On Drinking Water, Modi Government Isn't Putting Its Money Where Its Mouth Is

This year's budgetary allocation for the drinking water department is less than what was spent in 2017-18.

New Delhi: The expenditure outlay for the newly-created Jal Shakti ministry presented in the Union budget on Friday reveals that the Centre’s intent to provide drinking water facilities to all rural households by 2024 is not matched by the budgetary allocations.

Ever since the Modi government was re-elected, it has indicated that managing water resources will be its top priority. It rolled out its flagship “Nal se Jal” scheme that aims to provide piped water supply for every rural household.

Not surprisingly, Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman in her maiden budget speech put the spotlight on water and the newly created Jal Shakti ministry – which was formed by merging the erstwhile Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation and the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation.

Sitharaman announced, amidst great applause from her party members, that the new ministry would ensure that every rural household gets piped water by 2024 under the Jal Jeevan Mission and that the government is committed to its mission of “har ghar jal”.

However, the budgetary allocations for the department of drinking water and sanitation for the year 2019-20 do not reflect the same enthusiasm.

Also read: Budget 2019 Reeks of a Lack of Real Ambition

In fact, allocations for the erstwhile Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation has been substantially decreasing from 2017-18 to 2019-20’s interim budget. On Friday, Sitharaman’s budget increased the allocation for the department slightly, but it still stands depleted if compared to 2017-18.

While in 2017-18, the planned outlay for the ministry was around Rs 23,938 crore, it has come down to only around Rs 20,016 crore only in 2019-20. In the interim year, the allocations were even poorer.

The same inconsistency can be seen in the department of water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation, formerly a separate ministry. While the allocation for the ministry took a big jump in 2018-19 – from nearly Rs 5,313 crore in 2017-18 to Rs 8,860 crore in 2018-19 – it has been declining in the subsequent years.

The Wire had reported earlier that a substantial amount of outlay for the Ministry of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation, which is now a department under the new Jal Shakti ministry, went for advertisements. 

The seriousness with which the Modi government approached the Ganga cleaning project could be gauged from the fact that the National Ganga Council (NGC), which was formed in 2016 to oversee the process, had not even met once until March 2019, despite regulations demanding that the NGC should meet at least once every year.

As recently as April, 2019, an RTI reply to The Wire showed that only 18% of the total money collected under the Clean Ganga Fund founded by the Narendra Modi government has been spent so far.

When the new Jal Shakti ministry was formed after merging the two ministries, Union minister-in-charge Gajendra Singh Shekhawat had said that having one ministry related to all matters of water resources will make water management and development works related to it much more efficient. He added that bureaucratic hurdles will be avoided in the new ministry.

Also read: Budget 2019 Lacks a Coherent Vision for Long-Term Growth

However, the total budgetary allocation for the ministry left much to be desired. Around Rs 28,261 crore has been allocated – almost Rs 1,000 crore less than what was allocated to it in 2017-18, if the outlays for the two merged erstwhile ministries are put together.

In fact, if there was a combined water ministry in 2017-18 as it is today, the allocations for it saw a decline until the interim budget presented before the parliamentary elections. Now, the allocation has marginally increased but still remains low if compared with the figure of 2017-18.

With such inconsistent outlays, the mission to make water accessible to the poor appears to be only driven by the intent of creating good optics, rather than any true commitment.