Is 'Nal se Jal' Just a Pipe Dream?

Pipes are of no use if there is no water. The newly-formed Jal Shakti Ministry should instead focus on strong drought mitigation and water regeneration measures.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Nal Se Jal‘ (Water from Tap) scheme, which aims to ensure piped water for every household by 2024, is a laudable one. However, given the alarming water scarcity in the country, it may be difficult to achieve.

When the prime minister inaugurated Telangana’s ambitious Rs 53,000 crore Mission Bhagiratha initiative to provide piped water to the 23,000 villages of the state in August 2016, it was only a matter of time before the programme was replicated in the rest of the country.

As expected, upon coming to power, one of the first programmes the new government announced was the ambitious Nal se Jal – to be implemented by the newly-formed Ministry of Jal Shakti headed by the BJP leader Gajendra Singh Shekhawat.

While there is no clarity on the cost of the initiative, experts believe that establishing a network of pipes across the country could mean an expenditure running into lakhs of thousands of rupees.

Telangana chief minister K. Chandrashekhar Rao’s promise to provide pure drinking water to every household led the people to believe that the state would held end their battle against water shortages. Farmers in the state also felt that this would provide a huge boost to agriculture.

Also read: Will a New Water Ministry Solve India’s Impending Water Crisis?

The chief minister also promised that the scheme, inaugurated in April 2016, would be completed in less than two years. Explaining how they raised money for it, Prakash Rao, who heads the Telangana Water Resource Development Corporation, said: “We did not want to take money from the World Bank. Rather, we chose to raise it from Indian companies including LIC, HUDCO, Power Finance Corporation and five public sector banks. We have achieved 95% connectivity already and officials from more than 11 different states have visited Telangana to study this project. There are hardly 6,500 villages left which have to be connected.”

Rao further explained: “Water for Mission Bhagiratha is being sourced from 26 reservoirs which are linked to Krishna and Godavari rivers.”

Some water experts believe the reality on the ground is somewhat different. They say around 1,250 km of pipeline is yet to be laid while the completion of the distributary system is around 50%.

Another criticism levied against Mission Bhagiratha by villagers was that the water being provided to them was polluted and undrinkable. Rao explained: “That was because sometimes water was being sourced from bore wells. But this problem has also been addressed with the construction of large purifying plants which ensure that water is being purified before being supplied to the last mile.”

If the Modi government goes ahead with the Nal se Jal scheme, the question is whether a blanket programme can fit the requirements of the entire country.

Water expert Manoj Misra pointed out, “What is the point of promising the moon? Let me first clarify that Telangana is not India. No one blanket solution can be provided for the country. Is it economical to be providing piped water to hamlets in Rajasthan which receive five millimetres of water in a year? The people there have come up with traditional solutions and these should be reinforced.”

The other equally significant question to be asked is: Do we as a nation have the necessary reservoirs of water? Reservoir levels in drought-hit Marathwada are below 2%. In the rest of the country, reservoir levels have plummeted to an all-time low and in several states, the Central Water Commission admits, they are well below 10%

Even in Telangana, opposition leaders including from the Congress party had questioned how the KCR government embarked on such a major project without holding any prior discussions either at the state or the village level.

Also read: Caste Discrimination in UP’s Bundelkhand is Worsening the Water Woes of Dalits

Visakhapatnam-based water activist Satyanarayana Bolisetty said, “Such a scheme will enrich a handful of contractors without addressing the key issue which is that the water tables in our country must be increased. To do so, we have to go back to our traditional practices of water conservation – which means we stop encroachments along our river banks, lakes and wetlands. This, in turn, means strict action against the land mafia.”

Government sources in the Ministry of Jal Shakti are placing their bets on interlinking of rivers as a source or feeding the hundreds of reservoirs that will have to built to provide this network of taps. Interlinking, however, remains a controversial and expensive solution to which scientists and civil activists have expressed strong reservations.

Well-known water conservationist and environmentalist Rajendra Singh said: “The cost of this scheme will run into trillions of crores. Not only will it end up making the government bankrupt but what will a villager do with taps if there is no water?”

Singh also cautions how our dwindling water resources have made us hugely dependent on ground water resources. India is presently the largest extractor of ground water in the world and is extracting 253 billion cubic metres of water every year – which is 25% of the world’s ground water.  But with ground water levels plummeting to an all-time low, there are apprehensions that swathes of the country could turn into deserts.

The Jal Shakti Ministry should come up with strong drought mitigation and water regeneration measures instead of showing us a pipe dream.

Rashme Sehgal is an author and a freelance journalist based in Delhi.