Taking the elixir of life to all village households, easier said than done

Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi
Consider this shocker : Roughly half of the world’s population faces severe water stress for one month in a year and at least half a billion people suffer permanent water crises.
According to estimates, one-third of India lives in water-stressed areas.
And, we the city-dweller, most of us really privileged, do take water for granted and think nothing of wasting the precious natural resource for which many women and children trudge long distances–in remote villages. As if the already bad situation is not enough, climate change has begun to create havoc, and if we as a Nation do not take action, like now, it will not be very difficult to imagine what the near, and distant future can be.
Seen in this context, a Central Government initiative – Jal Jeevan Mission, launched on August 15, 2019 – promises to be that initiative with an intense intent to reach water to the doorsteps of those needing it in remote villages, and when they need it, and how much they need it. On the face of it, one cannot find fault at all with such an initiative with stated objectives and one that is working in a Mission mode.
True, there could be issues galore--implementation glitches, possible mismanagement, biases, allegations of wrong-doings, of omissions and commissions–but JJM Director, Bharat Lal driving the programme believes that the issue of reaching water to the ‘waterless’ is more important than getting bogged down and get distracted from the main objective. And rightly so, as water is not just a resource, water is life and we must do everything in our power to give it to one and all.
And involve one and all, which this initiative is attempting to do–and getting the community to own, build and operate the water supply systems, and distribute the water in an equitable and efficient manner. The goal is to reach water to 20 crore rural households by the year 2024. In the past two years, Bharat Lal said there has been some progress–tap water has reached 5.44 crore new households in villages across the country, taking the total village households with tapped water supply to 9.11 crore. This pace if accelerated could help the mission achieve the target, which means implementation should be smooth and participation of the communities must be ensured, so that they take it upon themselves and operate it, and do whatever it takes. After all, it is for the common good of the villagers.
At the last count, roughly there are still a few crores of households that do not have tapped water supply at all. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had promised to reach tap water supply to all village households by 2024 in an Independence Day speech in 2019 through the Jal Jeevan Mission. Two years down the line, there is some encouraging result, that powers Bharat Lal to make renewed efforts, with the help of the panchayat bodies, village administrators, NGOs, and multilateral bodies like the UNICEF, that has been a part and parcel of the programme since its inception. Working from the perspective of the children and how their health and education suffered, UNICEF has been working with the Central Government, the State Governments, and its own team of experts to provide any help it can.
Only the other day, I was in conversation with Nicolas Osbert, Chief, WASH, UNICEF India, who said, for him JJM was like a public health and education programme and that the multilateral body is providing help in every sphere it could–in terms of providing experts, spreading awareness and more importantly in activities aimed at capacity building of the local communities in doing the job at hand.
Expressing happiness in participating in the world’s largest water supply project, Osbert asserted availability of safe drinking water from pipes at home was absolutely critical for the well-being and holistic development of children. Besides, water availability at home will eliminate the drudgery that women and children undergo, just to fetch water for daily needs and drinking water purposes. The UNICEF’s work in water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) is to ensure that all children fulfil this right and that no child is left behind. JMM is a programme that required a mindset change, and this is where the UNICEF also pitches in with awareness creation programmes through media outreach, and also disseminating development news across the various channels of communication, in India and in the international arena.
On the face of it, the JJM has definitely given a boost to the rural economy, and especially after the Covid-19 lockdown, the rural economy continued to function relatively smoothly as did the agricultural sector. One of the reasons for this is that the money that flowed in for JJM, gave disposable income for the people engaged in the various water projects – and this, in turn, generated demand for goods and services, which was somewhat subdued in urban areas.
Are there no leakages in a programme of such nature, one may ask, and legitimately so. It is fascinating that the scope for these gets somewhat minimized due to the technology in use–a fascinating subject for me to explore another time– which itself puts in checks and balances. The remote sensor-based IoT monitoring machines installed in fields and homes of villagers keep a count on the water quantity being used, and it is possible to check it any point in time or place, and the data generated is pure gold, in that it gives accurate information that helps the planners and strategists. And makes monitoring easier too. Engineering and science graduates coming from technical institutions are working on the ground with the farming community. Now, local institutions are engaged in making water quality testing machines that are simple to use, like the machines that check blood sugar levels.
But in all this, the media played an important role, in engaging communities to own, operate, and manage their in-village water supply system for ensuring regular and long-term clean tap water supply in rural homes. Zafrin Chowdhury, Chief, Communication, Advocacy and Partnership, UNICEF India, suggested the media could pick the many aspects and perspectives of the issue that the JMM was trying to address – as the mission could be viewed from the equity approach (water is a lifeline and not a privilege), from the gender approach, from an educational approach and bring about a change in the mindset of the people.
There will be, it appears, no drought of funds for the JMM, which has been allocated Rs 26,940 crore for tied grants to local village bodies for the supply of drinking water, rainwater harvesting, and water recycling, and sanitation and maintenance of Open Defecation Free status. The 15th Finance Commission has already allocated these funds for the mission. Besides, there is an assured fund of Rs. 1.42 lakh crore for the next 5 years from 2021-22 to 2025-26. This will supplement the ongoing efforts under JJM.
With such resources, of men (women too) material and money, the JJM seems to be going in the right direction and may need that extra nudge to pick up the pace and finish on the finish line at the appointed date.
 Lakshmana Venkat Kuchi is a senior journalist tracking social, economic, and political changes across the country. He was associated with the Press Trust of India, The Hindu, Sunday Observer, and Hindustan Times. He can be reached on [email protected] and Twitter handle @kvlakshman