The biggest ‘quality of life’ improvement when it comes to living in the Netherlands than in India is not the thousands of kilometres of cycle tracks, low noise levels or the parks in every corner, but it is the access to potable water. Open a tap, any tap, in your house/office, and you can safely drink the water.
This was the biggest cultural shock for me. My experiences with drinking water has been super complex so far, and now, I can just open a tap for a glass of water and this blows my mind. Every. Single. Time.
Definitely not nostalgia
From the age of 5 through 16, my family lived in a rented home in Madurai. There were four houses in the plot and we shared one hand pump within the premises. We would get drinking water once a week, supplied by the corporation. Since this was a low-pressure system, we’d have to pump the water manually. We pumped it into plastic and eversilver(this is basically stainless steel, but eversilver was the common terminology) pots. Plastic ones for cooking and the eversilver ones for drinking. This was a weekend chore that I had a love-hate relationship with as it takes a lot of effort to pump the water out and then carry the filled pots back into our homes. I was always scheming to get my sister to do it instead of me. After puberty, I learned to look at this as a way to gain some muscle and sometimes, when I was in a good mood, I would even offer to help the other families in our building as well.
I clearly remember the colour of water turning from colourless to different shades of yellow over the years. We couldn’t drink the water as is. We used to boil the water and store it in a separate pot before we could use it. Sometimes when I get back home after playing with my friends in the neighbourhood, thirsty as hell, I would find the drinking water pot empty. I had to then boil a new batch and wait for it to be ready. This whole experience with water feels strange and far away now, but that was something that I just did without much questioning.
We then bought an RO filter in our home. Just pour water into this machine and it will filter it. No more boiling water, thus saving a lot on those gas bills. This wasn’t instant as well. It takes time for the filtration process and the machine had a storage tank for approximately 10-12 litres if my memory serves me right. We’d have to ensure that it is refilled on time to not wait and stare at it as it is filtering.
For non-drinking purposes, the building had a borewell connected to a motor, which would get the water to the overhead tank shared by the four houses. The house owner lived in one of the four units and she’d throw a fit when any of the other families had guests over. She’d be complaining about how we are using excess water now that there are more people. I definitely don’t miss all that drama. I always found it funny when my colleagues designed shared spaces in their apartment proposals and claimed that it would improve the interaction of residents and social cohesion. I think my doubts are rooted in my experiences of seeing my neighbours and us fight over our quotas of water.
Anyways, when we eventually built our own house and moved to the outskirts of the city, we didn’t have the coveted corporation water connection. Our house was outside the corporation limits and they haven’t even started to lay proper roads. Drinking water in pipes was still years away. We had the same borewell and motor system for non-drinking purposes. For drinking water, we started buying canned water.
Canned water has become an omnipresent component of every house I’ve lived in from that point onwards. It was both liberating and entrapping at the same time. For one, I didn’t have to dread the weekly water pumping chore. My family can be confident that the water we were drinking was safe for a large part (there were quite a few scares at times, but they were exceptions and not the rule). But now, we had to pay for water per can. I’ve paid anywhere from Rs 20 to Rs 80 per can in different cities that I’ve lived in since then. There was still the task of getting the can from the store to our house. When the anna at the store was busy, and we didn’t have water, I had to exercise those scrawny muscles I was trying hard to build, to lift the standard 20L can to our home. We always had two cans at home as insurance, so we aren’t stuck without water. But still, there are times when that happens too.
As I am writing this, I am thinking of so many experiences that I’ve had with drinking water that feel so strange now but were a normal part of everyday life back then. This was not just at home, but even during my undergraduate education, when I studied in my state’s flagship architectural college in Chennai, we didn’t have drinking water in our building when we joined. I had to organise my classmates, chip in money together and get canned water set up for us.
The canned water setup is an ingenious piece of decentralised water supply system in a context where the government has failed to provide for a basic human need. The free market helped fix things for the short term. I cannot imagine the long term consequences of this on the water systems of the state. Anyways, as a consumer, you buy a plastic water dispenser as the base. There would be a local dealer who supplies you with water in the cans. You’d have to pay a deposit for each can you want. If you want an insurance can, like at my home, then you pay a deposit for the second can as well. This is to ensure that you return the cans and ensure they are maintained properly. You’d ideally have your water guy on speed dial and he’d come to deliver the cans and take the empty ones with him. The dealer gets his cans from one of the many water purification plants run by local politicians in the outskirts of the city where water hasn’t dried up yet. It is both liberating and entrapping at the same time.
Small pickup trucks with a few hundred cans on them zooming through the city streets are key towards making this system work. When you have cities that are urbanising rapidly, and governments that are unable to provide for the basic needs, these decentralised, free-market assemblages of technology and jugaad swooped in to fill the gap of ‘providing drinking water’.
I’ll maybe explore this system one day, but coming back, eventually, the management got a mid-sized RO machine setup in campus, but then there was a rumour of a dead lizard in it and no one would drink from it then on.
I can write a hundred anecdotes on my experiences with water, but the point I am trying to make is that the simple act of getting drinking water straight out of the tap blows my mind. Every. Single. Time. This is the biggest ‘quality of life’ improvement I’ve experienced in the past ~2 years. But I feel guilty about the fact that I use potable water for doing dishes, bathing and heck, even flushing the toilet when I used to have such a hard time with drinking water just two years ago.
The sadder part is that I consider myself to be one of the better off when it comes to experiences with drinking water. There are millions of Indians who go through extreme hardships to get drinking water and it is infuriating that this is not something that is going to change in the near future as well.
SDG! SDG! SDG! SDG! SDG! SDG!
UN’s Sustainable development goal 6 talks about clean water and sanitation. There are 6 targets within this goal as listed by the UN.
- By 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all.
- By 2030, achieve access to adequate and equitable sanitation and hygiene for all and end open defecation, paying special attention to the needs of women and girls and those in vulnerable situations.
- By 2030, improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater and substantially increasing recycling and safe reuse globally.
- By 2030, substantially increase water-use efficiency across all sectors and ensure sustainable withdrawals and supply of freshwater to address water scarcity and substantially reduce the number of people suffering from water scarcity.
- By 2030, implement integrated water resources management at all levels, including through transboundary cooperation as appropriate.
- By 2020, protect and restore water-related ecosystems, including mountains, forests, wetlands, rivers, aquifers and lakes.
- By 2030, expand international cooperation and capacity-building support to developing countries in water- and sanitation-related activities and programmes, including water harvesting, desalination, water efficiency, wastewater treatment, recycling and reuse technologies.
- Support and strengthen the participation of local communities in improving water and sanitation management.
Let us just look at the first target for now. By 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all. The UN uses various indicators to measure progress in the SDG goals and their subsequent targets. For target 6.1, there is only one indicator. It is the proportion of the population using safely managed drinking water services. The UN further defines a safely managed drinking water service as one located on-premises, available when needed and free from contamination.
There are three key components in that definition. Location — we want drinking water on-premise. The hand pump in the first example was on-premise, but I am not sure if canned water would count towards this. Next, water needs to be available on demand. Not once a week, or twice a month, but on demand. Lastly, free from contamination, which is straightforward. Ideally, this would be a centralised supply of potable water supplied to households and accessed through taps. But, there could be other hybrid systems that can serve the same purpose through in situ water harvesting, storage, purification etc.
I wanted to know where my home state of Tamil Nadu stands in this particular indicator. The last publicly available data is from the census of 2011. “Main Source Of Drinking Water And Location” was a data point that was collected as part of the census. There are seven possible sources of drinking water identified within the census. They are:
- Tap water from treated source
- Tap water from an un-treated source
- Covered well
- Un-covered well
- Hand pump
- Tube well/Borehole
- All Others
Each of these sources was further classified into three components based on their source. Within premises, near premises and away. Within premises is self-explanatory. If the source was within 100 metres in the case of urban areas and 500 metres in the case of rural areas, it was classified as near premises and anything further than that was classified as away. This information is recorded per household.
In Tamil Nadu, of the total recorded ~18.5 million households, only ~6.5 million households had a water source within premises, a measly 35%. Of the ~9.6 million rural households, only ~1.6 million households had a water source within the premise, a dismal 17%.
The data doesn’t talk about whether water is available on-demand or not. Some of these sources can be inherently problematic. Most Indian cities don’t receive water on-demand through central supply systems. It is only during specific hours of specific days that we can get it. Wells are prone to dry up during the summer months, especially in denser areas with high extraction. When it comes to the third component of safety of drinking water, the data is incomplete on that front as well. Since the census data was collected through an in-person household survey, there was no way for testing the water for quality and many households wouldn’t have had the knowledge of where they got their water from (Meghana & Thomas, 2017).
There is another important qualifier in the first target. It calls for universal and equitable access. In the case of India, the caste system bakes inequalities into everything. Since the census data is available disaggregated for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, we can look at the numbers for SC and ST households alone in Tamil Nadu.
Of the total ~3.8 million SC households, only ~667 thousand households had a water source within premises, just shy of 18%. Of the ~2.4 million rural SC households, only ~241 thousand households had a water source within their premises, which is just short of 10%. When we look at the 240 thousand rural ST households, only ~7% have a water source within their premises.
These were the numbers from 2011. For the past three years, NITI Aayog, the union government’s public policy think tank has been tracking the progress of different states on the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and it has given a score of 83 out of 100 for Tamil Nadu, for SDG goal 6. I have multiple problems with the way in which the SDGs are being tracked, but that is for another post. But, if we take this number at face value, I cannot imagine the conditions in other states such as Assam which got a score of 64.
How does drinking water provision work?
Water is a state subject in India, which means the states are responsible for ensuring drinking water for its citizens. However, the union government also has specific schemes through which it distributes tax money among states for water supply projects.
The union government in 1972-73 introduced the Accelerated Rural Water Supply Programme (ARWSP), a centrally sponsored scheme to supplement the efforts of the State Governments to provide safe drinking water to the rural population under the Minimum Needs Programme (MNP). The rural drinking water supply per capita norms was increased from 40 litres per person per day to 55 litres per person per day with a view to increase household tap connections.
In 1999, a Department of Drinking Water Supply was formed to give more emphasis to this programme. The programme had a stated objective of achieving universal coverage of all rural villages with drinking water supply by March 2004, which it didn’t. Also, it was all rural villages and not all rural households, which is a big difference when it comes to SDG target 6.1.
Following this, a National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP) was launched in 2009. It aimed to provide safe and adequate water for drinking, cooking and other domestic needs to every rural person on a sustainable basis by 2017. By the end of 2017, only 44% of rural households and 85% of government schools and anganwadis were provided access. It also aimed to provide 50% of the rural population potable drinking water (55 litres per capita per day) by piped water supply. Of this, only 18% of the rural population was provided potable drinking water. It also sought to give household connections to 35% of rural households. Of this, only 17% of rural households were given household connections (Suhag, 2018).
The Ministry of Jal Shakthi formed in 2019, introduced the Jal Jeevan mission which aims to provide safe and adequate drinking water through individual household tap connections by 2024 to all households in rural India. Based on the learnings from the CAG report on the NRDWP, the programme also aims to implement source sustainability measures as mandatory elements, such as recharge and reuse through greywater management, water conservation, and rainwater harvesting. The Jal Jeevan Mission aims to build a community approach to water and proposes to include extensive information, education and communication as a key component of the mission.
The task of providing safe drinking water and sanitation facilities for the entire State of Tamil Nadu except for the Chennai Metropolitan area, rests with the Tamil Nadu Water Supply and Drainage Board, as part of the Municipal Administration and Water Supply Department. Water supply schemes on a limited scale are being implemented by urban local bodies also. The schemes on completion, are handed over to the respective local bodies for maintenance. Schemes of composite nature covering more than one local body are maintained by TWAD Board. Here too, the maintenance of the internal arrangements is the responsibility of the respective local body. Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board (CMWSS Board) is vested with the responsibility of providing water supply and sewerage facilities within the metropolitan area of Chennai.
While water supply schemes to rural areas are funded by centrally sponsored schemes and the State Governments, Water supply to urban towns are funded by
- Union Government, under JnNURM, UIDSSMT AMRUT, IUDM
- Government of Tamil Nadu under Minimum Needs Programme
- World Bank aided through TNUDP III
- KfW ( German state-owned investment and development bank)
- JICA (Japanese development assistance agency)
- The local bodies are also contributing from their funds.
This is just an overview. There are a dizzying number of schemes and proposals towards improving the drinking water supply in the state that I couldn’t wrap my head around at this point. It doesn’t help that the information is made available in the most non-intuitive way possible within the yearly policy notes. I am waiting for the policy note of the Municipal Administration and Water Supply Department of the newly formed State Government to understand things better.
Where do we stand?
Looking back at the Jal Jeevan Mission’s aim of providing safe and adequate drinking water through individual household tap connections to all rural households by 2024, where do we stand today? With only three and a half years left, it doesn’t seem like the mission is on track.
Of the ~12.7 million rural households in the state of Tamil Nadu, only ~4.15 million rural households have tap water connections, which is 32.69%. In the two years since the start of the mission, 15.63% of households have had new connections. If the same pace is maintained, a great leap could be made, but still fall short of 100%. This is not to say about the quality and quantity of water supplied but just the underlying infrastructure.
The urban story is even more complex. A more comprehensive reading on the state of drinking water provision will be understood when the now delayed 2021 census is completed. The categorisation this time around has been updated. Now the options are
- Tap water from treated source
- Tap water from an untreated source
- Hand Pump
- Packaged/bottled water
- Other sources
Packaged/bottled water claims a spot, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it playing an important role in urban areas around the country.
I started writing this article to make sense of this dissonance between my past lived experiences with water and my current living condition. While I’ve assumed that drinking water provision in India is problematic, I’ve never taken the time to dive deeper into it to understand it better. This is the first step towards that. Making sense of what is happening requires a lot more time and effort than I initially estimated. I’ll come back to this multiple times over the coming months to understand the status quo better and maybe even connect potential solutions towards improving things.
Until then, I’ll continue to feel guilty and frustrated.
Meghana, E., & Thomas, B. K. (2017). Data discrepancies interpreting rural water data inthe decadal census. Economic and Political Weekly, 52(28).
Roopal Suhag. (2018). CAG Audit Report Summary – National Rural Drinking Water Programme. PRS Legislative Research. Retrieved from https://www.prsindia.org/content/national-rural-drinking-water-programme-22