Globally, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) have been part of the discourse from the beginning of the millennium. The United Nations Millennium Declaration signed by 189 countries including India in September 2000 brought it to the fore by instituting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) wherein countries agreed to combat poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy, environmental degradation, and discrimination against women.
Water and sanitation was under the ambit of the Goal 7, which was about ensuring environmental sustainability. Target 7.C of the goal stated that by 2015, reduce the proportion of the population without sustainable access to ‘safe drinking water’ and basic sanitation by 50%. It also broke the silence on open defecation.
The report by the United Nations on the output of the MDGs published in 2015 was quite encouraging. It revealed that access to ‘improved drinking water’ source for more than 90% of the global population and access to improved sanitation for 2.1 billion people has been achieved through global efforts.
The India-specific report on the MDGs brought out by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Government of India in November 2017 highlighted that 89.9% of households had access to improved sources of water and 48.4% of the households had access to improved sanitation facility post MDG. These estimates are from the data collected in 2015-16.
The question that arises now is that why has the term ‘improved water’ being used as a proxy to ‘safe water’ while evaluating the MDG programme? Let’s first understand the definition of ‘improved water’ that has been given by the international organisations. The joint monitoring report by WHO and UNICEF brought out in 2012 defines an improved drinking water source as, “a facility that, by nature of its construction, is protected from outside contamination, in particular from contamination with fecal matter. The sources include: piped water into dwelling, plot or yard; public tap/standpipe; borehole/tube well; protected dug well; protected spring and rainwater collection.”
Perhaps, the organisations included the sources based on their experiences in the developed world with the assumption that improved water and safe water are conceivably synonymous.
An objective assessment of the sources mentioned in the improved water category in the context of global south, brings out that most developing countries do not have uninterrupted (24×7) water supply, making the pipelines vulnerable to external contamination. Also, the water lines often run parallel to the sewage lines resulting in the water quality getting compromised even through the minutest leakage in the water pipeline.
In addition, the piped water supplied by the utilities are mainly treated for pathogens and turbidity and due to the lack of access to the information on the true water quality and near absence of trust in the utility; almost every household in the urban area in India invests either in a personal reverse osmosis water filter (wherein the wastewater generated is 3-4 times the treated water produced) or buy water for consumption.
Recently, a growing trend has also been observed in the installation of water ATMs at public places for accessing safe water. Furthermore, in India, 85% of the rural population uses ground water for drinking and domestic purposes. The contaminants present in the ground water drawn through boreholes, tube wells or dug wells ranges from salinity, nitrates, iron, fluoride to life threatening heavy metals like arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead and mercury.
The contaminants put people to risk, which often they are unable to perceive. When a few of our students, during their project work, met the community members in Mewat, who were suffering from both dental and skeletal fluorosis, all they said was that the problem is in the air (“hawa mein kharabi hai”). They could not comprehend that it was water that they were drinking was crippling them.
Also, the MDG indicators had no mention of the quantity of water available per capita per day or the distance from which it is fetched and the gender roles in provisioning water at the household level. Women, especially in the rural areas, bear the burden of carrying water for domestic use. They are usually accompanied by the girl child; often at the cost of their education and health. The drudgery increases when the terrain is steep, or the water source breaks down or wanes as the new source may be farther away.
Thus, it is pertinent that development strategies need to incorporate gender and social inclusion indicators to cater to the needs of the people who have been historically marginalized from the planning and decision-making processes. It is also critical to document the differential impact of the solution provided on different sections of the society based on gender, caste, class and ethnicity. Reporting the disaggregated outcomes will help in taking corrective measures to ensure equity in the distribution and use of resources.
The MDGs in 2015 were replaced by the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which unlike MDGs are a network of goals and endorse human rights-based approach to development. Through Goal 6 of the SDGs, the countries of the world resolved to achieve universal access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation and hygiene by 2030. India is one of the signatories to the UN 2030 Agenda and has committed to working towards the realization of the SDGs.
Coincidentally, even before the SDGs were instituted, the Government of India, taking cognizance of the fact that India topped the global list of open defecation, launched the Swachh Bharat Mission (Clean India Mission) on October 2, 2014 with an objective to make the country open defecation free in five years. The scheme also had the provision of giving ₹12,000 to households below poverty line (BPL) for building the toilets.
The Swachh Bharat Mission’s (SBM) official page on SBM Gramin reports that, till date, 9,93,09,115 toilets have been built and the total coverage as of date is 99.99%. In February 2019, the Financial Express reported that the centre and state governments have jointly spent ₹69,782 crores for building 9.21 crore toilets in the country under the SBM Programme in the last three years.
While it goes without saying that the mission has been effective in so far as building infrastructure and generating awareness on the importance of sanitation is concerned, the output may not be representative of the desired outcome of the initiative.
During my recent visit to a north-western state of India, villagers expressed their inability to use the toilet due to lack of water. Likewise, people living in urban areas in the jhuggi jhopdi colonies (JJ clusters) and slums prefer open defecation to using community toilets due to lack of cleanliness and long waiting time. Also, large cities in India have huge influx of floating population and squatters who invariably settle on vacant land or low-lying areas and resort to open defecation as there is no other alternative for them.
The World Economic Forum, quoting the research on Changes In Open Defecation In Rural North India: 2014 – 2018 conducted by the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (RICE), which is based on surveys of over 9,812 people and 156 government officials, mentions that even in 2018, 44% of households in the states of Rajasthan, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh practised open defecation.
While Swachh Sarvekshan (Cleanliness Survey) are being undertaken annually to evaluate the adherence to the guidelines (output), a detailed study on the outcome and impact of the mission from an independent agency will be vital to estimate the tangible impact of the mission.
In its second term, the government has announced the Jal Jeevan Mission to achieve ‘Har Ghar Jal’ (piped water in every house) for all rural households; which today stands at a meagre 18%. However, it would be worthwhile investing in conducting an appraisal of the Government of India’s earlier schemes like National Rural Drinking Water Programme and Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) later renamed as Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) prior to deciding an intervention programme.
It should not so happen that people end up having access to ‘improved water’ on tap instead of ‘safe water’ with no minimum guaranteed quantity or quality; a zero-sum game where people continue to buy water for drinking.
About the author: Dr Fawzia Tarannum is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Regional Water Studies at the TERI School of Advanced Studies (TERI SAS). She is an inter-disciplinary water professional with 20+ years of experience in project management, teaching and training. Her research interests are gender, equity and water resources management, integrated water resources planning and management, water governance and food-water-energy nexus. She is the recipient of the prestigious Fulbright Hubert H Humphrey Fellowship for the year 2017-18. She also serves as an advisor for the GuruJal Society formed under the Municipal Corporation of Gurgaon. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.