Work should have begun 20 years ago. We’re late, but not too late: Jal Shakti Minister

Union Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat with Senior Assistant Editor Shalini Nair in The Indian Express newsroom. (Express photo: Amit Mehra)

SHALINI NAIR: India has been facing a water crisis for a long while now. Under the previous ministry, the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, the drinking water part was largely ignored. What prompted the government to take it up in such a big way now?

The entire world is concerned about water, including developed countries such as the US. In India, it has been a challenge for decades. Unfortunately, the issue of water was being governed by many rules and heads… Drinking water had a separate ministry, urban drinking water had another ministry, there was a different ministry for water sharing… Even before the elections, as the scarcity of water rose and we realised that water will become a challenge for the country, Prime Minister Narendra Modi began to talk about the need to address the issue in a holistic manner. That is why this ministry (Ministry of Jal Shakti) was created.

Why Gajendra Shekhawat

Soon after returning to power, the Modi government set up the Jal Shakti Ministry, combining the erstwhile Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation and Ministry of Water Resources, River Development, and Ganga Rejuvenation. The Jal Shakti Mission, which includes plans for water conservation and provision of piped water connections to every household by 2024, is the NDA government s next big flagship programme after the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. As the Jal Shakti Minister, Gajendra Singh Shekhawat is at the centre of the implementation of the Mission, as part of which work has begun in over 250 water-stressed districts.

In our country, there is 65 per cent dependence on underground water. Of the 4,000 BCM (Billion Cubic Meters) annual precipitation, only 1,198 BCM is usable. The holding capacity of the 5,400 reservoirs across the country is less than 300 BCM. And, the total replenishable water that we get from all the sources, including the underground replenishable sources, is around 400 BCM. So practically, we can use only 600 BCM of water. But as our population is increasing, water requirements are also increasing. Hence, the water availability per person per year which stood at 5,100 cubic metres (in 1950) has now come down to 1,400 cubic metres, and in the coming years it will go down to a 1,000 cubic metres. It s a big challenge, and work on this should have started 20 years ago. We are already late, but it is still not too late. That is why the Prime Minister has begun this work, and in the next five years, our mission is to ensure that every household has access to water.

Apart from (providing access to drinking water) there are two other important things. The first is source sustainability. Whatever source of water we create, it must be sustainable either by point recharge mechanism or groundwater recharging. Secondly, according to recent government statistics, 40 litres of water per capita per day is being supplied in the rural areas. But according to the new benchmark, it should be 50 litres per capita per day, and this should be provided to every household. But if every household is being provided with 50 litres of water, then almost 80 per cent of the water that is discharged, whether it is grey water or black water, cannot be reused unless it is treated. In such a situation, the piped water scheme will create another problem every pond in every village will permanently have dirty water, as we have witnessed in Haryana. So, the Prime Minister has set a target to achieve all the three things together. That is the mandate of the (Jal Shakti) Ministry. We had organised a day-long conference of all the stakeholder states. All the ministers (of the states) along with officers of the water resources, drinking water, and sanitation departments were summoned. All states are serious about the issue of water management and they are all motivated as well. I come from the state of Rajasthan where the terrace of every pucca household is linked to an underground water tank. The rainwater collected in this manner is then utilised throughout the year for cooking, drinking…

Domestic, industrial use of water accounts for 11% of the total consumption; 89% is in agriculture. Agriculture water use is the most unproductive. We use 5,600 litres to produce 1 kg rice; China does it in 350 litres Gajendra Singh Shekhawat

Throughout the world, the first step any country that has overcome its water crisis has taken is to harvest rainwater. In all, there are four steps to tackle water scarcity. The first, rainwater harvesting, can be carried out either through storage of rainwater or its percolation, which will then help recharge groundwater. The second step is judicious use of water, and there is a lot of confusion around this. (Unlike what is believed) domestic and industrial use of water only accounts for 11 per cent of the total consumption; 89 per cent is in agriculture. Our water use in agriculture is the most unproductive. We use 5,600 litres of water to produce 1 kg of rice whereas China is doing the same with 350 litres. So it is a challenge for us. It s not because we do not have the technology, it s because we don t value water, and so it is being misused. Free electricity is being used to pump out water from the ground. We need to seriously focus on judicious use of water. The third aspect is reuse of water, both in domestic and industrial sectors. Around 140 billion litres of sewage water is produced in India annually. If we manage to use this, India s water woes will be addressed. And the last aspect is afforestation.

We have also written to the states to identify traditional water bodies in every district within the next three months. This idea came from Bundelkhand, says Gajendra Singh Shekhawat. (Express photo: Amit Mehra)

We are looking at all the four aspects. As part of our first initiative, which is along the lines of the Gram Swaraj Abhiyan of 2017, we have identified 250 districts that are water-stressed, over-exploited or critical. Teams of joint secretary-level officers, hydrologists and engineers have been sent to these districts. They will be spending time in these areas till September 15. They will prepare plans on groundwater recharge, motivate and educate people, and also prepare plans to revive traditional water bodies.

We have also written to the states to identify traditional water bodies in every district within the next three months. This idea came from Bundelkhand. Water scarcity in the region has always been a topic of discussion, but it was not the case this time. There is a reason for it. Nearly 600-1,000 years ago, the Chandela dynasty king of Bundelkhand built 9,000 tanks in the region. Over the years, they had all disappeared. Then, 2,500 of them were identified, of which 250 have been revived in the last two years. That has ended half their water troubles. So if all the 9,000 tanks are revived, then Bundelkhand will be a water-rich area. The science behind the tanks also fascinates me. All of them are interconnected so one gets filled when the other spills. There is a water body at Jaipur s Jaigarh fort which has a capacity of three crore litres. It also has a canal network of 25 km which was used to channel rainwater. This water was sufficient for 30,000 soldiers who lived there for one year. It was built 300 years ago and is still functional.

We need to understand the power of rainwater and it is possible only when it becomes a people s movement. Governments can only initiate, handle and support things.

SHALINI NAIR: But what about Part B of the plan, that deals with water supply? It will require a lot of capital investment from the government but the Budget was silent on it.

See, Rs 10,000 crore has been allocated for the NRDW (National Rural Drinking Water Programme) this time. This is the first year, and we are targeting 2024. We will implement it in phases. There is no shortage of funds, at least till the Modi government is in power.

Gajendra Singh Shekhawat (Caricature: E P Unny)

KRISHN KAUSHIK: In the last five years, cleaning of the Ganga river was the government s big target. There were no issues of budget, and a full-fledged ministry was set up for it. However, the key indicators still do not suggest that the Ganga has been cleaned.

The biggest problem that we faced when we took up the initiative was capacity building. From Gangotri to Ganga Sagar, there is no village or town which doesn t release its sewage into the Ganga. In the first two years, we had to study the river comprehensively because the work done by the last Ganga missions was fuzzy. They made Sewage Treatment Plants (STPs) 20 years ago and they still don t operate. People also protested because they did not want an STP in their colony… Capacity building cannot happen overnight. What I can say with confidence is that, by this November, no homes in Uttarakhand will dump their raw sewage into the Ganga.

In Varanasi, of the 27 drains that were releasing their waste into the Ganga, 24 have been tapped. I have personally visited and checked each and every one of those drains. Now only one major and two small streams remain. Also, one STP is being built; it will be completed by December. So by December, Varanasi will have no drains releasing sewage into the Ganga. Things will take another two years, after which the results will show.

Recently, I was talking to the Ambassador of Germany about the cleaning of the river Rhine. It took them 25 years over several phases to do it. If it took Germany 25 years, then five years is not a long time to clean the Ganga.

The biggest problem (in cleaning Ganga) was capacity building... It took Germany 25 years, across several phases, to clean up the Rhine. So, five years is not a long time to clean the Ganga... Results will show in 2 yrs Gajendra Singh Shekhawat

LIZ MATHEW: Ninety per cent of the water used in agriculture in India is fresh water, whereas in countries such as China and Brazil, the figure stands at 64 per cent and 60 per cent respectively. Is there a need to change that as well?

Before answering your question, let me tell you one more thing. Seventy per cent of Singapore drinks treated sewage water. (If this happens in India) wouldn t all the fights between Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab end? That is why we have undertaken a programme to treat and reuse all sewage water in villages, either in agriculture or at least for groundwater recharge.

RAVISH TIWARI: You said there should be judicious use of water but we are not pricing water at all. Democratically elected governments have always been averse to the idea. Can you create a political consensus for it?

Water is a state issue, and so they will have to take the first step. As we plan the piped water scheme, we have this in the back of our minds, that there should at least be a revenue source for water. We can make drinking water a revenue source, but along with that if we also make treated sewage water into a revenue model, then everything will be okay.

Water is a state issue, and so they will have to take the first step. As we plan the piped water scheme, we have this in the back of our minds, that there should at least be a revenue source for water, says Gajendra Singh Shekhawat. (Express photo: Amit Mehra)

SHALEEN AGRAWAL: What role will the private sector play in this?

Urban water has to be treated either by the government or by a private body or through a public-private partnership, whatever model it is. Models such as BOT (build, operate and transfer) and DBOT (design, build, operate and transfer) are currently under operation. We started using the Hybrid Annuity (PPP model for sewage treatment) in the Ganga (basin states). The problem was that we built the capacity but the states are not even paying the electricity bill or running it. We can build a Rs 250 crore STP and give it, but if it s not even running at 30 per cent of its capacity, then there s no use of it. So we introduced a new model that those who make the project will run it for 15 years too. We will give them 40 per cent of the money at the start and the remaining 60 per cent in instalments over the next 15 years, along with the O&M (operational and management) costs.

In big cities, there is no option but this. However, in villages work should be done on community-based phytoremediation technologies (use of plants and associated soil microbes to reduce the concentrations or toxic effects of contaminants). It is very easy. Until now, people talked about dual pipelines, one for treated water and other for potable water, where treated water could be used in the gardens, toilets etc. I want to take this a step further. I have got a design developed after speaking with IIT Madras to have dual lines for discharge (of water). The water that comes out of your homes is black and grey black from the toilets and grey from the kitchens. Treatment of greywater involves only 10 per cent of the cost of treatment of sewage water. So kitchen water can be made potable or reusable by spending just 10 per cent of the of money, and that will end 90 per cent of our problems.

All these aspects will have to be worked on collectively and it will take time. The programme involves both behavioural change and capacity building.

SHALINI NAIR: Have you factored in climate change into the Jal Shakti Mission?

We have to because we are the most vulnerable to climate change. We can save groundwater by mapping aquifers across the country. By the end of this financial year, I will have a 3D aquifer map of every single village. We will have to train people on how to extract water, how to recharge it etc. We are working on that.

ANUPAM CHATTERJEE: Is there a water finance corporation in the works?

That is a very ideal situation. We should definitely have a financial arm.

HARISH DAMODARAN: We have built so many reservoirs but the efficiency of water usage from them is very low. Why is our canal water usage so inefficient? Also, can t there be a way to replace these open canals with underground pipes because otherwise most of the water in them is drying up or getting stolen. Why can t we think beyond just building reservoirs?

The total capacity (of the reservoirs) that we have made is only 256 BCM, whereas the availability of water is more than 758 BCM. Secondly, we are not using even 60 per cent of the capacity that has been built. There is no canal system where the water is drying up or going into the ocean. Also, the states have not made canal systems. They were provided help for this under the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana. The Central government is doing it but the state government has to put this on their priority list and work towards it.

Earlier, jal ko jagdeesh mante the (water was considered god). In my childhood, we drank rainwater. Every village had a pond. There used to be a catchment area for it and the entire village would look after it. Now, it s all gone, encroached. A mindset change in just one generation has done so much damage. Since we are the ones who have ruined it, it is now our responsibility to educate our children.