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Feeling the flow

Enabling and empowering village communities to take charge in matters concerning their water has boosted the power of the idea driving the Jal Jeevan Mission

Twice a day, Champa Hansha Purty operates the water pipe in Ludemkel village in Jharkhand’s Khunti district. She has been trained under a collaborative effort of the Tata Trusts and a government-supported programme as a pump operator to maintain the solar power-based water-supply system in her neck of the woods. Ms Purty installs and fixes wires. And she has an additional responsibility that’s just as important — to spread the word on water conservation and optimal usage among her village folk.

Mission mode

Ludemkel’s water system is part of the Government of India’s Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM), an initiative launched in August 2019 to ensure that every rural household in the country has a functional household tap connection and regular supply of potable water. The goal is to cover 194 million rural households by 2024. It’s an audacious target.

With a planned outlay of $50 billion, there is no lack of resources to get the water flowing. The paradigm shift under the JJM is to empower local communities to own, operate and maintain their water supply systems, with the government playing facilitator.

JJM and the vision driving it aligns just right with the efforts undertaken by the Trusts in the water, sanitation and hygiene sphere for 15 years. Joining hands with the Mission in April 2021, the Trusts are collaborating with several state governments. This is not new for the Trusts. Similar, and successful, associations were built during the Swachh Bharat Mission, where the Trusts partnered several state governments.

The JJM engagement follows a similar path. The Trusts are focused on supporting  state governments by covering 3,100 villages in 31 districts across 14 states, with the target of ensuring har ghar jal (water in every house) in 250,000 households. The programme has achieved strong momentum. “We are currently engaging with some 90,000 households, about a third of our goal,” says Divyang Waghela, head of the water, sanitation and hygiene (WaSH) thematic area at the Trusts.

Collaboration code

JJM can be described as a community-public-private-partnership endeavour, aiming for a sweet spot where scale, adoption and sustainability converge. Scale is what the state does best. “State governments have resources and the capacity to build the infrastructure,” says Mr Waghela. “What we bring to the table is our experience in community-building and expertise in technology innovations. We believe that by complementing the state’s efforts, we can benefit more communities in a sustainable way.”

Tsasushi, a 78-year-old from Vongva village in Nagaland’s Kiphire district, now has water at her home

In helping realise the objectives of the Mission, the Trusts are putting to good use their long years of experience with community water projects. This means designing need- and demand-centric village action plans, supporting water quality treatment systems using advanced technologies, enabling innovation in the form of renewable energy sources and remote monitoring systems, supporting water-conservation efforts through rainwater harvesting, and driving endeavours in water-efficient agriculture. In all of these, community participation and context-specific technology solutions add to the long-term viability of water programmes.

The community forms the crux of the partnerships in JJM. “People need to be aware of how they can be self-reliant with regard to their drinking, agriculture and ecological water needs,” adds Mr Waghela. A key lever for sustainability is social behaviour change, where the community steps up to take ownership of water assets and ensures responsible usage.

The Trusts engage with the community in multiple ways. These include interventions for participatory rural appraisals, where locals are made aware of local water sources and polluting factors, and there are discussions with households and community leaders to explain how investing in water can lead to benefits in income, hygiene and health. “People have to believe that water infrastructure is not the government’s; it is theirs,” adds Mr Waghela.

Ownership and responsibility are critical in keeping pipes and taps shipshape. Ghanashyam Kalita, the village council head of Sattaluk in Assam’s Kamrup district, has taken this message to heart. Trained by the Centre for Microfinance and Livelihood (an associate organisation of the Trusts), he regularly visits village homes to check the status of household tap connections and keeps a record of any maintenance required.

To get people on board, the Trusts employ behaviour change communication at three levels: individual, household and societal. After comprehensive ethnography research in multiple states, the Trusts designed their social behavioural change communication campaign around a central theme: ‘samman connection’. Samman means respect and that is a key trigger in behaviour change.

If women have more time to focus on their children’s education or income generation, the quality of life of the household improves. If children consume clean water, the risk of getting ill reduces and they can attend school regularly. Opting for the water project earns the entire household more samman in the community.

Women, who stand to benefit the most, are the primary audience. Water taps are a pathway for women’s empowerment. The Trusts ensure that all pani samitis (village-level water committees) have equal representation of women and that women play a key role in the decision-making process.

Kalachari’s monitors

Tripura’s Dhalai district is home to Kalachari village, which has 764 households and more than 2,700 residents, the majority of them dependent on agriculture and cattle-rearing. The village also has, unusually enough, a five-woman committee tasked with monitoring drinking water quality.

Trained by the Centre for Microfinance and Livelihood, an associate entity of the Tata Trusts, these women use field test kits to check their water on a host of parameters: pH level, turbidity, total hardness, iron, fluoride, chloride, nitrates, free residual chlorine, bacteria, etc.

The all-woman committee shares the responsibility of collecting samples, analysing water quality data, tracking vulnerable areas and alerting concerned authorities when remedial action is required.

The five women, otherwise typical housewives, are now the torchbearers of water quality in Kalachari. They came up with the idea of displaying the water quality test data on a handmade board in the building that houses the village council. The board has helped focus the attention of people on topics relating to water quality and good health.

A family matter

The second level of communication is with the members of the household. They have to commit to and ensure that they pay water-user charges regularly; this enables the financial viability of the system.

The third level relates to the community as a whole. The Trusts work to develop community awareness about how water-user groups function, the role of pani samitis and the need to take collective responsibility for operations and maintenance.

Take Khandepalli village in Andhra Pradesh’s Anakapalli district. Its 595 households used to get their drinking water from street taps. When water connections came to the village through JJM, Vijayavahini Charitable Foundation, another associate organisation of the Trusts, helped the community understand the importance of the scheme.

The story is similar elsewhere. “The Tata Trusts have done their job well,” says Satish Gadigennanvar, an executive engineer with the Karnataka government’s rural drinking water supply and sanitation department in Yadgir district. “Community mobilisation, participation and contribution have been crucial here, particularly the training provided to Village Water and Sanitation Committee (VWSC) members.”

Community ownership is crucial as it pertains to water quality, which has to be monitored regularly. Pushpa Bhatt, a housewife from Futsil village in Uttarakhand’s Pithoragarh district, is part of a project implemented by Himmotthan Society (also a Trusts associate organisation). She and a few other women from her village have been taught to use test kits to check the quality of the water they get. “I felt empowered after becoming a member of the pani samiti,” says Ms Bhatt, “and I take pride that I can teach other women about water.”

Local women from Kalachari in Tripura’s Dhalai district being trained on how to test water quality
Local women from Kalachari in Tripura’s Dhalai district being trained on how to test water quality

Technology, the second pillar of the Trusts’ engagement with JJM, can enable democratisation of information. It empowers the community to take informed and appropriate decisions, such as how to ensure equitable supply or deal with polluted water.

The Trusts, in partnership with Tata group companies, have designed smart-water systems with sensors to measure and monitor supply. The system, which has been piloted in villages in the states of Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Himachal Pradesh, offers the community and the government data on the quantity, quality and regularity of water availability.

Disinfection push

To tackle water pollution, the Trusts have pioneered affordable disinfection systems. These systems have been used in about 80 villages in different states and the Trusts work with the community to demystify the disinfection process, while demonstrating how it prevents water-borne diseases. 

Solar-powered pumps are another technology input that the Trusts have brought to the field. In remote villages that have scant or irregular power, solar power offers reliability. Take Gharat, a remote village in Rajasthan’s Sirohi district, where solar energy powers water pumps. The Trusts have trained a water user group whose members are women from the village.

A group of women from Uperbait village in the Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh at a meeting where the Jal Jeevan Mission is being explained
A group of women from Uperbait village in the Kangra district of Himachal Pradesh at a meeting where the Jal Jeevan Mission is being explained

Beyond community and technology, the Trusts have one more vital role to play in JJM: knowledge transfer. What’s learned from the sustainable models built by the Trusts is shared with state governments and other stakeholders to ensure that community institutions take charge of the financial and operational aspects of water projects.

The significance of JJM goes far beyond the number of flowing taps. Potable water can help improve India’s health parameters. Michael Kremer, who shared the Nobel prize in economics in 2019, has quantified the positive impact of JJM over time. In a study, he estimates that infant mortality will fall drastically, preventing 136,000 deaths of children aged under five every year. And that’s just one worthwhile aspect.