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India rural water supply: an orphan of reforms?

By V. Kurian Baby, India Country Director, IRC

Community rural water supply (RWS) in India is an orphan of partially implemented demand responsive sector reforms on the one hand and unsuccessful decentralisation on the other. Historically, rural water supply in India has been outside the sphere of governments (NRDWP 2013). The 73rd and 74th constitutional amendment (Act 1992) made drinking water and sanitation a constitutional mandate of the three tier system of Panchayat Raj Institutions (PRIs). Even after two decades, the decentralisation process is an unaccomplished dream lying between de-concentration and devolution. In many states the progress is either stalled or reversed.

On the other hand decentralised community based RWS has emerged as a dominant model under sector reforms started in 1999-2000 in partial fulfilment of the decentralisation obligation and also through funding programmes driven by the World Bank.

Rural water schemes designed and implemented by government are increasingly transferred to local communities and weak PRIs to manage.  There are more than 5.6 million hand pumps and over 120,000 piped water schemes (NRWDP Report 2010) in the country. Studies [1] have shown that, communities face serious post-construction challenges like grossly inadequate arrangements to address technical failures, capital replacement, conflict resolution, source failures, risk financing and capacity building, resulting in service failure and slippage to the tune of 30-35%. Any structured, predictable and accountable post construction support to communities is conspicuous by its absence in India.

To add to the complexities and failure rates, the Government of India XII Five Year Plan (GoI 2012-17) target 60% of RWS operated and managed by PRIs and communities with at least 50% cost recovery. Additionally, the GoI Strategic Plan 2011-12 aims at 80% piped water supply cover by 2022. Progressive shift towards piped water with steadily growing demand for higher service level as a result of rapid economic growth will further increase the manifold complexities of community rural water management in the coming years. If truly sincere to the targets, India should discontinue the practice of ‘’build, handover and forget ‘’. The communities have proven capacity to manage however, they need continuous handholding and support from Government. Even in the USA [2] rural water supply receives significant hand holding and subsidy to the extent of around 50% to bridge the cost recovery gap.

Drinking water in federal India is a State subject, where GoI frame policies and financing programmes.  Most of the GoI finances and budgets including the special grants provided under the Finance Commissions are used up by public sector water boards leaving practically little or nothing to rural communities.  How can we justify the practice of pumping money continuously to schemes run by governments and managed inefficiently by ‘highly qualified’ engineers and bureaucrats while schemes managed by rural communities are left as orphans?

Construction is the easiest part; increasing complexities of managing rural water require structured predictable post-construction support mechanisms and abundant clarity of roles and responsibilities. All existing guidelines and programmes in India are weak in addressing this critical gap.  GoI should urgently facilitate the design of location specific PRI centric institutional mechanisms and business models for technical backstopping and support to rural communities and ring fenced budgetary provision to bridge O&M gaps to avoid further investment failures and service level slippage

[1]. Kurian Baby and P.K. Kurian (June 2013). Case Study: Unstructured Post Construction Support under Structured Local Governance: Evidences from Rural Drinking Water Service Delivery. Download paper

[2] http://www.nrwa.org/

About dietvorst

Information Specialist and Editor of E-Source, IRC, The Hague, The Netherlands

One comment on “India rural water supply: an orphan of reforms?

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