SUCCESS STORY: India pilots a new approach to water

Posted: 10 February 2004

Author: Meena Menon

Maharashtra is the first state in India to attempt to reform the supply of water and sanitation by encouraging village bodies to manage the improvements. Since the year 2000 over 100 villages in each of four districts have asked to join a pilot scheme, with encouraging results. Now the World Bank is supporting an extension of this approach to 26 of Maharashtra's 33 districts. Meena Menon visited some villages to see how things have turned out.

A 30-foot high pink water tank stands in Pardi village in Nanded district. It's a structure the villagers are very proud of, much like their large well a short distance away.

Villagers of Pardi (Maharashtra) near their well.© Women's Feature Service
Villagers of Pardi (Maharashtra) near their well.© Women's Feature Service
Villagers of Pardi (Maharashtra) near their well.© Women's Feature Service

Until two years ago, Pardi suffered from acute water shortage in summer and consequently, from diseases like jaundice, malaria, cholera and gastroenteritis. Of the seven handpumps, only two worked, and the water turned yellow in summer. Women sometimes walked 1.5 km to fetch water, even at night.

"We used to dig a hole at the bottom of the well and scoop out water. The well dried up by January," says Jamuna Pawar, president of the village water and sanitation committee.

But since August 2002, people here have realised what it means to get clean water in the village. Pardi is the first village in Nanded district - one of the poorest in Maharashtra - to have a pilot water management and distribution scheme.

Raising money

"After a gram sabha (village meeting) was held, the village committee was set up on August 15, 2001. We prepared an estimate of Rs 2.5 million ($54,000); we decided initially to collect Rs 200 (about $4) in two instalments from each of the 260 families. About Rs 115,000 was raised and the government provided a grant of Rs 1 million. Those who could not pay did shramdan (voluntary labour)," she says. On average, each village raises about 10 per cent of the estimated cost, in cash and in kind.

Villagers dug a new well and tested the water. Then a 700-metre pipeline was built to collect and store the water in the new 60,000 litre capacity tank; the old one was repaired as well. A three km network of pipelines was connected to stand posts with community taps at every lane. People are charged Rs 15 (30 cents) per month for public connections and Rs 30 for private connections.

Another new well is being dug, and four bandharas (small dams) have been built on a nearby stream to recharge the water coming in during the monsoons. Pandurang Pawar says, "Since we have spent our money, we feel we can tell people to be careful and look after the pipes. We don't have diseases like cholera or gastroenteritis now, and even the mosquito menace has lessened."

Sanitation services

Now women have plenty of water to wash clothes.© Women's Feature Service
Now women have plenty of water to wash clothes.© Women's Feature Service
Now women have plenty of water to wash clothes.© Women's Feature Service

Rs 750 was collected from each family for the maintenance of the water distribution system. There are 15 stand posts so far for public use and a few private connections. The committee has opened a bank account as mandated by the government for the water project.

"Now we are careful about water and we also realise it is our right. Many women initially felt it's the government job to provide water but now there is more acceptance that we must pay for it too," says Pawar. "We refused the option of giving the work to a contractor; we did it ourselves," she adds. The committee has hired someone to look after operations, maintenance and collection of water fees.

Pardi is also working towards 100 per cent sanitation and over 50 per cent of the houses have toilets. Villagers are more amenable to the concept of cleanliness and sanitation once there is access to water, says Ravi Akulwar of Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP), a Mumbai-based NGO which works as Community Participation Consultant to the Sector Reform Project (SRP) in Maharashtra since 2001.

Maharashtra is the first state in India to adopt a reform policy in the water supply and sanitation sector. Prema Gopalan, founder director of SSP, says there has to be a paradigm shift from centralised decision-making to allowing village bodies to take over. "There was complete scepticism at that time - the government could not believe people could contribute to projects or later manage them," she recalls. "What we have cracked now is the community process of planning and involvement and executing a water supply project." SSP has prepared a community manual for the state's rural drinking water project (called Jalswarajya).

Next stage

A large water tank capable of holding 50,000 litres nestles on a small hillock above another village - Sanguchiwadi - where the a pilot water project was completed in 2002. A new pipeline has been laid, connecting the old well to 18 standpipes in the village. Sushilabai Sapure, vice-president of the local water committee, says, "Earlier we had to fetch water from the 75-metre deep well which had steps going down. Once I fell into the water and had to be rescued because I couldn't swim."

Sahibai Keshavrao Kukkalwar, head (or sarpach) of the village council who also heads the water committee, says the women have taken to collecting the monthly fees, as the 'waterman' did not prove effective. "People pay up when we women collect," she remarks. Three years ago, this village was on the map for its gastro-enteritis cases. Now villagers claim no doctor needs to visit them. The village also has a water-testing laboratory.

In each village, a gram sabha is held first followed by a meeting of all women and then a village water and sanitation committee is chosen, half of which are women.

D R Bansod, chief executive of Nanded district, says government officials verify proposals put forward by the village and the water is tested for potability. While the government gives no subsidies, it has appointed three NGOs to publicise the programme in the district.

As part of the central government's water supply reforms, 63 districts were chosen on a pilot basis in India. Nanded is one of the four in Maharashtra. Dilip Joshi, sectional engineer for the Nanded project, says Rs 400 million ($8 million) was approved for each district in February 2000. While 90 per cent funding came from the Centre, 10 per cent was supplied by the state.

Of the 1,600 villages in Nanded, 550 prepared a proposal but only 238 schemes were sanctioned at a cost of Rs 350 million. "In Nanded, to no one's surprise, 100 per cent of the water projects are built by the villagers. The final payment is made after the village mahila mandal (women's group) gives a no objection certificate. The pilot project will end by March 2004. Only 30 are complete and some are in various stages of completion," says Joshi.

The experience in Nanded and three other districts - Dhule, Raigad and Amravati - has translated into a World Bank-funded Jalswarajya project in 26 of the 33 districts in the Maharashtra. Sudhir Thakre, director of water supply and sanitation in Maharashtra, says that in July 2000, the state government took a policy decision to encourage a community-led and demand-driven programme for water supply and sanitation. The state had earlier spent Rs 160 billion ($3.5 billion) in rural drinking water supply and it had not really worked well.

"A district team consisting of officials, NGOs and communication specialists was set up for planning, capacity building and so on," says Thakre. "So far over 100 villages have responded in each district and we have to go cautiously. The project cost for nine districts is Rs 13.5 billion of which the Bank is providing Rs 9.1 billion."

While 80 per cent of the rural water supply comes from ground water in the state, watershed management also assumes great importance, as does operation and maintenance. Traditionally, people have always managed resources better than the government. It remains to be seen whether this will hold true in this project.

Meena Menon wrote this article for the Women's Feature Service, in Delhi.