRDWP was among the largest rural water supply services in the world promising potable water to billions.

But the fact is that after the few initial years, studies started surfacing that indicated major ‘slip-backs’, largely owing to miscalculated budgets, lack of apt Information-Communication-Education (ICE) and above all chances of corruption inherent to the system. A vast majority of the water quality-affected habitations in rural India are still in want of adequate and safe water supply networks at household-levels. Over two-thirds of the rural households lack access to piped water supply, deemed the safest of all water sources.

The earlier initiatives can be viewed as red flags for JKA. Like NRDWP, the JKA too involves cascading levels of administrative units, officials and planners ranging from talukas to districts to plan and implement/manage water projects. But this effectively means greater chances of mismanagement, miscommunication and misappropriation of funds. Because of the decentralised approach, this will call upon spontaneous participation of local rural communities.

But experience tells that rural folk are rarely aware of modern water resources infrastructure, or for that matter, regional climate/hydrogeology. A large percentage of the rural populace is still far from adopting hygienic water-sanitation practices. These are, however, musts for villagers to be able to adapt to such diversified water schemes. So the authorities have to make special effort to impart relevant and most importantly sustained ICE on modern methods of water conservation and protection.

Apart from JGY and CMA, another component of the JKA is Groundwater Pollution Abatement in fluoride- and arsenic-affected districts by (a) building arsenic-free wells and (b) training and capacity building. About 276 districts in India suffer from fluoride contamination and 86 from arsenic (mainly the Lower Gangetic Alluvium). Under the circumstances, does the proposal sound realistic?

From a technical standpoint, it requires selection and deployment of highly trained personnel, technological advancements, major fund allocations and careful planning. It also calls for holistic participation from the research community from around the nation to identify pollutant sources, contaminant transport mechanisms through porous media and above all, finding cost-effective mitigation strategies. And each of these is a life-long pursuit for a researcher. But even accepting that, does the existing framework of JKA allow for such participatory involvement?

And why just fluoride and arsenic? There are long-standing issues of salinity, iron, nitrate and bacteriological contamination across the nation. Will they not be taken into account to select the Jal Grams? And then to target a handful (the proposed number is about 1300) among about 641,000 villages (Census, 2011) in the country is not only a difficult proposition but may also be unrealistic. 

Last but not the least, a major emphasis of JKA is to build mass awareness. But even after conducting extensive search on the social, electronic and print media, it is a tad baffling to note that only a handful of articles cropping up, and that also dated over a year ago. The JKA proposes to maintain websites, Facebook/twitter accounts, organise essay competitions for children as well as adults, organise workshops/seminars and international water user exchange symposiums. But which of these have actually happened?

Probably the ‘minutes’ of the third meeting of the National Level Advisory and Monitoring Committee, held in December 2016, is the latest document available to the public. However, there’s yet no information made available to the public and research community on the details of the selection process. Similarly no information is yet available on identification and establishment of state-wise CMAs. Even the official portal of the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation portrays the JKA very sketchily. Optimistically, the bits and pieces of JKA will all fall in place as planned and it will measure up to expectations.

Recent reports of the Central Water Commission state that currently about 60-70 per cent of Indian landmass is under threat of drought owing to rainfall deficits and appalling groundwater depletion. So JKA is a praiseworthy and timely move indeed. But none of the activities proposed within the JKA can truly be labeled ‘novel’. One way or the other they have been already tested in different parts of the country at different times as parts of different initiatives without appreciable success. Under the circumstances, is it realistic to only have clubbed them under a new umbrella?

The writers are on the faculty of the Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, O.P. Jindal Global University,  Sonipat, Haryana.