In India, almost 76 million people do not have access to safe and clean drinking water. This has been a prevalent issue that has existed in our country, despite policies and schemes implemented by the Centre and State Governments.
The challenge of clean, safe drinking water is especially faced in the state of Punjab in India. More than half of the water available in Punjab is considered contaminated because of hazardous chemicals, heavy metals, and radioactive material. Before any steps were taken by the Government to address this issue, even the clean and safe groundwater in the state began to get rapidly depleted. This led to a severe water crisis in Punjab.
According to a report by the Central Water Board and other organisations in Punjab, there are a few reasons that have led to groundwater and surface water contamination in the state. Punjab saw drastic changes in its conditions as a result of a rapid increase in population, industrialisation and urbanisation. They started to focus on the green revolution which caused them to adopt intensive agricultural practices, requiring the increased use of fertilisers and pesticides for better quantity and quality of crop yield. This caused serious pollution of the ground and surface water. In addition to this, rapid industrialisation and urbanisation that took place simultaneously, required an increased usage of groundwater and surface water for a multitude of purposes, which also worsened water scarcity in the state.
In April 2016, the Punjab Pollution Control Board released a report on the water quality from the locations where Sutlej river flows in the state. It was found that Ludhiana is the worst polluter of the river, since domestic and industrial waste and sewage keeps getting dumped in the river. Further, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) declared that Punjab was among the top ten affected states in India, in terms of percentage of groundwater depleted. The extraction of groundwater in the state increased from 149% in 2013 to 165% in 2018. The Punjab Government is well aware of the fact that groundwater is fast getting depleted. That is why in 2019, the Chief Minister of Punjab decided to focus on a comprehensive crop diversification model which would perhaps shift the pressure away from groundwater. However, the farmers in the state are reluctant to shift from cultivating paddy to cultivating other crops because the Government agencies only purchase rice and wheat at minimum support price, which puts the farmers in a difficult position.
The Malwa region in Punjab, particularly faced the issue of groundwater contamination. According to the Arabian Journal of Geosciences, the water in Malwa is unfit for drinking and irrigation. This has led to ailments in much of the population of Malwa. It has become more imperative than ever to ensure that the water in the Malwa region goes through proper remediation, to reduce the adverse effects of contaminated groundwater.
The question still remains what is still causing the contamination and depletion of water and why it is going unchecked, despite the initiatives being taken by the State Government.
Har Ghar Jal Har Ghar Safai Mission
Considering the water and sanitation conditions in Punjab, the Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, launched the “Har Ghar Jal, Har Ghar Safai” campaign earlier this year.
The campaign was initiated to accomplish the goal of providing 100% potable piped water supply in all rural households in Punjab by 2022. Singh claims that half of the households are already taken care of with individual water supply and connections. Moreover, 92% rural habitations are covered under the piped water supply network even before the launch of the mission. If these numbers are accurate, Punjab should be successful in accomplishing their goal under the mission. As of now, Punjab has managed to provide potable piped water supply to 76.13% of rural households.
The State Government of Punjab is also implementing large surface water schemes in over a thousand villages that have been impacted because of the higher concentration of arsenic and fluoride. This will achieve the goal of long-term sustainability in the severely impacted areas in Amritsar, Tarn Taran, Gurdaspur, Patiala and Fatehgarh Sahib. These projects will supposedly benefit 15.26 lakh rural population.
The scarcity of safe drinking water in urban and rural areas, open defecation and the lack of sanitation are some of the key challenges prevalent in Indian states. The “Har Ghar Jal, Har Ghar Safai” mission aims to address challenges like these in the state of Punjab and is aligned with Goal 6 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), that is, Clean Water and Sanitation. This goal focuses on availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. Punjab’s rank in the SDG India index is seven.
Along with the efforts to provide clean and potable water to the residents of Punjab, the state is also making concerted efforts in ensuring proper waste disposal through solid and plastic waste management. On World Environment Day, Punjab Chief Minister launched Mission Tandarust Punjab to focus on safe food, clean water, and waste management.
The “Har Ghar Jal, Har Ghar Safai” mission in Punjab, in some aspects, resembles the Central Government’s national programme, Clean India Mission programme, also known as Swachh Bharat Mission, which was launched in 2014. Under the Swachh Bharat Mission, by 2017, 11 districts of Punjab were declared as Open Defecation Free, that is nearly 6000 villages. To maintain this status, the State is also building Sanitary Complexes so as to cater to the needs of migrant labourers, visitors and poorer households. The Swachh Bharat Mission claims that 100% of rural households in Punjab have access to toilets.
According to the Swachh Sarvekshan rankings of 2020, Punjab was at the number one position in the north zone for the third consecutive year and ranked at number six rationally. Bathinda, Patiala and Ferozepur were in the top 100 cities in the report, with Bathinda having a national rank of 79 and number 1 rank in Punjab. Swachh Sarvekshan is conducted to assess the cleanliness of a state, which includes citizen involvement and feedback.
Best Practices Pan-India for Safe and Clean Water
The Punjab Government made a paradigm shift in its policies to prioritise availability of safe and clean water for drinking and irrigation purposes. They are focused on ensuring that they cover quality-affected villages. As a result, potable piped water is being supplied to over 23 lakh rural households, 6 lakh of which were added during the pandemic. During the transitional period, before the supply of surface water reached certain areas, the Chief Minister of Punjab launched a project, as part of the Har Ghar Jal, Har Ghar Safai mission, to provide interim relief to 54 villages that are known to have high arsenic concentration in groundwater. In addition to this, he also inaugurated a multi-surface water supply project for 85 villages of Bagha Purana and Nihal Singh Wala of Moga district. The blocks in these areas are uranium affected. This treatment plant will provide 24×7 potable water to over 60,000 households, having a population of 3.64 lakhs.
Punjab can also learn from existing campaigns for clean water and sanitation that have been launched in other states. Here, let’s focus on Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh.
The Karnataka Jnana Aayoga (KJA) focused on drafting new policies to address water scarcity and contamination in the state. They focused on reducing water demand by suggesting low input sustainable agricultural practices and encouraging shift from water intensive cultivation towards millets and pulses and incentivising farmers to do so. They also encouraged, in urban Karnataka, maximum use of treated wastewater, using lakes for storage, recharge and recreation and monitoring and implementing water pollution standards. Karnataka also launched a water conservation scheme called Jalamrutha in 2019, which primarily focused on water literacy, rejuvenation of water bodies and creation of new ones and development of more afforestation activities, particularly in rural areas.
The state of Uttar Pradesh was among the first states to begin work on the Centre Government’s Jal Jeevan Mission. The project is to begin in stages with it commencing at the Bundelkhand region. The government is also partnering with the UN Office for Project Services and the Government of Denmark to help with tap water connecting to districts in U.P struggling from water scarcity. The Government also launched the “Har Ghar Nal Yojna” in November 2020 with the objective of ensuring water supply in at least 3000 villages in U.P. The Uttar Pradesh Government also decided to launch over 80 new projects in collaboration with the Union Ministry of Rural Development. These projects are to focus on harvest and utilisation and reuse of rainwater, with focus on identified drought-prone and water scarce areas. Out of the 2.6 crore households in 97,000 villages, 30.4 lakh (11.3%) households have water supply. In the last 21 months, with the Jal Jeevan Mission, 24.89 lakh households, that is, 9.45% households, were provided with tap water facilities. However, even then over 2.33 crore households do not have access to tap water yet.
Punjab: The Case Study
As of now, Punjab is facing three critical challenges including contaminated groundwater, depleted groundwater and polluted canals and rivers. The state of Punjab has apparently been working with Israel’s national water company Merokot, to come up with a comprehensive plan to address the issue of water scarcity and contamination. While Israel recycles 80% of its wastewater, Punjab barely recycles 10% of it. Thus, by studying the water usage and contamination in Punjab, Merakot is to provide recommendations.
Around 15-25% of the groundwater is saline and not fit for use, especially found in areas in Muktsar, Bathinda, Mansa and Sangrur. In addition to these districts, Barnala, Fatehgarh Sahib, Hoshiarpur, Jalandhar, Moga, Mohali, Pathankot and Patiala are also very badly affected. As mentioned above, the Malwa region of Punjab is worst affected as a result of groundwater depletion, both in terms of quality and quantity. While the government is taking initiatives like the Har Ghar Jal, Har Ghar Safai mission, encouraging rainwater harvesting and watershed management and other irrigation practices, there is still scope for significant improvement.
A story in The Hindu examines the issues of groundwater depletion and scarcity in Punjab in even more detail. On speaking to a local farmer in the Sangrur district of the state, it was found that farmers are apprehensive about growing any other crop apart from paddy. It was also revealed that people prefer to extract water from motor-operated tube wells, as opposed to using canal water. This showed that most local residents prefer to use groundwater for irrigation, domestic and other use. In Fatehpur village, a farmer who tried to grow potatoes had to stop as it resulted in him facing significant financial losses, because of the market crash. Since then, he has resorted to safer means by continuing to grow rice and wheat.
Can Punjab Learn from its Previous Campaign and Existing National Policies?
Punjab Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Project
The State of Punjab and World Bank launched the Punjab Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Project (PWRSS) in 2015 to improve the water supply in at least 3,000 villages in Punjab that were declared to have less than full coverage. This project ensured that maintenance, funding and operations are decentralized to the village level. The selected villages were asked to form local water committees that would ensure that the project for water supply is conducted smoothly. The villages were responsible for generating the funds to set up the operations and maintenance of ensuring adequate water supply.
According to a study, it was found that those who enrolled in this program were more likely to have access to potable water and toilets in their homes, as opposed to those who did not participate in the program. The project, however, should have identified a larger number of impoverished households and ensured that they are given full coverage as well. This would have also helped address the existing inequalities in these areas which, more often than not, prevent certain families from access to basic amenities. This is definitely something the State Government should keep in mind while implementing the “Har Ghar Jal, Har Ghar Safai” mission.
Swachh Bharat Mission
In 2014, the Government of India launched the Swachh Bharat Mission with the aim to achieve a clean India within five years. The problems of open defecation and irresponsible disposal of industrial and domestic waste are some of the primary issues tackled under this mission. The Government decided to follow a strategy which includes social messaging, education and communication. Since the launch of this project, 100 million household toilets have been built in over 6,00,000 villages that still do not have any other proper facilities. Unless and until those toilets are functional, well sanitised and used by the common people, those areas cannot be declared as ODF. In 2019, the Government of India declared urban India to be Open Defecation Free (ODF).
However, National Sample Survey’s (NSS) data shows a different picture, and contradicts the claim that India is now Open Defecation Free. According to the survey results, while Swachh Bharat Mission claims that 100% of rural households in Punjab have access to toilets, in reality, 93.4% do. Rs 853 crore has been spent on construction of individual rural toilets.The National Statistical Office (NSO) released a survey that claimed that about 28.7% of rural households in India still did not have toilets and out of those who do have latrines, about 3.5% do not access it. The results of this survey and the data by the Swachh Bharat Mission clearly contradicted each other.
For this year, Rs 114 crore was allotted in Punjab for the Swachh Bharat Mission (Urban). The Government of Punjab launched the “Swachh and Swasth” Punjab mission, in alignment with the second phase of the Swachh Bharat Mission, for construction of community-use toilet facilities. The objective is also to provide privacy and ensure safe disposal of human waste. Environment-friendly technologies and appropriate management of faecal sludge were top priority as part of this mission. Because of dependency on groundwater, the mission also mandates treating and re-using water for flushing. However, whether Punjab has the resources to sufficiently carry this out remains to be seen, or else, they would have to adopt a more decentralized approach.
As a result of the Swachh Bharat Mission, open defecation reduced significantly in a short span of time, that is, 7.3-7.8%. The number of households that then got access to “safely managed” toilets increased by a little over 6%. The mission also increased hygiene awareness among adults and children which led to behavioural changes.
Jal Jeevan Mission
Then there are national policies that exist with the purpose of providing sustainable water management systems. The most recent initiative of the Central Government, the Jal Jeevan Mission offers a water conservation program by identifying areas of concern and identifying and leveraging local water resources to address water scarcity. Within a year of the launch of the program, more than 180,000 inhabitants across states and Union Territories claim to have access to clean water. This project strongly reinforces UN SDG Goal 6, that is, clean water and sanitation for all. However, in order for the Jal Jeevan Mission to be successful, it is important for the relevant stakeholders to recognize the different local contexts and create specialised task forces and carry out data analysis accordingly. Moreover, with realizing the existence of localised diversity, comes the need to keep a flexible approach in the planning and execution processes. The project must have an all-inclusive bottom-top approach instead of the other way round.
Under the Jal Jeevan Mission, Punjab is all set to achieve “Har Ghar Jal” by 2022. Between this year and next year, the state aims to provide 8.9 lakh tap connections, which will essentially ensure tap connections in every household in rural Punjab. In the last year and a half, under this mission, Punjab has already provided 9.09 lakh tap connections. To ensure transparency and accountability, the state is also setting up a grievance redressal system through a 24×7 call centre. This year, Punjab is supposed to receive Rs 750 crore as funds for the mission from the Centre. Last year, the Centre provided the state a little over Rs 362 crore in funds to ensure water supply in rural households in Punjab.
Jal Shakti Abhiyan
Another national campaign, the Jal Shakti Abhiyan focuses on water conservation and water resource management. With the purpose of strengthening the Jal Jeevan Mission, during the campaign, the geotagging of water bodies will be carried out which will play a role in rejuvenating water bodies all over the country. Both the campaigns aim to address the “water stress” that is being faced by nearly 600 million Indians.The focus of the campaign is on rainwater harvesting, rejuvenation of water bodies, treatment and reuse of wastewater and plantation and most importantly, public awareness on the importance of water conservation by individual households as well. The Jal Shakti Abhiyan must ensure that it adopts a more holistic approach and does not just focus on rainwater and wastewater harvesting, but also implement policy measures for regulated availability and use of safe and clean water.
Sangrur district in Punjab is in the first position in Punjab and 10th in the country under the Jal Shakti Abhiyan campaign. Approximately 3000 awareness campaigns, renovation of about 9000 ponds, increased number of plantations, 50 recharge water pits and conservation of rainwater and drip irritation were some of the measures taken in the district, under the Jal Shakti Abhiyan, to tackle the challenge of water scarcity. To conserve the rapidly depleting groundwater, the campaign soon turned into a mass movement.
Relevance during the Covid-19 Pandemic
Since the onset of the Covid-19 second wave, availability of clean water has become more significant than ever globally. The increasing demand for water is coming at a time when water supply and quality of water are already major challenges that India, as a nation, is facing every single day. Further, the absence of efficient sewage-management systems can lead to even more dire consequences of the coronavirus disease. Thus, it is more the need of the hour now than ever to make a paradigm shift from the centralized water management approach to an approach that focuses on reusing, recycling and managing the existing water resources efficiently.
Recommendations and Way Forward
The main causes of water scarcity in Punjab, as mentioned above, are urbanisation, industrialisation and green revolution. It is important to address each of these factors to help tackle the challenge of water scarcity. Firstly, It is very important to treat sewage properly because if that is done, it can be used for irrigation purposes which would reduce the pressure on groundwater. Reusing and treating water must take precedence so it can be used for different factors that usually consume groundwater. Secondly, Punjab needs to move away from paddy in Punjab as this would reduce water consumption to a large extent. Farmers in Punjab need to be incentivised to grow other crops and remove focus from paddy. Thirdly, while Punjab is encouraging rainwater harvesting, as part of the Har Ghar Jal, Har Ghar Safai mission, the individual households must also be encouraged to carry out harvesting practices at a micro level. Lastly, the cleaning of the water bodies and regulation of disposal of effluents is also a critical step that needs to be taken in the state
There are a few lessons that the “Har Ghar Jal Har Ghar Safai” mission can learn from the previous and existing state and national policies. The need to adopt a holistic, flexible, all-inclusive approach to address the challenge of water scarcity and sanitation in the state of Punjab is imperative. All things considered, the mission already has far-reaching impacts in the state with the assurance that at least 80% of the households will have potable water supply.
Just like the Covid-19 pandemic being faced by the whole world, water scarcity is also an urgent problem that needs to be addressed sooner than later. When sanitation and the use of water because of the virus is becoming a priority more than ever before, we are reminded of the reasons to tackle the issue of water scarcity and sanitation.