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Water, Or Lack of It, Becomes an Election Issue in India
[Analysis] Ruling party leaders claim that a lot has been done to ensure constant water supply
M.G. Srinath (srinath)     Print Article 
Published 2009-04-15 12:13 (KST)   
NEW DELHI, India -- With parliamentary elections about to get under way in India, the question of drinking water or lack of it across the country has become a major theme for voters, who question authorities on largely unkept promises to fix the problem.

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Over 700 million voters across India are schedule to cast their ballots during a five-phase polling to be held between April 16 and May 13, when the day time temperatures will be over 45 degrees Celsius, to elect new members to the 545-member Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament) for a five-year term.

A social organization working on water conservation in Pune, in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, has released a "People's Manifesto on Water," which demands sustainable and equitable water distribution, relief programs for drought, and a tanker-free state. It also seeks people's rights to water sources, a ban on big dam projects, decentralization of water authorities, and water literacy programs.

The manifesto warns against privatization of water and misuse of agriculture water. It called for action against water-polluting agencies, and a judicial probe into water projects.

"It is our responsibility to create awareness about the water problem. During the election period, we should assert our water rights. Public pressure on the government and politicians is a must as water planning is much neglected," said village head Popatrao Pawar, who has successfully implemented water conservation projects in Hiware Bajar village in Ahmednagar district in Maharashtra state.

Poll boycott threat

Meanwhile, women voters in some 30 residential blocks in Morbi town, Rajkot district in Gujarat have threatened to boycott the upcoming polls and staged protests over their acute drinking water problem. Residents there have had drinking water problems for the last six months. Despite repeated appeals to authorities, the problem has not been solved, they said.

Samat Jariya, president of Morbi nagarpalika (city municipality), said that most of the societies do not fall within municipality limits, hence drinking water supply to societies is not the responsibility of the local body.

Chief district official HS Patel said that the district administration would solve the problem at the earliest after consultation with officials of water supply board, local bodies, municipality and stakeholders.

The lack of water is already having an effect in Berhampur, in eastern Orissa state, where it is turning into a major poll issue.

With a population of over 350,000 people, the city requires 45 million liters of water daily but gets only 33 million liters, which goes down to 20 to 24 million liters during the peak summer days.

While the opposition parties have made an issue out of water crisis in the town for the elections, ruling party leaders claim that a lot has been done to ensure constant water supply in the area.

Meanwhile, nearly two-thirds of Maharashtra state faces the thirstiest summer in recent history. According to state government figures, more than 16,500 villages and 6,000 hamlets in Vidarbha, Marathwada, and Khandesh deal with scarcity.

The Groundwater Survey and Development Authority estimates that the water table has receded steeply in 133 areas across the state.

Reservoirs dry up

Most reservoirs in Vidarbha and Marathwada have between 12 and 35 percent of their storage capacity. The water resources department says the average water level in the reservoirs at this time of the year is usually about 47 percent. At this time last year, the average water storage in the reservoirs was over 60 percent.

The immediate effect of water scarcity has been on the crops. Across Vidarbha and Marathwada, the area under crop cultivation has fallen drastically. For farmers who have sown wheat or cereals, production is expected to dwindle by more than 50 percent, say officials.

"More than 120 government tankers have been pressed into service," according to officials in the water supply department.

The main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has promised to make access to drinking water a fundamental right and conservation of water a fundamental duty if it is voted to power in the federal elections.

The BJP's prime ministerial candidate, Lal Krishna Advani, has also promised to set up a drinking water and sanitation mission if elected. The Hindu party, which ruled India from 1998-2004, said it wants to include the issue as part of its campaign.

Nearly one in every three village across India has no access to safe drinking water. The federal government has admitted before the Indian Supreme Court recently that about 217,000 of the 638,000 villages across India were facing serious health problem as their drinking water supply were polluted by chemicals like arsenic lesions and nitrate poisoning.

"Under rural drinking water supply, the survey done indicated that there are 216,968 rural habitation affected by poor water quality -- fluoride affected 31,306 villages, salinity affected 23,495, iron affected 118,088, arsenic affected 5,029, nitrate affected 13,958 and multiple factors affected 25,092," the federal health ministry told the apex court.

In the 31,306 villages affected by excess amount of fluoride in drinking water, this causes a dreaded and incurable disease fluorosis in human beings and animals which leads to mottled teeth, dental carries, stiffened brittle bones and joints, metabolic disorders and even paralysis in advanced stage.

Majority of these villages were located in the states of Haryana, Delhi National Territory, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh. The government has assured the Supreme Court in just one line: "The government is giving emphasis for tackling water quality problem."

"Up to 20 percent funds of the Accelerated Rural Water Supply Programme (ARSWP) are specifically earmarked for tackling water quality problems," the ministry said. It informed the court that under 'Bharat Nirman' scheme, a plan was afoot to build rural infrastructure in four years time. "Rural drinking water is one of the components of the said plan and under this, it is envisaged to address the problem of quality of water," it added.

The dreaded arsenic poisoning of drinking water sources is acute in West Bengal and also prevalent in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Assam, where surveys have identified people suffering from arsenic lesions.

GDP loss

India loses about one per cent of its GDP each year due to inefficiency of water supply schemes for rural households, a World Bank report released in July states. According to it, about 30 per cent of rural households have to depend on various schemes to meet their daily water needs.

The report titled "Review of Effectiveness of Rural Water Supply Schemes in India" is based on study of 10 states accounting to 60 percent of the national rural population.

Expenditure on 'operations and maintenance' schemes is inadequate and the cost recovery from such schemes low On an average, a household using private connection is willing to pay about 60 rupees and one depending on stand-posts of piped water 20 rupees per month for maintenance. Even households using public hand pumps are willing to pay 6 rupees more for improved services.

The report, thus, effectively says that if the households were charged according to their willingness to pay, cost recovery would also be much better and could contribute to additional resource for reaching out to other households.

One of the prominent findings of the report released in June highlights the amount of resources that are wasted due to heavily restrictive and defunct schemes. It results in only a fraction of the expenditure reaching the rural populace.

"This inefficiency of water supply schemes and concomitant resource wastage cause a loss of output in other sectors of the economy. If the water supply schemes were operated efficiently and the resources saved were invested, it would have raised the state domestic product of 10 states studied by about 1 percent."

India spends about $1 billion dollars each year for providing drinking water to the rural areas. Official figures as of April 1, 2007 show that 74 percent habitations are fully covered and 15 percent are partially covered.

Even as there has been a steady increase in coverage over the years, many fully covered areas have been continuously slipping into "partially covered" or "not covered" status. In a bid to understand this disconnect, India asked the World Bank to review the service delivery aspects of the scheme.

The survey, covering more than 600 rural drinking water supply schemes, brings out serious inadequacies of the schemes. The quality of water and hours of supply commonly fall especially during the summer months. Due to this, the rural households typically depend on multiple water resources, including private sources. The quality of water supplied also fails to meet standards.

The states covered under the report include: Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Orissa, Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and West Bengal..

The report says it was about an average of 38 rupees (US$0.90) per kilolitre for the supply-driven scheme as compared to 16 rupees ($0.30) per kilolitre for a good performing demand-driven scheme.

It says if the cost of water in supply-driven schemes can be brought down, there could be a savings of resources of about 12 rupees per KL or about 120 rupees per household per month assuming the household consumption level to be about 70 litres per capita per day from all sources.

Why is the cost of water so high in supply driven schemes? This is due to four reasons: high capital costs of the scheme, high institutional costs associated with the programs, existence of multiple schemes serving the same population leading to resource wastage and lastly, unsatisfactory performance of the schemes in terms of the quantity of water supplied in relation of design and other aspects forcing the households to incur significant extra costs.

The report says that only a fraction of the public finances is actually available for improving rural services. In contrast, the cost recovery performances of schemes managed by village communities. The institutional costs are also low in decentralized community driven programs and this can be utilized for creating better infrastructures for rural schemes.

It also breaks the myth that the rural households were not willing to pay for safe drinking water supply. "Households are willing and can afford to pay for improved services," the report says.

The average spending on water by a rural household is 81 rupees per month. This includes both public and private provisions like investing in bore-wells and storage tanks.

The willingness ranged from 30-60 rupees to per month for improved piped scheme to a stand-post is 13 to 25 rupees per month.

This "willingness" to pay as proportion to household income is around 0.5 to 2.5 percent, which is consistent with other studies on piped water supply for developing countries, the report says.

It also points at heavy variation in the costs of schemes in different states. Uttrakhand and Kerala spend 20,000-30,000 rupees per household as compared to states like Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Orissa and West Bengal that are incurring only 5,000-10,000 rupees per household.

Suggesting better policy direction, the report proposes better practice designs to improve cost recovery through decentralization and enhanced accountability, which is in striking contrast to the consumer's willingness to pay.

©2009 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter M.G. Srinath

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