Every year, with the start of summer, media reports of intensifying drinking water crisis from different parts of the country start pouring in. For a couple of months, if not more, a large proportion of the Indian population---the rural population, in particular,--faces a severe scarcity of drinking water. During this period, millions of rural households, livestock and crop lands reel under the drought and fight a lone battle for survival.
Shortage of adequate water in rural India is a perennial problem. As per the latest data, almost one fifth of the rural habitations do not get the minimum entitled water quantity i.e. 40 lpcd (litre per capita per day, approx. two buckets). This shortage is aggravated by lack of rain and deficiency in the previous year’s reserve in water bodies used for supplying water.
This summer is no exception, and the situation is bad on account of deficiency of rain last year and drought-like situation in various parts of the country. Reports from many States suggest that groundwater levels are dipping and lakes, wells, reservoirs, and dams are drying up fast. Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, and Madhya Pradesh are the worst affected States so far. In Karnataka, according to data from the Department of Rural Development and Panchayat Raj, 138 out of 176 taluks have very low groundwater levels and the government has declared over 3000 regions as severely affected by drinking water shortage (The News Minute, May 14, 2019). The situation is worsening in five districts of north Maharashtra where approximately 2 million people are struggling to secure enough water to drink. The Times of India, (May 17, 2019) reported that about 4785 villages in north Maharashtra are facing a water crisis and this number is increasing day by day. Until the onset of monsoon rains, the situation will be difficult.
The intensity of this crisis is different in rural and urban contexts because of some crucial factors--systems and mechanisms of water supply, institutional accountability and response, socio-economic milieu and degree of dependence on different kinds of water sources.
The rural population has historically relied on community managed and controlled water sources such as wells, ponds, tanks, etc. which were accessible to people of those specific communities to fulfill their water requirements. Water from public (or common property) sources such as lakes, rivers, canals, streams and other water bodies which could be accessed by people across the spectrum were also used for drinking. A small proportion of rich and resourceful households had exclusive sources of water available to them. This dependence of the rural population on community sources of water came with its own problems, such as the a labour-intensive and time-consuming process of fetching water, poor quality of water, seasonal scarcity, lack of maintenance of water sources and lack of equity resulting in exclusion of certain social groups from access to the water sources. To deal with these issues arising from a singular dependence on communal water sources, individual household level provision of piped water supply was conceptualized and initiated. Eventually, the concept of household level tapped water supply came to be seen as an essential indicator of standard of living and rightly so. Urban areas, of course, led in terms of performance in this regard but this amenity became an important component of governance and development in village India in the era of local governance.
Current Crisis--Inadequate Household Connections and Depleting Common Sources
In the period after independence, a number of programmes and schemes were designed and implemented to provide households with individual water connections. This objective continues to drive all drinking water schemes even today. However, even after decades, the achievements and success in this field remain very limited and far from satisfactory. The recent statistics reveal that only a small proportion, 18 per cent, of rural households get piped water supplied to their dwellings and more than half of the rural households still rely on public or common sources of water (National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4, 2015-16). The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) in its performance audit report of the National Rural Drinking Water Programme, 2018 notes that the, “coverage of rural habitations increased by only 8% at 40 lpcd and 5.5% on the basis of 55 lpcd during 2012-17 despite the expenditure of Rs 81,168 crore” (CAG, 2018, p. v). The majority (51 per cent) of rural households in India use a tubewell/handpump/borewell for their water requirements (NFHS-4, 2015-16). These sources dry up and become defunct as the groundwater table goes down during the summer months.
Without romanticizing the idea of the ‘community’ sources, it is distressing to see the progressive diminishing of these sources along with common property water resources from the rural landscape and daily lives of the rural folks. Most of these resources were captured by the dominant sections while others have depleted on account of state and community negligence over the years. Government water supply programmes have failed to create sustainable mechanisms of water supply in rural areas. Since numbers become the ultimate target of these programmes rather than ensuring sustainable availability of water, there are hardly any efforts under these programmes to introduce techniques and ideas which can preserve local sources to avoid scarcity and huge fluctuations in availability of drinking water throughout the year.
Maintaining, conserving and restoring traditional and common sources of water with public and state intervention should be an integral part of water supply programmes. At the same time, this issue should not be posed against the provision of individual household level piped water connections. They both can go hand in hand and complement each other as per the local requirements and conditions. Such efforts are the need of the hour especially in the consistent drought prone regions.
Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) (2018): Report of the on Performance Audit of National Rural Drinking Water Programme. Report No. 15.
Available at: https://cag.gov.in/sites/default/files/audit_report_files/Report_No_15_of_2018_-_Performance_Audit_on_National_Rural_Drinking_Water_Programme_in_Ministry_of_Drinking_Water_and_Sanitation.pdf
Indian Institute for Population Studies (IIPS) and ICF. (2018). National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4), India 2015-16, Mumbai.
The News Minute (May 14, 2019): https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/drinking-water-crisis-looms-over-karnataka-groundwater-reservoir-levels-low-101753
The Times of India (May 17, 2019): https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/nashik/22-lakh-reeling-under-severe-drought-in-north-maharashtra/articleshow/69367902.cms
- Prof. Shamsher Singh - Assistant Professor - Sociology