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Water pricing is not on our agenda

Print edition : Aug 24, 2012 T+T-
Jairam Ramesh at the 2nd meeting of National Drinking Water and Sanitation Council in New Delhi in February.-V.V. KRISHNAN

Jairam Ramesh at the 2nd meeting of National Drinking Water and Sanitation Council in New Delhi in February.-V.V. KRISHNAN

Interview with Jairam Ramesh, Minister of Rural Development, Drinking Water and Sanitation.

DRINKING water has to increasingly be deemed as manna from some outer world for rural people across the country as the difficulties they encounter on the ground daily in acquiring this precious liquid have become too hard for people in cities to even imagine, accustomed as they are to piped water supply. Water is a State subject. Yet the Union government has been attempting to bring some relief to millions of people in villages by supplementing the efforts of State governments in the provision of potable water.

At the India Water Week held in the capital recently, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh bemoaned the fact that the inadequate and suboptimal pricing of both power and water was promoting the misuse of groundwater. He said that the pace of groundwater depletion had grave implications for the ensuring of uninterrupted water supply to all stakeholders for sustenance. The Planning Commission, of which the Prime Minister is the Chairman, has underlined in its Approach Paper to the Twelfth Plan the need to price water so as to highlight its scarcity value.

However, Jairam Ramesh, Union Minister of Rural Development and Drinking Water and Sanitation, has demurred, stating that water pricing is not on our agenda as much as ensuring quality water to rural people and expanding the coverage of piped water supply schemes. Whether it is the erstwhile revised Accelerated Rural Water Supply Programme or the National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP) launched in 2009, the objective has always been the sustainability of the provision of drinking water with assured quality so that water-borne diseases do not cause loss of life.

For the first time in 2012-13, the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation got a hefty 40 per cent increase in the Budget at Rs.14,000 crore. In my view, unless a sector gets a critical mass of public funding, it does not get the adequate political and management support. Remember the NRDWP provides part funding. We provide 50 per cent and 50 per cent comes from the States. We are not an independent actor as we only supplement and support the activities of the States, Jairam Ramesh said with justifiable pride. He said there was a close nexus between malnutrition and sanitation, which was reflected in tropical enteropathy. Poor sanitation leads to poor retention capacity in the gut of children to absorb or retain food. We tend to take rural water supply and particularly sanitation for granted.

To get an insight into water economics and the mandate of the Centre in complementing and supplementing the efforts of State governments in the provision of drinking water supply, Frontline spoke to Jairam Ramesh. Excerpts from the interview:

What is the ground-level reality of rural water supply in the country and how will the NRDWP be able to address the crisis looming in most parts of the country with regard to water?

We have an MIS [Management Information System] based on reporting by State governments. According to the MIS, we have about 16.6 lakh rural habitations in the country. Our water supply programme is habitation-based and not village-based. Out of this, we have covered 12.7 lakh rural habitations fully, which means 77 per cent of the rural habitations have 40 lpcpd [litre per capita per day]. We have also 18 per cent of the rural habitations partially covered, which means they have not reached the norm of 40 lpcpd. Also, 6 per cent of the rural habitations are quality-affected. This is the broad macro picture of the rural drinking water programme. There are within this State-level variations, which I do not want to go into.

The focus of the NRDWP has been to augment quantity and coverage, and that is rightly so because ultimately we are going to be judged by this index. This year, we have made a conscious effort to put into place systems focussing on water quality because by focussing exclusively on coverage and quantity we have neglected the issue of quality. Water quality has a major public health impact, and we have to look at it from a health point too. I have been talking about actively focussing more on water quality, and for the first time we have introduced a separate water quality window as part of the NRDWP.

The total budgetary allocation for the NRDWP in 2012-13 is about Rs.10,300 crore and out of this we have introduced the water quality window which is about Rs.525 crore roughly 5 per cent to begin with, which will, of course, progressively increase. Out of the Rs.525 crore exclusively for water quality, Uttar Pradesh gets Rs.125 crore, West Bengal Rs.111 crore, Rajasthan Rs.67 crore, Karnataka Rs.53 crore and Assam Rs.29 crore.

We have taken those areas where water quality has become a serious public health issue. We have given the maximum weightage to arsenic because it is a carcinogen. We have taken into account habitations where fluoride gets the second priority and then iron.

We have also taken districts, particularly in the eastern part of the country where Japanese encephalitis and acute encephalitis syndrome are endemic 20 districts in Uttar Pradesh, 10 in Assam, 10 in West Bengal, 15 in Bihar and five in Tamil Nadu.

Second, we are bringing about a conscious shift in the Twelfth Plan to de-emphasise the handpump programme and move progressively towards piped water supply. We also want to ensure that over a period in the course of the Twelfth Plan we also increase the coverage norm from 40 lpcpd to 55 lpcpd.

Are you in favour of water pricing to highlight the growing scarcity value of water?

Well, many States have introduced a very small level of pricing, such as Re.1 per family per day in some States or Rs.2 per tap per day. There are different norms in different States. All this money that gets collected accrues to the gram panchayats, which helps in building up their financial base.

Well, we have not made it mandatory. It is entirely up to the States some have done it, such as Maharashtra and Haryana. Even in West Bengal it has been done, although they dont say that it has been done. They dont say this publicly and I respect that sentiment.

Though pricing has been introduced in a limited way, our focus in the Twelfth Plan is not so much on user charges but on water quality. We are setting up an International Centre for Arsenic and Water Quality in Kolkata. We are making an investment of Rs.150 crore to begin with.

If you are talking of the pricing of water coverage, this is more of an issue in urban water supply. Look at the subsidy on urban water supply. Rakesh Mohan, my friend and one of the countrys most distinguished urban economists, once wrote that the problem of urban water supply is far more serious than the problem of rural water supply. It is true because the distribution losses and subsidies are so high that we should address these issues. I have been told that distribution losses in Delhi are over 40 per cent, which includes theft and pilferage. We have to make sure that the well-off sections are not subsidised and that losses in distribution are reduced to the barest minimum. If you dont price water properly, power properly, this will lead to profligacy and over-exploitation. There is evidence to show that free power is far more invidious in its impact.

In so far as rural water supply is concerned, water pricing is not on our agenda. Here, we have to set priorities. Almost 85 per cent of rural water supply is groundwater. We have to expand the coverage under surface water to address the problem of fluoride and arsenic in a sustainable manner. We have to move towards piped water supply. Our challenges in rural water supply are to ensure quality, expand coverage and move towards piped water supply schemes. We are about to launch an ambitious scheme for which we have received permission from the Finance Ministry. This is a Rs.550-crore scheme for 10,000 villages in the naxal-affected region for the use of solar energy for water-pumping where you have no electricity. This is based on our success in Gadchiroli district of Maharashtra.