Nal se Jal: hit or miss?

Image for representational purposes only. Image credit: India Water Portal on Flickr
Image for representational purposes only. Image credit: India Water Portal on Flickr

Water scarcity has a history … and that history is nothing less than the history of government. – Alatout, 2008.

Attempts to privatize water may have increased globally in the recent past, but in more general terms, governments largely control water as in India, where water is a state subject. After all, water is the only life-giving non-substitutable good; hence, controlling water means controlling life, and controlling society at large.

For some governments, this desire to rule water manifests itself in the form of grand, spectacular projects so that the state’s authority over its water transcends the material, into the discursive. The Government of India's grand Namami Gange initiative and the proposed Jal Jivan Mission 2019 are being termed the “water revolution.”

As a first step towards this so-called revolution, the Union Water Ministry has now been renamed as the Ministry of Jal Shakti, bringing under its ambit the erstwhile Ministry of Water Resources and the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation. Aside from the greater centralization of water governance under this new entity, as its reconstitution seems to suggest, Jal Shakti is also a clever renaming of the ministry – Jal Shakti translates as water power, which means the focus now is on water’s agency (in this case, shakti or strength) and no longer on water as a resource (that is, water as external).

This posits the ministry, and by extension the Modi government, as a much more holistic body than conventionally believed. The ministry might very well remain highly techno-managerial, yet its newly acquired name elevates it to a level that is anything but. One of the major tasks before this newly re-constituted ministry is the proposed Nal se Jal scheme, a component of the Jal Jivan Mission, which promises to provide piped drinking water to every household in the country by 2024.

How feasible is such a scheme? And how desirable it is anyway?

A closer look at how the government delivered on a similar scheme – Namami Gange – may be useful to examine. Namami Gange, largely an initiative to clean up the Ganga, was one of the government's flagship programs in recent times. Unlike previous schemes on the cleaning of the Ganga, this one was unprecedented in its scale and ambition. Launched in mid-May 2015 with a budget of Rs. 20,000 crores, it was the biggest-ever initiative on the Ganga. A robust institutional apparatus was put in place for efficient implementation of this scheme: a National Ganga Council was created with the Prime Minister as its head; an Empowered Task Force was constituted under the leadership of the Union Water Resources Minister; and State Ganga Committees have been formed in five Ganga basin states.

More importantly, the Prime Minister made it his personal agenda, announcing that the Ganga would be clean by 2019. It’s mid-2019 now, but the Ganga certainly isn't clean.

Instead, as a recent report shows, according to a Central Pollution Control Board study, Ganga water is found to be polluted, in the medium to severe category prior to the monsoon, in about 37 out of 41 places through which the river passes. The same report also states that more than 80% of the Clean Ganga Fund has not yet been spent. To make matters worse, another recent study reported high concentration of arsenic in groundwater in as many as 40 districts in the state of Uttar Pradesh, many of which are located in the Ganga floodplains.

These findings suggest that the Namami Gange has been a dismal failure. Curiously enough, the ruling party’s 2019 election manifesto had no mention of the Namame Gange at all. Instead, another grand campaign has been launched – the Jal Jivan Mission, and under it the Nal se Jal scheme.

The impossibility – and futility – of Nal se Jal

Like Namami Gange, Nal se Jal is another "high modernist" scheme, to borrow James Scott’s term, aimed at providing piped drinking water to every household in the country by 2024. Although there is little information available in the public domain as of now on the modus operandi of the scheme, for anyone with a reasonable familiarity with India’s geography, the impossibility of achieving such a goal is foretold. Anyone who is acquainted with the far-flung (tribal) hamlets from the Aravalis to the Satpuras to the Himalayas, or for that matter the numerous, often ephemeral, riverine islands (chars) in the Brahmaputra-Ganges river system, such a scheme would appear only a fantasy.

Interestingly, the India has been in talks with Israel for technology sharing for this project. Israel’s own track record of water politics has not been great, pivoting on the notion of "scarcity" which has acted as a justification par excellence for a centralized national water policy, and it has been exclusivist (see the work of Samer Alatout, Sharif Elmusa, among others).

More alarmingly, the Nal se Jal scheme calls for an expedited implementation of the interlinking of rivers (ILR) project, an old, somewhat dormant idea that has regained traction in recent times. A lot has been written already about the long-term ecological catastrophes of such a project. Yet the government seems determined to carry out this project. It is indeed likely that while Nal se Jal will remain unfulfilled, the ILR project may make deeper inroads under the current government as a justification of the former.

Lastly, is providing piped drinking water to every household in the country even a desirable option? It is only after the provision of piped water, if at all, that sundry plumbing issues, including corrosion and leakages of pipes and fittings would start. For households that can barely make a living, the cost of such repairs would be unaffordable, potentially making the piped water scheme defunct (as was the case with similar initiatives, such as biogas and smokeless stove schemes in many Indian states, in the not-so-distant past).

One also wonders if the policy makers have thought through the myriad social roles that communal water sources such as wells, ponds, streams, or even hand pumps have played historically for certain communities. With the provision of piped drinking water, wouldn’t these invaluable social spaces be forever erased?

In these times of climate change and increased commodification of water, shouldn’t the priorities of our governments lie in conservation and rejuvenation of water sources (both surface water and groundwater), and strengthening institutional mechanisms for more equitable water sharing from the local to the national scale, instead of focusing on a high modernist scheme yet again?

Water as social relations

Whether it is Namami Gange, the ILR, or the Nal se Jal scheme, the deeper problem with all this is the way we conceptualize water.

Our policy makers continue to view water as an abstract entity - water equals H2O, nothing more - and the water crisis as something that can be fixed techno-managerially. It is, then, not surprising that the government believes that the crisis of drinking water can be solved by connecting each household with pipes and taps. Nothing can be farther from the truth. As water scholar Jamie Linton reminds us: our idea of water needs to be complicated by the fact that in every instance, water bears the traces of its social relations, conditions, and potential. Water is a social relation. Therefore, a Nal se Jal scheme, for instance, is as much about providing piped water to every household as it should be about paying close attention to the political ecology of that water and its technologies, and the historical-geographical specificities of places through which it flows.

To think about water is to think, inescapably, about the hydro-social cycle. Government schemes rarely do that, certainly not under a regime that has as its nucleus grand promises and gigantic projects.

Mitul Baruah teaches Sociology/Anthropology at Ashoka University. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of India Water Portal.