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Empowering Panchayats for sustaining access to drinking water
In line with global agenda of 'leaving no one behind', India is looking forward to reach all its citizens with safe and affordable drinking water. The vision has stemmed from the nation's commitment to the global 2030 agenda and sustainable development goals.

The task appears to be a tough row to hoe, especially for a programme, which is already lagging behind its targets for providing drinking water in rural areas. The latest CAG report on performance audit of National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP) suggests that only 44 per cent of rural households and 85 per cent of government schools and Anganwadi centres were provided access to safe drinking water. 

The CAG report observed that inadequate involvement of community is a key shortcoming of the current rural water supply programme. After sector reforms, India has adopted a demand driven approach for providing drinking water in rural areas. Success of this approach depends largely upon ownership of gram panchayats over drinking water infrastructure and services at local level. It is part of the programme to see that panchayats are participating in planning, implementing and monitoring rural water supply activities in villages. But the initiatives taken during past years were hardly sufficient. 

From 2012 to 2017, the rural drinking water programme was able to spend only 87.80 per cent of the funds available for support activities. In this, major expenditure was made towards administration and establishment needs (41 per cent). On the other hand, expenditure on Information, Education and Communication (IEC) which includes activities for community awareness and motivation, was only 26 per cent. Remarkably expenditure for capacity building was only 8 per cent of the total expenditure under support activities. This shows that creating a social capital has always been a glitch in the planning and implementation process of rural drinking water programme. 

As on 20th March, 2019, India has 9,94,234 piped water supply schemes, 54,08,522 spot sources (hand pumps/ bore wells/ tube wells etc.) and 1,18,977 other drinking water sources. Sustaining this infrastructure is now a major challenge for the rural water supply programme. Off late, Village Water and Sanitation Committees (VWSCs) were promoted by state governments for smooth operation and maintenance of drinking water infrastructure and services at village and panchayat levels. In absence of a clear cut framework for capacity building and monitoring by line department, many of these VWSCs are now in dormant stage. 

The major question that confronts rural drinking water programme today is, can a panchayat deliver its role in a programme which is more accustomed to a centralised system of planning, execution and monitoring? The systems of programme implementation should be more accommodative to decision making by panchayats. In actual practice, it is witnessed that until handover to community, the panchayats have lesser role in planning processes. In this context, handover of the scheme (drinking water source) to community have mostly turned out to 'shifting the accountability'. 

The gram panchayats have a bigger role to play in managing rural drinking water supply in recent times. From 2007 to 2017, excessive extraction of ground water has led to 61 per cent decline in water levels in wells in India. Contemporary challenges to rural drinking water supply are far more distressing than the erstwhile ones. The rural drinking water programme has stepped into a 'sustainability approach' from 'demand driven approach'. In this context, panchayats need to be equipped with better knowledge, capacities and resources to manage water at the local level. On the other hand, with large drinking water programmes which cover bigger geographies, scope for involvement of panchayats is getting more limited now-a-days.

This year World Water Day has a theme which speaks about reaching everyone with safe drinking water and leaving no one behind. For ensuring equitable access, the current programme needs to shed its conventional approach of concentrating only on infrastructure development and sharpen its strategies for engagement with panchayats and other community level institutions.

Manas Kumar Biswal is Programme Coordinator at WaterAid India

Editorial NOTE: This article is categorized under Opinion Section. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of In case you have a opposing view, please click here to share the same in the comments section.
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