The rural deficit


While we are aware of the acute water shortage in most Indian cities, the rural areas are worse off, as agriculture, people, and livestock, are all adversely affected by water shortage. Bharat Dogra provides a status report.

While visiting remote villages in summer months, it is common to see women and girls walking long distances to fetch the daily supply of drinking water, and yet remaining uncertain about whether they will actually be able to get this basic need for their family. It is possible that at the end of the long walk in the scorching heat, they find that the water source has dried up, or else, very little water is left in it. So they walk back with very little supply of this basic need in their pitchers, often, the water they carry is muddy and dirty. Increasingly, men and boys also join this effort, pots of varying shapes and sizes accommodated precariously on cycles.

When one visits houses where elderly parents of migrant workers are staying, the situation can be even more pathetic, as it is difficult for them to fetch water from a distance. Of course, neighbours try their best to help, but conditions do become very difficult in times of overall scarcity.

When it is so difficult to quench the thirst of people, the water needs of farm and dairy animals can only get second priority. In several villages one can see animals dying of thirst when the water scarcity is at its peak in summer months.

Need for a new policy?

According to recent reports and indications, the Union Government is on the verge of making important changes regarding drinking water, and a new ministry completely dedicated to this task is being created. One hopes that this will lead to a significant improvement in rural drinking water supply, but at the same time it is important to learn from past mistakes so that these are not repeated.

Actually, in terms of increasing the number of handpumps or the length of pipelines, the record of the government has not been too bad. The real problem comes when the water sources dry up, or the water table declines steeply. It is due to such factors that the pipelines and handpumps go dry, and cannot serve their purpose. So on paper the government performance looks impressive, but on ground, things remain much the same.

Such problems arise due to many-sided ecological ruin, including deforestation, indiscriminate mining and quarrying, pollution from industrial wastes and agrichemicals, resulting in depleted or polluted water sources, and a declining water table. These problems often get compounded by the ill-planned spread of water guzzling industries and crops, ignoring the limited water availability in an area. As powerful interests may be responsible for this ruin, steps to check this are not taken in time. This is often the reason why water scarcity increases for common villagers. At the same time, the work of water conservation and rainwater harvesting lags much behind the real needs. The traditional systems which promoted this have broken down at many places due to complex factors. Once again, encroachments by powerful persons or vested interests have been responsible for the decline of several invaluable traditional water sources, where enough rainwater could be collected earlier.

Hence there are important aspects of power structures and inequalities which need to be kept in mind to understand how water availability for common people has declined in recent years at many places. In fact, from the perspective of dalits and other disadvantaged sections, the situation is worse, as even in a situation of scarcity sometimes, they have to suffer discrimination in accessing this basic need.

Not enough budgetary allocation

Another aspect which deserves notable attention is that in terms of budgetary allocations in recent times, rural drinking water has not received the attention which was needed. The government may have impressive statistics about how much it has done to improve the drinking water situation in villages, but the sad fact which cannot be ignored is that across vast areas, the scarcity of clean drinking water is worsening, and one important reason for this is that adequate budgetary resources have not been allotted. Providing safe and adequate drinking water is a very important national objective, and the National Rural Drinking Water Programme is the main programme of the government for achieving this objective. Hence it is important to ensure adequate budget allocations for this.

The actual expenditure on this programme in 2017-18 (the last year for which actual expenditure is known at present), was Rs. 7,038 crore. In the recent interim budget there is a modest increase in the allocation for this programme. In the interim budget for 2019-20, the budget estimate for this programme is Rs. 8,201 crore. The increase is more if compared with the revised estimate for the previous year, but this was much less than the actual expenditure in the previous year.

While this increase is welcome certain other aspects need to be noted if the budget situation for this programme is to be understood properly. During the financial year 2018-19 the revised estimate amounted to Rs. 5,500 crore only. This is a very low amount. This cannot be justified for a programme as important as the National Rural Drinking Water Programme. Whatever increase that has happened in the interim budget has to be seen in the context of this low revised estimate, which was much lower than the actual expenditure for the previous year.

Also, it needs to be noted that the actual expenditure by the Union Government five years earlier on this programme was as high as Rs. 9,242 crore. In other words, it was higher than what has been provided five years later in the recently announced interim budget.

Hence, one important step that the government should initiate in the near future is to significantly increase the budgetary allocations for improving rural drinking water supply. Another step which is no less important is that the government should issue strict instructions that deforestation, indiscriminate mining activities and pollution, which harm water sources, should be suitably checked. In addition, steps should be taken to increase water harvesting and water conservation, and to protect traditional water sources.

We are passing through difficult times of climate change when the frequency of drought, rain failure at critical times, and other unpredictable weather behavior are likely to worsen. Hence, it is all the more important to make the necessary corrections, and overall to give much greater importance to ensuring adequate and clean drinking water in our rural areas. Also, attention should be given to providing water to livestock.

Bharat Dogra

Bharat Dogra is a freelance journalist, who has been involved with several social movements and initiatives.