New Government’s Agenda: Think long-term

India needs continued emphasis on flagship programmes, aligned to long-term planning that focusses on water security and circular economy in a climate-risked era 

India has made substantial progress in creating infrastructure for water supply and sanitation over the past decade. At present, as many as five schemes and programmes are being undertaken nationally in mission mode to sustain the country’s recently achieved open defecation-free (ODF) status, ensure solid and liquid waste management, keep the rivers clean, conserve water for the future and supply drinking water to every house. These include Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM), Mission Amrit Sarovar, Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT), and the National Mission for Clean Ganga (NMCG). Their successful implementation can help the country reach the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal on safe water and sanitation by the target year of 2030.

Researchers from Delhi-based think tank Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) travelled the length and breadth of the country to assess the performance and implementation of some of the schemes at the ground level. There are good and bad stories. Let’s start with Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin (SBM-G), whose objective is to achieve universal sanitation coverage, sustain it and improve the level of cleanliness in villages.

About 114.5 million toilets have been built under SBM-G since the launch of the mission in 2014, as per government data released in February 2024. Under SBM, the government has promoted construction of toilets with dual-pit honeycomb structure. In this structure, one pit gets filled at a time. Once it is filled, the toilet is connected to another pit. While the second pit gets filled, the sludge in the first pit gets degraded into manure that can be directly reused in fields.

While the government has been making people aware about the benefits of degraded sludge, the purpose is defeated if people do not use it. The new government should incentivise the use of degraded faecal sludge. Local governments like village panchayats that enforce reuse plans should be provided incentives. Since toilets that do not follow the recommended design lead to partial digestion of faecal sludge, documentation and dissemination of best practices of toilet construction should be done extensively.

Management of wastewater discharged from the washing area, bathroom and kitchen is another integral component of SBM-G. Rural households with functional taps get 55 litres per capita of water daily. Experts estimate that about 70 per cent of this is converted into greywater. The mission prioritises greywater management using simple techniques such as soak pits and kitchen garden. CSE researchers found greywater flowing into open drains and polluting ponds and other waterbodies in several villages. The new government must ensure that greywater is managed on site or near the source.

Make sources sustainable

Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM) is another flagship programme that envisions “to provide safe and adequate drinking water through individual household tap connections by 2024 to all households in rural India”. Since the launch of the programme in 2019, an impressive 76 per cent of the 193 million households in the rural areas have been connected to taps, as per the JJM dashboard accessed on May 17, 2024. The government must now ensure that the programme does not meet the fate of previous such programmes.

As many as six rural water supply programmes, launched since Independence, failed within years as the sources were unsustainable. JJM, thus, plans to focus on protecting or recharging the water sources, which is mainly groundwater, through measures such as water conservation, rainwater harvesting and recharge and reuse through greywater management. It should take the following measures to ensure that water supplied from the tap is safe and sustainable.

(i) Map the aquifer at local levels. Since 89 per cent of India’s water sources are groundwater dependent, mapping of the recharge and discharge areas should be done at the district and sub-district levels. Groundwater board and the rural departments should develop the discharge and recharge zones together. Communities should be part of this exercise to make use of their local knowledge about the quality of the soil and the geomorphic features.

(ii) Add features on sustainability to the JJM dashboard. Currently, the dashboard has village-level data on the contaminants in the drinking water supply. It also needs to display sites of groundwater recharge or rainwater harvesting, especially if the drinking water source is groundwater-dependent. Details of the design and the cost of the recharge project should be displayed. Measuring the impact of the recharge projects, engaging local communities for monitoring of groundwater and budgeting the available water is key to sustainability.

(iii) Ensure sustainability of surface water sources. Since JJM focuses on using surface water in areas where groundwater is contaminated or scarce, there is a need to ensure that the water sources are clean, which again means treating greywater for reuse or safe disposal into open waterbodies.


  • In rural areas, incentivise use of treated faecal sludge as manure in agriculture
  • Enforce management of greywater
  • Map the recharge and discharge of aquifers at the district and sub-district levels

Map, monitor the recharge 

To overcome the water crisis in rural India, the Union government in 2022, launched Mission Amrit Sarovar, whose objective was to construct or rejuvenate 75 ponds or waterbodies in each district by August 15, 2023, to mark India’s 75th year of independence. It was an impressive success. As per the mission dashboard accessed on May 17, 2024, some 109,000 sites have been identified for creation or rejuvenation and 66 per cent of the work completed. This is much more than the 50,000 Amrit Sarovars initially targeted. To create or rejuvenate waterbodies in the remaining 34 per cent identified sites, the new government should extend the mission by another year. In this phase, the mission should focus on the following.

(i) Mapping the progress of the mission on the dashboard. This is important because even though the country as a whole has overshot the target of 500,000, CSE researchers have found that several districts are yet to have the mandated minimum 75 waterbodies. The dashboard should also have information related to the project location, technology used, source of funding and its usage, and the impact on groundwater.

(ii) The government also needs to develop strategy to maintain health of the waterbodies. A part of project fund should be booked for maintenance and monitoring. Gram panchayats should be made capable of generating revenue from the waterbody, which can then be used for its upkeep.

Plan for warming world

In all probability, the exisiting schemes and programmes are not enough to ensure access to water and sanitation for all in a warming world. The crises are already evident. For the past few years, Bengaluru regularly experiences flood-like situation after heavy rains. This year, in February-March, it experienced a severe water crisis, which was followed by cholera outbreaks in April. Metropolitan cities are no longer able to cater to the needs of their ever-increasing population. With depleting groundwater and drying rivers, inequity in water access is widening in our cities as well as in rural areas. These are perfect examples of what awaits their future.

The new government should thus focus on enhancing—not just ensuring—access to water and sanitation for all. Here are a few ways to overcome the challenges.

In situ solutions to mitigate urban floods: Conserve rainwater and keep it contamination free. Enhance stormwater drainage dimensions/norms to mitigate flooding, in situ, especially wherever built-up area has reduced groundwater recharge potential.

Nature-based revival of lakes, waterbodies, streams and rivers: Rejuvenation must follow nature-based principles. In cities, where groundwater recharge is less, waterbodies should be developed as recharge zones.

Restructure water utilities to ensure aquifer recharge: Cities should also map aquifers and regularly monitor their recharge/discharge. Aquifer recharge must include reuse of treated sewage through the area’s waterbodies.

Fix infrastructure and services: All water, sanitation and stormwater infrastructure and services need to be improved to plug leakages, increase efficacy and treatment outcomes. This is important to ensure that the supply water or groundwater does not get contaminated by poor sewage infrastructure. Many studies have found E coli in the groundwater in peri-urban areas of Bengaluru. Leachate from sewage drains and septic tanks has been identified as one of the reasons for such contamination.

Promote decentralised, water supply and sanitation systems: This requires mapping the drainage of surface water, which will enable stormwater harvesting for groundwater recharge. The mapping must use small unit area of 1-10 sq km in cities as well as in rural areas to ensure that groundwater recharge can be done at the granular level. Only if they are unavoidable should large and centralised water supply and sewage treatment systems be promoted in cities because these are often unviable. Dependence on long distance river- and reservoir-based water supply for cities and multi-village water supply schemes must also be discouraged for the same reason. In Bengaluru, water is sourced from the Cauvery river, 100 km away, pumped up and transported. This increases the cost of water supply. A longer water supply network results in more leakage—it is 50 per cent in Bengaluru.


  • In urban areas, fix all non-functional water, sanitation and stormwater infrastructure services
  • Additional grey infrastructure and services needed for unserved informal settlements that now dominate cities
  • Promote non-sewered sanitation systems

Prioritise unmet needs of informal urban settlements: A majority of people in big cities live in congested, unplanned settlements (authorised and unauthorised). All of them cannot access water and sanitation through large, centralised water supply and sewarage systems. CSE has conducted a study in Sangam Vihar—a large, unplanned settlement in the national capital. This settlement has a population of over 1 million (in just 13 blocks) and get as little as 45 litres per capita per day of water supply from all sources combined, compared with the Central government standard of 135 litres per capita per day for urban areas. Due to lack of space, laying water pipelines and sewer networks is quite difficult. Only a city-wide decentralised water supply and sanitation system approach can augment and improve the per capita water supply and sustainable sanitation systems in such settlements. The government also needs to create additional grey infrastructure for the unserved informal settlements.

Non-sewered sanitation systems can help: CSE has been studying the challenge of septage management in six states of India. Non-sewered sanitation systems, like septic tanks and dual pit toilets, can serve as an effective measure to manage faecal matter in Tier III and Tier IV towns. As per Census 2011, India has some 7,900 towns, less than 10 per cent of which have sewerage systems, that too partial. The increasing water stress will make it extremely difficult for all towns to instal, operate, maintain and pay for expensive underground sewerage systems.

Promote circular economy: This will help water and nutrient replenishment. According to an estimate by Bengaluru-based non-profit CDD India, there were 1,469 sewage treatment plants (STPs) in the country in 2021. These STPs produced 104,210 tonnes of treated faecal sludge a day which can be used as fertiliser; treated greywater from the STPs be used for groundwater recharge. The government should increase wastewater reuse targets from the current levels of 20 per cent and 30 per cent under SBM and AMRUT. Currently, only Chennai and Bengaluru make substantial reuse of treated water for purposes other than drinking water. Bengaluru has shown how treated wastewater can be reused for lake rejuvenation, groundwater recharge and agriculture. During the ongoing water scarcity, the city supplied this resource to water-starved Kolar and Chikballarpur districts for agriculture.

Improve public involvement and awareness: Most water conservation campaigns have been limited to a few simplistic aspects of conserving water, such as turning off the tap while brushing teeth. Urban local bodies, water utilities, state governments and the Central ministries should raise public awareness about the impending climate risk and its impact on water and sanitation, just like they did for toilets under SBM.

Expand scope of Swachh Survekshan to rank wards: This needs to be done to highlight deficiencies in water supply, sanitation and stormwater management.

The next generation of water and sanitation challenges require planning, implementation and monitoring of long-term (10-20 years) multisectoral water, sanitation, stormwater and treated-water-reuse interventions. This should be done both at the city level and in rural areas under a Centre-led exercise. States should set their plans and year-wise targets for urban and rural water supply, sanitation and stormwater management with help and incentives from the Centre.

This was first published in the 1-15 June, 2024 print edition of Down To Earth

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