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‘Water has to be made everyone’s business’

The overarching idea should be so powerful and noble that people from all walks of life participate and take pride in its success. Ensuring water security for an improved quality of life and economic prosperity is such an idea,” says Bharat Lal with a conviction born of expertise and experience that run deep.

More than three decades of involvement in India’s water sector, knowhow that stretches from the grassroots to policymaking at the highest level, and an outstanding record in obtaining results have combined to help Mr Lal make a mark in a sphere, and with a resource, that is as critical as any for the country and its people.

Mr Lal, who joined the civil service in 1988, is currently director general of the National Centre for Good Governance. Prior to this, he served as secretary, Lokpal of India, the country’s anti-corruption body, and as founder director of the flagship Jal Jeevan Mission.  

Mr Lal speaks to Philip Chacko about the challenges swirling around the issue of water in India, the part that village communities — and particularly women — play in securing and sustaining progress, and the scholarly background in biochemistry and research work that has been an enabler for him. Excerpts from the interview:

What are the principal vulnerabilities that India faces on the water front? What’s the optimal way that we, as a nation, can deal with these vulnerabilities?

We are talking about a country that is a continent, with 17.5% of the world’s population but only 4% of its freshwater resources. As a society we are highly aspirational and our economy is expanding. More than 70% of Indians live in rural areas and about 47% of our people are still dependent on agriculture and allied activities.

Ensuring food security for a population of 1.4 billion people is one of our major priorities and this is dependent on rainfall and the availability of water. Many parts of India have a limited number of rainy days and freshwater resources are unevenly distributed. That means much of the country is water-stressed. Besides, our groundwater table is declining due to over-exploitation. On the other hand, economic activities need to be expanded to make opportunities available to our youth.

Put all of these together and the problem becomes clearly evident. The demand for water is rising but its supply is static, or falling. That is our greatest vulnerability. It is in this scenario that we have to consider Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision to make India a water-secure nation, so that socioeconomic development and our quest for high economic growth is not affected adversely.

From the day he took office as the chief minister of Gujarat, Mr Modi started working to ensure long-term water security for the state; it became his government’s top priority. I was fortunate enough to be part of this endeavour.

A number of steps were taken and, as a result, today you don’t hear of water scarcity in Gujarat. The most visible impact of water security has been the massive expansion of economic activities in the state in the last two decades. Paucity of water is a thing of the past in Gujarat, investment has been flowing in and industrial development has been rapid.

The lessons learned in Gujarat and the experience gained have helped in developing policies, programmes and strategies at the national level. As we all know, whatever rainwater we receive during the monsoon needs to be collected and stored, and used judiciously throughout the year.

The Ministry of Jal Shakti was created in 2019 to deal with the demand and supply side of water management in an integrated manner. Also in 2019, the Atal Bhujal Yojana was launched in seven water-stressed states to reverse the trend of groundwater depletion. Perhaps most importantly, the year saw the birth of the Jal Jeevan Mission [JJM], which aims to provide tap connections to every household by 2024.

Thanks to Jal Jeevan Mission, 70-year-old Ayyamma Venkataramana now has a water tap at her doorstep in Itaga village in Karnataka’s Yadgir district
Thanks to Jal Jeevan Mission, 70-year-old Ayyamma Venkataramana now has a water tap at her doorstep in Itaga village in Karnataka’s Yadgir district

You have been involved in the water sector for more than three decades. What have you learned along the way in crafting water and sanitation solutions, especially in the context of bringing people and communities together?

What I learned, initially in Gujarat and thereafter at the national level, is the criticality of combining a host of factors in creating solutions in the water sector: designing, planning, implementation, monitoring, transparency, use of technology, people’s participation and partnerships.

JJM is a classic example of what and how to plan such solutions. First and foremost, we need political leadership and firm resolve. Then there’s the empowering of communities and ensuring their participation, the involvement of civil society, and pushing for transparency and long-term sustainability. Along with modern technologies, traditional knowledge and the wisdom of local communities must be incorporated in finding solutions. Crucially, you have to put women at the centre of water and sanitation programmes.

The overarching idea should be so powerful and noble that people from all walks of life participate and take pride in the success of the programme.        

In Gujarat, you helped set up the Water and Sanitation Management Organisation (WASMO), which has played a pivotal role in easing the water woes of the state. How did that initiative evolve?

The WASMO idea was so appealing that everyone in the political and bureaucratic leadership, civil society and local communities wholeheartedly supported the concept and appreciated its approach and working. It soon became a movement. Youngsters were excited and it was a welcome change for village communities. In March 2002, WASMO was set up and started work in 82 villages of Bhavnagar district. Down the line, it was universalised in Gujarat and 74 NGOs joined the endeavour.

We set up a transparent system to monitor and review the work taken up through WASMO. The completion of the Sardar Sarovar project was taken up on a war footing and that provided an immediate impetus to WASMO. Water from the Narmada became available and local communities saw a golden opportunity to develop water-supply systems in their villages.

A water-user group meeting in Upla Kolwara in Rajasthan’s Pali district
A water-user group meeting in Upla Kolwara in Rajasthan’s Pali district

WASMO created a niche for itself and, as a result, young men and women from all over the country started to join and to contribute. All of us took pleasure in facilitating this work as enablers, in helping village communities stand on their own and achieve water security.

JJM has ambitious goals. What are the challenges that need to be overcome for the Mission to do justice to its mandate?

Clean tap water in every home plays a vital role in improving the quality of life of people, especially women and children. It reduces infant mortality, improves the participation of women in the workforce and enhances ease of living. That’s what JJM is all about and it is being implemented in mission mode and in a time-bound manner.

JJM is inclusive and it focuses on universal coverage; no one is left out. Every village has to prepare an action plan with four components: local water resource management, water supply, grey-water management, and operation and maintenance. Simply put, JJM is a decentralised, demand-driven, community-managed programme. 

The long-term sustainability of sources and systems, assured service delivery and financial viability, along with adoption of water-utility principles, are the key areas where we need to work. Sustained efforts must be continued on the principles of JJM: people’s participation, water potability, speed and scale, and service delivery. It is also important to conduct awareness campaigns and mobilise local communities to get involved in the planning, implementation, management and operation of water-supply systems.

 Water disputes, from village to district to state level, have become ever more frequent down the years, and judicial recourse has not really helped. How do we resolve water matters in an equitable manner?

Water and air are the most basic requirements for survival. We have to understand that nature has enough to meet everyone’s need. Information, education and communication on various aspects of water are essential in finding solutions to conflicts. I believe that Indians are able to solve their differences despite competing demands. Water has to be made everyone’s business and widespread adoption of water-conservation methods will be helpful in minimising conflicts.

A team member from the Centre for Microfinance and Livelihoods, an associate entity of the Tata Trusts, checks the tap connection of a villager — part of a potable water programme — in Sattaluk in Assam’s Kamrup district
A team member from the Centre for Microfinance and Livelihood, an associate entity of the Tata Trusts, checks the tap connection of a villager — part of a potable water programme — in Sattaluk in Assam’s Kamrup district

How important is the governance factor and policymaking in tackling India’s water crisis? How has the country been faring on these two parameters?

The fact that a drought-prone state like Gujarat could achieve water security is due to appropriate policies and good governance. At the national level, the government has acknowledged the problem and developed policies in a participatory manner and come up with appropriate programmes and schemes. Bringing all water-related subjects under a single ministry has helped, as have people’s participation and the increasing use of technology in the water sector.

Water, ecology and the environment, poverty and social uplift — all of these are linked. How do we balance the need for development with the imperative of taking better care of an invaluable and stressed resource such as water?

All civilisations and cultures have evolved on the banks of water bodies. Our ethos teaches us to worship water and water bodies and our rituals are embedded in nature: forests, flora, fauna and water bodies. There are great inter-linkages here.

Water scarcity leads to poverty and deprivation. If this is not solved, it won’t be possible to ensure socioeconomic development, economic growth and ecological security. Of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, 11 are connected to water. Without an adequate quantity of water being available, poverty cannot be eliminated. The government is conscious of this fact and is working to ensure water security for all-round prosperity.

What is the role that technology can play in the water sector and in achieving water security?

Repeated droughts and food shortages forced us to construct dams and irrigation systems. The development of Mark–II handpumps has eased drinking water crises not only in India but in many parts of the world. The need to source water from deeper aquifers was solved by high-powered submersible pumps. Microbial contaminants in drinking water have been tackled by the use of technology. These are examples of what can be made possible.

An ad for water conservation in Demchok in Ladakh, where the Tata Trusts are contributing to the Jal Jeevan Mission
An ad for water conservation in Demchok in Ladakh, where the Tata Trusts are contributing to the Jal Jeevan Mission

In recent times, water-treatment technologies have made an immense contribution is ensuring the supply of safe drinking water. Desalination technology enables us to convert saline seawater into drinking water. Similarly, satellite data and various digital technologies are used extensively in the planning, implementation and monitoring of water-supply systems and services.

There are disruptive technologies being developed today that are likely to change the whole water sector. Among these are the concept of making water from air, low-cost desalination, ultra-efficient pumps, micro-irrigation systems and water-treatment tools. 

How can civil society organisations such as the Tata Trusts contribute in helping the government achieve its objectives in the water sector?

Civil society organisations have a huge role to play in building the capacity of local communities, in mobilising and handholding at the village level, in planning and implementing pilot projects, and in filling gaps to make water programmes more effective.

The Tata Trusts are a fine example of how civil society organisations can contribute in the water and sanitation sector. The Trusts have worked with so many NGOs and states; they have a pool of highly committed and talented professionals providing community-level leadership. Additionally, the Trusts are involved in transformational work with technology in the water sector. This is of huge significance in terms of sustainability and service delivery.

You garnered impressive credentials as a biochemist and a scientist back when you were a student and a scholar. Have you been able to use that training as a civil servant?   

My educational background in biochemistry and my research work at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi, helped me develop a scientific temper and enabled me to think and work rationally. My knowledge and understanding of science and technology, especially biochemistry, got me to focus on hygiene and public health.

During the Covid pandemic, when I was in the team working on testing, the development and planning of hospital infrastructure, and vaccine development, my knowledge of biochemistry came in handy. I was able to contribute in policymaking because I had this combination of knowhow in science and technology and in public administration.