Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications
Monday, Dec 15, 2003
Drinking water for all A mission that needs vision
Although, the Ministry of Rural Development claims more than 95 per cent coverage, independent reports show scarcity of drinking water in about half of the villages of India.
What is even more distressing is the fact that this gap has been increasing over the years, despite heavy investment."
The figures returned in the Census of India 2001 bear out the anguish expressed by the Planning Commission. Only 70 million households have reported tap as their source of drinking water. This constitutes a mere 37 per cent of the total households.
At the national level, there has been an increase of just 14 percentage points in the use of tap as a source of drinking water in the past two decades. Moreover, the pace of growth is slowing while the increase was more than nine percentage points during 1981-1991, it was only five percentage points in the last decade. The trend in the rural areas indicates an upward swing of 11 percentage points in the decade 1981-91 but only three percentage points in 1991-2001.
The urban areas also show stagnation a two percentage points rise in the first decade followed by a marginally higher four percentage points in the next.
Regional and State-wise variations show contrasting patterns. The hilly States of Himachal Pradesh, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh, Mizoram have steadily improved over the two decades.
In contrast, Bihar has reported a decline of nearly seven percentage points during 1981-2001 and about 11 percentage points during 1991-2001. Large States, such as Uttar Pradesh, Assam and Orissa, also registered declines in the proportion of households having access to tap water during 1991-2001.
There has been no any significant improvement in Haryana, Rajasthan, Delhi, West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh.
The only solace is that Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka have substantially improved water supply by tap, particularly for their rural households during 1981-2001.
It is indeed a matter of concern that only six major States Haryana, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have reported a figure above the national average in 2001. If the analysis is taken further, almost 20 per cent of the districts in India have less than 10 per cent of households served by tap.
This source of drinking water is considered next to tap in terms of potability. It is heartening that there was a 26 percentage points increase in the usage of hand-pumps/tube-wells by households during 1981-2001 from about 15 per cent in 1981 to 41 per cent in 2001. In the North, there is a preponderance of this source in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
This is perhaps due to the easy availability of sub-soil water in this region as also the soft strata.
Among the major States, access to drinking water from hand-pumps/tube-wells to the households was above the national average in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar Assam, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal.
Though the dependence on this source in Haryana and Rajasthan was below the national average both in 1991 and 2001, it rose from one in four households in 1991 to around one in three households in 2001. In the South, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, this dependency appears to have somewhat slowed down during 1991-2001 a pointer to the depletion of groundwater sources.
It is important to note that even in the urban areas, two out of three households in Bihar, two out of five households in Uttar Pradesh and Assam and one out of three households in Punjab and West Bengal meet their water requirement from these sources.
There has been a dramatic fall in the proportion of households depending on well as a source of drinking water. At the national level, around 18 per cent of the households relied on well water in 2001 against 52 per cent in 1981 a decline of about 34 percentage points during the two decades.
There has been a decline in the dependence of wells in all the States and Union Territories barring Lakshadweep, where status quo has been maintained.
In Kerala (including the urban areas, surprisingly), the dependence is still very high, perhaps, due to traditional use of wells as also these being largely privately owned, thereby safe for drinking.
In the newly created States of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh well as a source of drinking water is high at around 1:2 and 1:4 households respectively.
During 1981-2001, the dependence on well water declined faster than that at the national level in the major States of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
The most remarkable shift from well water is observed in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar where only one in nine households depend on this source as compared to one in three households in 1991.
In 2001, one in four households in the less developed States of Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Assam and Rajasthan are still dependent on `wells' for their daily requirement of drinking water.
While, on the one hand, it is reassuring that `other sources' of drinking water (considered unpotable) has been declining steadily, it is a stark fact that 4 per cent of the households in the country, or 8 million households, still depend on sources such as rivers, canals, ponds, lakes and the like.
This shows that a shift from blatantly unsafe sources such as `well' and `others' to the relatively more sophisticated sources of drinking water. While this is an improvement, particularly in view of the natural contaminants and the rising level of chemical pollutants such as pesticides and insecticides in groundwater, in the absence of any data on the quality of water from taps and below the surface, one cannot comment on the potability of the existing sources of supply.
Unrestricted exploitation of groundwater has resulted in grave problems such as arsenic poisoning in West Bengal and increased salinity in Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Punjab, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu. High fluoride levels are also assuming threatening dimensions in peninsular India and the western parts.
The Tenth Plan has set an ambitious target to provide "sustained access to potable drinking water within the Plan Period" to all villages in the country. `Swajal Dhara', a scheme launched by the Prime Minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, aims to translate the objective into a reality. The task is a mammoth one and cannot be tackled by the Government alone.
Mr Vajpayee has said that "this problem can be effectively dealt with only through a sustained partnership between citizens, people's organisations, various water-users and the government at all levels. It calls for short-term and long-term measures, which have to be taken up with urgency and a sense of national mission."
The end is clear and the means to achieve it has also been lucidly spelt out. The challenge is to resolutely march towards the objective.
(The author is Director of Census Operations, Tamil Nadu. The views are personal.)
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