Indian Modi provides tap water to millions of people as supplies dwindle

IMLIDOL, India – Pipes are laid, taps installed and the village’s reservoir is under construction – all promising signs that in the spring, Girja Ahriwar will get water to her doorstep and eventually shed a burden to life.

“I go out and put the jerry cans in the queue around 5 a.m. and wait there with the kids,” said Ms Ahriwar, a mother of three who lives in the central Indian state of India. Madhya Pradesh, about her routine of picking up the village hand pump. “Sometimes it could take five or six hours. I have to stay there because if I go someone else comes forward.

India, one of the most water-stressed countries in the world, is at the midpoint of an ambitious campaign to provide clean tap water by 2024 to all of the estimated 192 million homes spread across its 600,000 villages. About 18,000 government engineers oversee the $ 50 billion company, which includes hundreds of thousands of contractors and laborers who lay more than 2.5 million miles of pipe.

The project has a powerful champion in the person of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has slashed India’s notorious bureaucracy and removed thorny political divisions to bring it to fruition. Its success so far explains its domination of the political landscape of the country.

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

But the mission of providing water to every household combines two of Mr. Modi’s political strengths: his understanding of the daily problems of hundreds of millions of poor people in India and his penchant for ambitious solutions. Mr. Modi, who grew up in a poor village, spoke fondly of his own mother’s difficulties in fetching water.

About a sixth of Indian households had a drinking water tap when the program, called Jal Jeevan Mission, began in 2019. Today, almost half have one.

“You rarely have this motivation from the government, from the head of state, and it is well funded. Behind the concept is the budget, ”said Nicolas Osbert, who heads UNICEF India’s water and sanitation unit. “All social sectors have been impacted by the Covid. Not this one. This has been preserved.

The country’s water problem is testament to the gap between its global economic ambitions and the dire conditions of many of its 1.4 billion people, two-thirds of whom still live in rural areas. Nearly 40 million Indians are affected by water-borne illnesses each year, resulting in an estimated $ 600 million a year in medical costs and lost workforce. About 100,000 children under 5 die of diarrhea each year. The growth of millions more is stunted.

“Water scarcity must not become a limiting factor in our quest for socio-economic development, the quest for high economic growth,” said Bharat Lal, the senior official Mr. Modi has appointed to head the country. mission.

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

The mission judges the progress made by satisfying the village councils to avoid the slowdowns of India’s layered bureaucracy. Districts and states partner with technical universities to comment on best practices. Local organizations take care of village councils while they take on the role of managers of public services.

Village bodies are supposed to charge a small monthly fee – about $ 1 per household – to have funds for upkeep and to encourage a culture of participation and ownership.

In areas where groundwater is overexploited, the program routes and pumps treated water over tens of kilometers from sources such as dams. Villagers are trained to test the water quality and upload the data to the dashboard. They also learn to recycle and reuse wastewater. Pilot projects are underway to install automated pressure and quality sensors.

The project has its detractors. Rajendra Singh, an environmentalist, said he had not given enough consideration to water conservation as India’s groundwater sources quickly collapsed. The country draws more groundwater than China and the United States combined, as drought-stricken farmers pump and pump.

“Your sources are drying up,” Singh said. “In a country where 72% of the aquifers are exposed, in this country, how can you supply water through pipelines?

During visits to five villages in Madhya Pradesh, one of India’s most water-stressed states, the scale of the challenge was clear: falling groundwater levels, lack of proper electricity to pump and even the rich villagers’ refusal to pay the small monthly fee.

In some villages, progress was far behind what Mr Lal’s dashboard showed. There was also skepticism that older projects from years past had failed – the pipes were there, but the reason the water was not coming in was a matter of finger pointing.

In others, the work progressed, with obstacles.

The government has earmarked billions more for maintenance, but hopes to create a culture of long-term ownership through the local royalty. This process has been slow.

In Sihora village, all households had water, but only half paid. Village council members cited a political culture of gifts and grants.

“If the ration is free, the house is free, the delivery of the children is free, the marriage is free,” council member Jyoti Abadiya said, “they say water should also be free”.

In Panari, a thriving village that owns a sugar mill and cultivates three crops, low electricity meant households had only a few hours of running water a day. The women, who traditionally collect water from homes, said they now buy time to collect water, but still fill buckets at home to get supplies.

“The line cuts every few days,” said Hemant Kumar Sharma, the pump operator. “Then I have to look for the electrician for two hours. “

Only about a fifth of households paid. “The poor pay,” said Naryan Prasad Faujdar, the gangly, bespectacled village plumber. “The rich are not.”

Rajendar Kaurav, jawbone full of chewing tobacco, replied that he could easily pay, but he disagreed on the principle: water is the responsibility of the government. “If I pay, other people don’t pay,” he said.

Another villager replied: If you don’t pay, the water will be cut off – and the hospital bill for drinking from the canal would be much higher.

The hopes of villagers like Ms. Ahriwar rest with government engineers like Devendra Kumar Jain.

Mr. Jain, a mild-mannered engineer with three decades of service, was at the forefront of the water crisis. Vulnerability has increased with declining groundwater levels. The old solutions of installing hand pumps and digging tube wells were not enough.

It is responsible for connecting around 300,000 households to 3,000 villages in Madhya Pradesh. In areas where groundwater is overused, such as Ms. Ahriwar’s Imlidol village, her team draws from a dam about 80 kilometers away. Work there is three-quarters complete, Jain said.

The water shortage in Imlidol means people only grow one crop per year. Most men look for work elsewhere. Ms Ahriwar’s husband, Rakesh Ahriwar, a bricklayer, said he will travel to Delhi soon to look for work, leaving his wife and three children behind.

After the water arrived, Ms. Ahriwar said, “I will be spared trouble and distance. “

For Mr. Jain, 58, the end of the mission will coincide closely with his retirement. From humble beginnings to delivering hand pumps and tube wells, he was able to leave a legacy of tap water for 300,000 homes, a prospect that left him touched.

“I’ll be the happiest man,” he said.

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