Last updated: February 25, 2019
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“Water is the driver of nature” – Leonardo da Vinci In India, the access to drinking water in rural areas increased from about 65 % of the population to about 90% in 2001. Approximately one billion dollar is being spent each year by the Government of India to provide drinking water to rural areas. Looking at the pace of achievement according to quantitative figures and with the government’s ongoing emphasis on flagship programs such as Rajiv Gandhi National Drinking Water Mission (RGNDWM), it might appear that the problem of access to safe drinking water in India shall soon be solved. But all that glitters is not gold.

Though there has been an increase in the coverage over the past years which is definitely a positive point, but what is alarming is that there has been continuous slippage from earlier fully covered habitations to partially or not covered habitations. Also, a significant portion of water supply infrastructure created functions much below its design level. The problems of breakdown, insufficient water supply are very common in rural areas. The inefficiency of these schemes forces people to incur huge coping costs. The people in rural areas, especially women, have to travel considerable distances and stand in long queues.

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They incur cost on repair and maintenance of public water sources. Maintenance of household equipments for private water supply arrangements, purification and storage of water also bears cost on rural households. All this involves opportunity costs in terms of lesser economic productivity and lesser development in these areas. Such a vulnerable situation makes one to wonder the reality that exists beyond the mathematical figures of percentage of achievement. What still remain questionable are the impact of these schemes in terms of quality of services provided and the impact on the lives of the beneficiaries.

A careful review of the water supply schemes would reveal that there have been critical issues in the design and implementation of these schemes. Most of the water supply schemes in India are based around the supply driven concept. According to this, the government plans, designs and installs a project without much participation from local communities. Theoretically this scheme has the advantage of sectoral planning which could help in optimal allocation of resources. But at the ground level, the effectiveness of supply driven schemes is low to moderate.

However, from some time, demand driven approach has gained momentum where Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) and local communities play a major role. They are not only consulted during planning and designing of the water supply schemes for their areas but also are continuously involved through cost sharing mechanism and management of the infrastructure. This approach entrusts accountability among PRIs and local communities which is the main reason that explains the fact demand driven schemes have shown better results as compared to supply driven schemes in many cases.

There are financial and operational limitations in supply driven schemes. The institutional costs are also higher in supply driven programs. Supply driven schemes also spend a significant part of funds towards Operational and Maintenance (O&M) expenses. This leaves limited fund availability for building water supply infrastructure in public utility managed schemes. In community managed programs, the communities are expected to share around 10% of capital cost and complete O&M cost. When end users bear an increasing portion of O&M costs, effective utilization of government funds takes place.

Also for piped water supply schemes, it has been seen that cost recovery mechanisms which are the basis for financial sustainability perform well in case of demand driven schemes (71%) as compared to supply driven schemes (46%). Even if we look from the perspective of reliability and adequacy, demand driven schemes have faired better as compared to supply driven schemes. Reliability and adequacy over here mean the regularity of supply and proportion of household water requirement met from the schemes. What is more surprising is the fact that supply driven schemes have been accounting for a substantial portion of fund flows.

Over 85% of the funds have been allocated to supply driven programs. However, there are several limitations of demand driven approach too. Most demand responsive schemes are unable to take advantage of economies of scale because of their small size. Even in some cases the water sources which are available in the local areas may not be sufficient to fulfill the requirements of the households, especially in the summer months. Hence, the challenge lies in the successful implementation of the demand driven approach. Only entrusting the roles and responsibilities to PRIs and local bodies is not enough.

Eventually, the state along with NGOs needs to play the role of a facilitator by helping build capacity among the local communities to become functionaries and manage funds and all functions. The community participation needs to be strengthened through formation of representational committees and direct involvement during all stages including planning, designing, construction and maintenance. There have been problems beyond the supply driven approach too. It has been found out that there has been significant resource wastage in implementation and operation of schemes in the past.

There have been signs of over-provisioning by schemes in Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and many other states. When the schemes are over-provisioned, i. e. utilized by lesser number of people than targeted, it results in increase in per capita cost of the infrastructure. This again acts as a burden on the financial sustainability of the scheme. Also, there have been several cases when a scheme has been supplemented by other schemes because it was not functioning effectively. Such multiple schemes for the same area increases the overall cost of service provision to the government.

The good news is that the modification in the framework of the National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP) is expected to take care of several of these issues. The national goal of the NRDWP is to provide every rural person with adequate safe water for drinking, cooking and other domestic basic needs on a sustainable basis. The modified program of RGNDWM focuses on achieving drinking water security at the household level instead of emphasizing only on achieving the target of average per capita availability.

This is a step in the positive direction because achievement of the later may not necessarily mean guaranteed access to safe drinking water to all sections of the population in the habitation. The new policies in the program have been designed to encourage community driven approaches because of their inherent benefits. The states shall receive incentives for decentralizing their systems of management. According to the decentralized approach, the PRIs and local community shall be responsible for management, operation and maintenance of water supply schemes.

The program stresses on the need to move from over dependence on one source to utilization of multiple water sources such as ground, surface water and rainwater harvesting including recharge/roof water collection and bulk transfer through pipelines. The demand for quantity as well as quality of water supply is increasing in India. Hence, modified program correctly realizes that the need of the day is to ensure the security of the available sources. The program focuses on optimisation of usage of both conventional and non conventional water resources.

Steps are also included to protect the catchment of ground and surface drinking water from pollution through human and animal excreta. Currently, there is less transparency and accountability in the system because of overlapping roles and responsibilities. To improve this, the roles of all participants including regulators, asset owners, policy makers, service operators, financiers, etc and the contractual relationships between them need to be clearly defined. The beneficiaries should be transformed to paying customers with the freedom to express concerns and willingness.

This would help in establishing a transparent and accountable framework. With decreasing levels of groundwater in most states in the past few years, sustainability in access to drinking water is at stake. Adding to this is the debate on the over-abstraction of water for agriculture. It is estimated that agriculture uses around 80% of fresh water and various studies indicate that current farming practices waste 60% of this water. The modified programme identifies this problem as a critical issue and mentions steps that need to be taken to counteract the factors resulting in the deterioration of water supply facilities.

Community ground water monitoring, crop water budgeting and improved agricultural practices are the ways forward for building sustainability in the system. Participation from private sector in the recent past in rural water service delivery has been effective. This should continue and the states should encourage private agencies, contractors and operators to become more active. Having known that a major issue is to improve efficiency of daily operations, main emphasis could be on service and management contracts.

To improve regulation and pricing, states should also encourage private sector in setting up of water quality treatment plants and supplying quality water at affordable prices. These and many more such initiatives taken up by the modified programme hopes to address the bottlenecks of the rural water supply system. And most importantly, the evaluation of water supply schemes should not only evaluate the rate of progress of construction, sanctioning and release of funds, etc, but also the performance and success of these schemes in terms of quality of services provided and the impact on the lives of the beneficiaries.


1. “Review of Effectiveness of Rural Water Supply Schemes in India” : The World Bank, June 2008 ; Report prepared by Smita Misra. Available at : http://www. indiaenvironmentportal. org. in/files/rws-india. pdf 2. “Movement towards Ensuring People’s Drinking Water Security in Rural India” : Rajiv Gandhi National Drinking Water Mission – National Rural Drinking Water Programme ; Department of Drinking Water Supply, Ministry of Rural Development, Government of India ; April 2010. Available at : http://ddws. ov. in/popups/RuralDrinkingWater_2ndApril. pdf 3. “India – Water Supply and Sanitation : Bridging the Gap between Infrastructure and Service” : India Country Team, Energy and Infrastructure Department, South Asia Region, World Bank ; Report prepared by Midori Makino. Available at : http://siteresources. worldbank. org/INDIAEXTN/Resources/Reports-Publications/366387-1140691677823/WorldBank_BG_Urban_20Feb06. pdf 4. Department of Drinking Water Supply : http://ddws. nic. in/ 5. Quote from http://www. ozh2o. com/h2quotes. tml Information about author: Sankalp Chhabra I wrote this article for the YOJANA magazine and it was published in the July 2010 issue. I have completed Civil Engineering from Delhi College of Engineering and currently I’ve completed MBA from Indian institute of Foreign Trade. I pursued an internship in the Planning Commission under the Programme Evaluation Organisation department. I want to build my career in the social development sector. I’m reachable on [email protected] com / 09868931444 / 09818001744 .