In India's water-stressed villages, Modi seeks a tap for every home

India, one of the world's most water-stressed countries, is halfway through an ambitious drive to provide clean tap water by 2024 to all of the roughly 192 million households across its 600,000 villages

By Mujib Mashal and Hari Kumar
Published: Dec 29, 2021

Bhoori Bai Ggound, 33, carries water containers that she filled from a hand pump well in Imlidol, India, Nov. 30, 2021. India, one of the world’s most water-stressed countries, is halfway through an ambitious drive to provide clean tap water by 2024 to all the roughly 192 million households across its 600,000 villages. (Saumya Khandelwal/The New York Times)

IMLIDOL, India — The pipes are laid, the taps installed and the village tank is under construction — all promising signs that, come spring, Girja Ahriwar will get water at her doorstep and finally shed a lifelong burden.

“I go out and put the jerrycans in the queue at around 5 a.m. and wait there with the children,” Ahriwar, a mother of three who lives in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, said about her routine of fetching from the village hand pump. “Sometimes it could take five or six hours. I have to stay there because if I leave, someone else moves ahead.”

India, one of the world’s most water-stressed countries, is halfway through an ambitious drive to provide clean tap water by 2024 to all of the roughly 192 million households across its 600,000 villages. About 18,000 government engineers are overseeing the $50 billion undertaking, which includes hundreds of thousands of contractors and laborers who are laying more than 2.5 million miles of pipe.

The project has a powerful champion in Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has slashed through India’s notorious red tape and pushed aside thorny political divisions to see it through. His success thus far helps explain his dominance over the country’s political landscape.

Modi has remained popular despite a weak economy and a bungled initial response to the coronavirus that left hundreds of thousands dead. He has increasingly relied on communal politics, continuing to consolidate a Hindu nationalist base he has worked for decades to rally.

But the mission to deliver water to every household combines two of Modi’s political strengths: his grasp of the day-to-day problems of hundreds of millions of India’s poor and his penchant for ambitious solutions. Modi, who grew up in a poor village, has spoken emotionally about his own mother’s hardship in fetching water.

About one-sixth of India’s households had a clean water tap when the program, called Jal Jeevan Mission, began in 2019. Now, almost half have one.

“You rarely have this drive from the government, the head of state, and it is well funded. Behind the concept, there is budget,” said Nicolas Osbert, who leads the UNICEF water and sanitation unit in India. “All social sectors were impacted by COVID. Not this one. This one was preserved.”

The country’s water problem speaks to the mismatch between its global economic ambitions and the dire conditions of much of its 1.4 billion population, two-thirds of whom still live in rural areas. Nearly 40 million Indians are affected by waterborne diseases every year, leading to about $600 million annually in medical costs and labor loss. About 100,000 children younger than 5 die of diarrhea every year. The growth of millions more is stunted.

“The paucity of water should not become a limiting factor in our quest for socioeconomic development, the quest for high economic growth,” said Bharat Lal, the top official Modi has named to lead the mission.

From his office in New Delhi, Lal checks the progress on a detailed computerized dashboard. About 100,000 connections are added every day, according to official figures, and Lal’s phone pings constantly with videos and photos showing successes.

The mission judges progress by the satisfaction of village councils to avoid slowdowns from India’s layered bureaucracy. Districts and states are teamed up with technical universities for comment on best practices. Local organizations handhold village councils as they take on the role of public utility managers.

The village bodies are expected to collect a small monthly fee — about $1 per household — to have funds for maintenance and to encourage a culture of participation and ownership.

In areas where groundwater is overexploited, the program pipes and pumps treated water over tens of miles from sources like dams. Villagers are trained to test the quality of water and upload the data to the dashboard. They are also taught how to recycle and reuse waste water. Pilot projects are underway to install automated pressure and quality sensors.

The project has its critics. Rajendra Singh, an environmentalist, said that it had not factored in water conservation enough, with India’s groundwater sources plummeting fast. The country draws more groundwater than China and the United States combined, as drought-plagued farmers pump and pump.

“Your sources are drying up,” Singh said. “In a country where 72% of water aquifers are overdrawn, in that country how can you provide water through pipelines?”

In visits to five villages in Madhya Pradesh, one of India’s most water-stressed states, the size of the challenge was clear — in the sinking levels of groundwater, in the shortage of proper electricity to pump and in the refusal of even well-off villagers to pay the small monthly fee.

In some villages, progress was far behind what Lal’s dashboard showed. There was also skepticism because older projects from years past had failed — the pipes were there, but just why the water was not arriving was a matter of finger pointing.

In others, work was proceeding, with obstacles.

The government has earmarked additional billions of dollars for maintenance but hopes to build a long-term culture of ownership through the local fee. That process has been slow.

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©2019 New York Times News Service

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