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Where have all the committees gone?

Mr Chary* is the secretary of one of the Gram Panchayats (lowest level of elected government in India) in the north eastern part of Tamil Nadu. Full of pride, he shows the pump house and the overhead tank, and explains the work of the operator who keeps the pump running, maintains the tank and chlorinates the water. We were here, however, to find out what the water committee does about water supplies, but only this local government official is around to explain it all. Where has the committee gone?

This field visit was done in the context of our Community Water Plus project, a research study that looks into the type of support that has been given to some of the most successful community management programmes and initiatives across India, and tries to assess what that support has entailed, how much it has cost, and whether it indeed has led to good service delivery. In short, what is the “plus” that is needed to make community management work.

From a first scan of programmes and pilot testing of the research methodology, it became clear that the work of the Gram Panchayats (GPs) constitutes a major component of the “plus”. In some of the well-known and much-cited examples of successful community management programmes, like WASMO in Gujarat or Jalanidhi in Kerala, the GPs play an important role in supporting the water committees, e.g. in aspects like water quality testing, auditing, mobilizing funds for capital maintenance and extensions – but also significantly in subsidizing part of the operational costs, like the payment of electricity or salaries of operators.

Yet, in some of the first cases, including the one from Tamil Nadu, but also another one from Chhatisgarh, no water committees, village committees or whatever they may be called were found. All tasks of what we call the service provider were done by the GP itself. Or better said, they were the ones who hired operators, collected tariffs and did the book keeping. In effect, it would appear as if this were just straightforward public management, similar to municipal management found in many other places.

We had then long discussions on whether such management by the GPs can effectively be called community management. The ones arguing against it, including myself initially, felt that a key part of the definition of community management is that in the end decision-making lies with some community-based organization, such as a water committee. Others argued that a local government body, like a GP, is in fact an organization that represents the community, as it is elected by it. And, in the Chhatisgarh case for example, key decisions, such as the review of water tariffs were always discussed in a Gram Sabha, a broad community assembly, before a final decision was made within the democratically elected local government body, the GP.

I now think that it is a grey area. Indeed, elected local government is probably a more democratic form of governance than a water committee, which may or may not have undergone a proper election process. And we all know the stories of water committee members who have been in the committee for ages. At the same time, in many instances the local government cannot properly represent all the community voices, particularly in those places where a local government area includes many communities.

The more important question is: does it matter whether it is community management or public management of the water supplies. The answer is: probably not. In both the cases seen so far from Tamil Nadu and Chhatisgarh, users received a reasonable level of service, of piped supplies with household connections in a significant part of the village and public standpipes elsewhere, good quantities and reliability of supply. Water quality management was an issue in the Tamil Nadu case, as chlorination was not done in a continuous manner – but, well, how many cases do we know of water committees doing proper chlorination. Also, the local government bodies themselves had a reasonable degree of professionalization in the work they did, with dedicated staff and procedures for management of the supplies. Of course, they also had many weaknesses, probably the main one being that there was no autonomous unit managing water supply, without ring-fenced budget.

To me the interesting reflection in this is that community management evolved in response to the failure of the public sector to provide services in rural areas. Now that many countries are enjoying economic growth and corresponding strengthening of the public sector, it is probably not a surprise that public management of water services is starting to take place in rural areas. And there is also logic to it. A local government body has more economies of scale than a water committee, more possibility to professionalize and often is indeed a more legitimate body than a water committee. And if it is a model that delivers adequate services, why not?

At the same time, it has also become clear, that even with such public management, a “plus” is needed, i.e. support from higher levels of government or NGOs to help local government do a better job.

So, we now have two interesting tasks ahead: to analyse how support from local government to water committees sometimes evolves into local government just providing the service directly, and to understand what the plus is to make public management of water supplies by small local governments work.

*The names of the individuals in this blog have been changed.

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