Har Ghar Jal Plan at ‘Inflection Point’, Women on Centre Stage: Jal Shakti Official to News18

The Har Ghar Jal scheme to provide potable tap water to all households by 2024 is at an “inflection point” upward and all pending works in states will start by next year, Jal Shakti ministry secretary Vini Mahajan told News18 in an interview.

Mahajan said the Centre is focusing on 13 states, including lagging Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand, which account for over 95% of the residual work. “We are hopeful that we will see substantial progress. The deadline is December 2024, and we are trying for early completion to the extent possible, and without compromising on quality,” Mahajan said.

She explained that the country was at 17% coverage through functional tap connections at the start of the mission period in 2019, and has today reached 52%, with the coverage at 9.9 crore houses. The secretary said this was “excellent progress given the circumstances” of the Covid pandemic and Ukraine war bringing sudden steep price hikes in raw materials.

Mahajan pointed out that the Har Ghar Jal scheme took lessons from the roll-out of the Swachh Bharat programme and women were at the centre stage of both.

“Both water and sanitation have typically been the women’s business, especially to see that there is enough water for cooking and drinking. The absence of toilets has been much more of a challenge for women. So, no doubt that these programmes disproportionately benefit women,” Mahajan said.

She said the absence of clean drinking water leads to waterborne diseases and infant mortality, so it is the less empowered like children and women who face the brunt of not receiving these services. “So naturally they are the beneficiaries and most enthusiastic when these schemes start showing visibility and take ownership of its operations,” Mahajan said.

‘If people pay for a service, then they demand it’

A debate about the scheme is if people would be willing to pay user charges for the drinkable tap water, as envisaged.

“The user charges vary from Rs 30 for a household per month to Rs 175 across states. I have visited several states, and I believe there is a willingness to pay. When you talk to people in rural areas, and ask them, they are paying. When you ask them, if it’s too much, they say, it’s not. I think, there is a need felt, and in particular, women do not see it as burdensome,” Mahajan told News18.

She said the mission’s belief is that it is important for people to feel that this is their asset. “If people pay for a service, then they demand it. If they get it free of cost, then they do not feel empowered enough to say that there is a problem. A water supply scheme has to function for 365 days. We are not saying 24/7. Even if it’s two hours a day, it has to come regularly. It cannot be out of water,” Mahajan said.

She said there must be people skilled in every village in electrical and plumbing work for basic repair and maintenance, and make chlorine available too. “So for these small expenses… ideally if the community contributes and uses, then there are greater chances of the scheme working well,” she said.

The Uttar Pradesh test

Uttar Pradesh is at the bottom of the chart in the Har Ghar Jal scheme with only 15 per cent coverage. Mahajan, however, said, “UP has done the most difficult piece first”, which is preparing the estimates and awarding the work for its multi-village schemes that are now underway. “Having done that, they are now turning to single-village schemes. Because UP generally has good groundwater, these are small schemes that are doable within a year. We are working with UP to make sure they adhere to it. If by December 31, they are able to award all their work as they have assured, then there will be no issues in UP meeting the deadline,” Mahajan told News18.

She said three states and three union territories have completed all the works and another 4-5 states/UTs are very close to achieving that status.

“There are two states that have not even crossed 25% of the coverage (UP and Jharkhand). We found that 13 states account for over 95% of the residual work, so we are focusing on those 13 states, and we are talking to them in detail. We are ready to work round the clock and help them make early decisions. Those 13 states are now showing very good outcomes,” said Mahajan.

Priority areas, validation required

The secretary said the government is focusing on getting the schools and anganwadis covered quickly, adding that “the good news is that in such a short span of time”, more than 80% of the anganwadis and 84% of schools are covered with clean drinking water.

“Similarly, one of the things we have been focusing on is that there is not enough water for the public health engineering department to say that all households are connected; there must be a validation by the community. If there is Har Ghar Jal, and the database shows that villages are covered, then we will not accept that until the gram panchayat has a gram sabha meeting on this, and passes a resolution. It must be videographed, and that video must be uploaded on our portal. All that must be available in the public domain,” the Jal Shakti secretary stressed.

The challenge ahead

Mahajan conceded that it is going to be a challenge to comply with the mission deadline. “We are very hopeful that the preparatory work has been done. Whatever last-mile issues remain, like small pockets where planning still was not done, we have been talking to the states to complete it by September 30. In some cases where work has not been awarded, we have given them a deadline of December 31, so we have a year for implementation,” Mahajan said.

She said the scheme’s curve is now upward and the focus is on the quality of the works so that the infrastructure is of the highest order and the assets last for 20-30 years as they are supposed to. “We are hopeful that we are at an inflection point, and we will see a rapid increase in input. The final output in terms of tap connections happens at the very end. What we are trying to look at is the intermediate processes, so that nothing is left behind. Every piece must move forward,” the secretary told News18.

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Originally published at www.news18.com

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