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By WaterAid India

Announcing the details of government’s Jal Jeevan Mission, towards its plans to provide safe drinking piped water to all the households by 2024, in a recent article, Parmeswaran Iyer, Secretary of Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation (DDWS) emphasized the critical role of decentralized local level community-managed water supply systems. He specifically cited two examples of Swajal project in Uttar Pradesh and WASMO in Gujarat (Indian Express, 17 August 2019). Given the fact that with the launch of Jal Shakti Abhiyan this summer, the government seems to be in a hurry to move on with its plans, it will be worth taking a deeper dive into these schemes.

This column will try to look at WASMO in brief to draw the lessons as well as challenges, which need to be borne in mind as we embark on yet another ambitious plan to provide piped drinking water supply to every household.

In 2002, Gujarat set up a special purpose vehicle – Water and Sanitation Management Organization (WASMO) for promoting community-based water and sanitation at the state level.

By 2012, WASMO had undertaken four major projects in addition to its regular activities:

  • Earthquake rehabilitation and reconstruction project was taken up to restore and develop water supply and sanitation facilities in 1,260 earthquake-affected villages.
  • Swajaldhara and sector reforms (the two previous schemes of Gujarat government) came under WASMO.
  • Water quality, monitoring, and surveillance project was taken up to enable people to access safe drinking water and to create demand for it.
  • The integrated tribal development project was taken up to address drinking water and sanitation issues in the backward tribal blocks.

As a part of decentralization of water quality monitoring, WASMO tried to institutionalize community participation along with the involvement of Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) for quality monitoring and surveillance.

One of the key drivers for involving rural citizens in the decision-making process of water supply has been the formation of Pani Samitis as sub-committees of the Gram Panchayat, something akin to now mandated Village Water and Sanitation Committees Iyer talked about this in his article. Women and marginalized groups were given representation in these committees.

WASMO carried out an extensive capacity- building program to train the committee members for them to be able to carry out the financial activities of the Samiti. The members of the Samiti were expected to contribute ten percent of the capital costs in order to ensure ownership. Pani Samitis particularly institutionalized the involvement of women leading to a positive impact in terms of sanitation, health, checking water-borne diseases and reduction in drudgery. The number of Pani Samitis officially grew from 82 to 18,076 between 2002 and 2012. WASMO further implemented the Rural Drinking Water Quality and Surveillance Programme.

Various sector partners of the organization such as Gujarat Water Supply and Sewerage Board (GWSSB) played a critical role in this process. By the end of 2012, 16,676 water quality teams were formed in different villages that generated awareness towards the safe drinking water and personal hygiene practices. Interestingly, these teams not only include activists from the Pani Samitis, Self-Help Groups (SHG) andanganwadis but also made students and school teachers a part of the hygiene campaign. By the end of 2011, officially 72.22% of the households in Gujarat had tap connectivity in contrast to the national average of 26.6%. By 2012, under WASMO, 16,787 villages (93 percent) in Gujarat adopted community-managed water supply and sanitation; 6,641 villages commissioned in-village water supply projects; and 4,421 (24.4 percent) villages implemented these projects.

Unfortunately, WASMO declined as an autonomous organization that collaborated actively with civil society organizations and funded them. There are learning lessons from some great work done by the civil society organizations about community-based water management systems, especially the role of local governance institutions that WASMO had managed to build on the ground.

According to a recent unpublished study done by senior scholar Indira Hirway, many of the gains of WASMO were gradually lost resulting in some severe water crisis in Gujarat as recently as in 2018. According to Hirway, there appear to be several reasons for this: firstly, the leadership of WASMO changed and new leaders did not appreciate the philosophy underlying WASMO. Secondly, with the depletion and also degradation of local water resources, the role of local water was not much seen as a major source of drinking water. Thirdly, there was some tension between GWSSB and WASMO, as both were basically interested in providing drinking water. WASMO was bureaucratized and gradually became a part of GWSSB. Again, sanitation was moved to the Health Department.

Due to depleting groundwater in almost all regions in the state, and deterioration of the quality of water supply in the state, the state government became skeptical about the adequacy of local water sources to provide enough potable water to its people. And hence the shift towards centralization and centralized solutions like Narmada water which was initially envisaged to serve agricultural needs of the state.

Two critical lessons to be learned are how to retain the autonomy of the institutions like WASMO that retain their core philosophy of community ownership and decentralized governance around water. The second, equally critical lesson is around how we manage the right balance between the democratic, decentralized governance systems and the lure of centralized large-scale engineering-driven solutions of multi-village, thousands of kilometers long piped water supply systems.

Avinash Kumar is Director – Programme, and Policy at WaterAid India.

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