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THE PRICE OF LIFE
- The state of safe water and sanitation in India

Water is life. In India, issues relating to water have become so complicated and confusing that some say no government can change things and we must expect continuing deterioration. Our laws on water are inadequate, water-basin planning and regulation are practically non-existent. The pricing of water is far below cost in almost every use; but the poor have little access to enough good water for life and livelihood. Ground-water levels in India have declined enormously in cities as well as rural areas and yet there is no ground-water regulation while agricultural procurement prices encourage changes in cropping patterns to more water intensity. There is no regulation of water, or of private supplies by tankers. In rural India, women and children walk miles to collect water. In urban India, the water quality in slums is poor. An important reason for high-school drop-out rates is the collection of water by children.

The United Nations Development Project published the first Human Development Index in its Human Development Report of 1990. It tries to measure the well-being of people, their quality of life and the opportunities for them to live better lives. It does this for each member-country of the UN, and measures their achievement on health, education and incomes, as well as the relative freedom from tyranny in each country. It does not accept the ‘trickle-down’ argument that gross domestic product growth by itself will lead to better lives for many people. The HDR does not measure environmental degradation and the depletion of natural resources. Each report has, in addition, focused on some specific aspect in more detail. This year the focus is on deprivation in access to water, necessary for life and for livelihood.

Water for life means delivering clean water, removing waste water and providing sanitation. Without these tasks being adequately performed, people and especially children fall ill (with diarrhoea among other diseases), and die. In 2004, of 60 million deaths worldwide, 10.6 million were of children below five years. The principal cause was poor water and sanitation. Developing countries had 5 billion cases of diarrhoea in children below age five each year, of which 1.8 million died. This is more than the deaths from tuberculosis or malaria. In India, 450,000 died from diarrhoea, avoidable if they had access to better water and sanitation. Even a small improvement in water and sanitation (for example, open latrines versus pit-latrines, not even flush-latrines) has a significant impact on reducing these deaths.

Water is also a productive resource shared within countries and across borders. It poses immense challenges to governments who must manage water equitably and efficiently. Agriculture and industry require large quantities of water. Household requirements are only 5 per cent of the total. The major users are industry and agriculture, which pollute fresh water with effluents, run-offs with pesticides and fertilizers. Growing urbanization, expected to be 50 per cent of the population by 2020, is another source of pollution of fresh water. Ground water is excessively used (India is believed to be the highest user), resulting in considerable depletion of water tables. The economically poor farmer has increasing difficulty in getting enough water from irrigation canals and even from shallow wells. The rich, who have better access to both surface and ground water, also pay a lot less for water — both for life and for livelihoods.

The Millennium Development Goals agreed to by all world leaders in 2000 expected to halve the proportion of people without access to safe water and sanitation by 2015. It does not expect that we will achieve the MDG by 2015. The HDR points out that in the world today, 1.1 billion are without access to safe water and 2.6 billion people have no access to sanitation. Almost all those affected are among the poorest in their societies. There will be 800 million without access to water and 431 million without sanitation. India is on track to halve the numbers without access to safe water, but not so for sanitation. Achieving these goals will, for the world as a whole, save one million lives, accrue substantial economic benefits, significantly improve school attendance.

All developed countries have gone through this phase of poor access to water, sanitation, and pollution of rivers and other water sources. For example, the British parliament shut down for a while in 1858 because the members of parliament could not bear the stench from the neighbouring river Thames. (If the Lok Sabha were close to the Jamuna, we might have a cleaner river.) However, government will and determination, resources, and recognition of water as a right for all are necessary if the problem is to receive its deserved urgency. South Africa has written into its constitution that a minimum quantity of water per head is a right for every citizen. It is well on its way to achieving the target.

India does not show up as well in achieving sanitation goals as some other countries. In 2004, the percentages of the populations with sustainable access to improved sanitation and access to improved water source were 44 and 77 in China; 65 and 88 in South Africa; 39 and 74 in Bangladesh; while in India the figures were 33 and 86. It is not a lack of resources but a lack of will, especially when it comes to sanitation.

The horrible custom of carrying excrement on head-loads reserved for some castes is not dead. An important reason for girls not going to or dropping out of school is lack of privacy in sanitation and a lack of water even if a toilet exists. Pollution of water supply by public urinals and defecation is common.

Can the private sector deal with the problem' It cannot without close involvement of government in investment, subsidy and regulation. Tariffs must recover the high capital cost of providing water connections to households. However, tariffs are very low whether for piped water or for irrigation. The well-to-do pay a fraction of the cost of delivery to them. The poor, in times of water shortage, pay significant amounts for unregulated private water of uncertain quality. Ground water is rapidly depleting in urban as well as rural India. Except for Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharashtra, there is no legislation for regulating it. Enforcement is practically non-existent everywhere because of the political influence of rich farmers.

The attempt at formulating an integrated policy for water management requires institutional structures. They are diffuse and uncoordinated. The need for a holistic approach that integrates urban and rural water, augmenting supplies through water harvesting and rural water-saving methods, ground-water regulation and so on is recognized but not implemented. The scattering of authority between ministries and departments is a major deterrent to coordinated actions. With sanitation, the situation is worse.

Maharashtra has initiated a comprehensive policy with the proposed statutory recognition to thousands of water-user associations who will have authority to set cropping patterns and tariffs, as well as a statewide Water Regulatory Authority that will plan for the five water basins and enforce its regulations. The pilot programme now in progress should provide a model for other states. What is needed is the will to ensure that all have access to safe water in adequate quantity and that there is universal sanitation, with privacy, adequate water and arrangements for keeping them clean. Tariffs must reflect capa- city to pay and the better-off must pay more to support the poor. GDP and income growth will not solve the problem without government effort.

Instead of grandiose ambitions, we must look for modest successes — a few hours of safe water and basic toilets with water. Thus, standpipes in urban slums (that Bangalore, for instance, is shutting down) serve the purpose against taps in all homes. There are, of course, large political issues on water between states and with neighbouring countries that show no signs of resolution. We must, at least, resolve our internal issues and provide people safe water and sanitation.

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