Views of D. Thara

“There is a need to focus on the entire water value chain”

Increasing water demand due to rising population, and rapid urbanisation and industrialistion has fuelled the water crisis in the country. Many cities in India are already facing high water stress. Not only have groundwater levels depleted but surface water bodies are also highly polluted due to discharge of untreated wastewater. To address the issue, the central government launched the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) in 2015 to establish adequate water supply infrastructure and a robust sewage network. The mission has made commendable progress in providing water connections and building sewage treatment capacities, making it easier to deal with the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. At a recent India Infrastructure conference, D. Thara, talked about the need to change water management practices, create a circular economy for water and encourage private participation in the sector…

AMRUT, one of the flagship programmes of the government, has been successful in providing water supply and sewerage infrastructure throughout the country, with testimonials from beneficiaries backing the claimed outcomes. The mission has been able to put the right priorities on the right thing at the right time. Currently, works worth Rs 650 billion are being implemented under the mission in 500 cities all over the country. Works worth Rs 90 billion have been completed and water supply connections have been provided to around 8 million households. Moreover, capacity to treat 4,500 million litres per day (mld) of sewage is presently being created. Around 900 mld of treatment capacity has already been developed. Besides, 4.6 million sewage connections have also been provided. In fact, AMRUT is one of the few missions that has been neutral to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, with minimal impact on implementation due to lack of labour availability.

Now, years after the launch of AMRUT, another mission, the JalJeevan Mission (JJM), has been launched. While at present the initiative focuses on providing tap connections to rural households, JJM (Urban) is also being formulated. JJM (Urban) will be introduced in continuation of earlier efforts and will aim at changing the narrative on water management from developing water supply infrastructure to a circular economy of water.

There is a need to focus on the entire water value chain. Therefore, a market needs to be created for treated wastewater. It is also crucial to change the parlance and start using the term “used water” instead of “wastewater”. The use of treated water by the agricultural and industrial sectors needs to be promoted in a major way. Besides, construction sites could also use treated wastewater for their operations wherever treatment facilities are present in the vicinity. The government can also encourage microentrepreneurs to collect wastewater from the slums and treat it for non-potable uses.

The JJM, by focusing on a circular economy, aims to encourage the use of recycled water. It will not only help in improving water supply management by ensuring wastewater gets treated and reused but it will also keep a check on the pollution of waterbodies due to the release of untreated wastewater. Targets for cities to reuse at least 20-40 per cent of their recycled water will be set under the mission. Besides, sooner or later, pipelines for used water will have to be considered. These pipelines could go around a particular area and a ward-based or multiple wards-based approach could be followed. However, the approach cannot be too decentralised or too centralised. Too much decentralisation will make it difficult to control quality whereas too much centralisation will lead to huge infrastructure costs.

Further, river basin rejuvenation programmes will go a long way in addressing water shortage in the country. It is also important to introduce targeted programmes for rainwater harvesting. Harvesting rainwater will help not only in increasing groundwater levels but also in checking the problem of urban flooding. Besides, desalination plants need to be developed in coastal areas. While these plants were a luxury earlier, new and emerging technologies have improved their feasibility.

Moreover, it is necessary to not focus only on water supply in cities but also think from the point of view of water security. The JJM will follow a customised approach wherein cities will have area-specific water balance plans such that plans for slums will be different from those for developed colonies. Besides, the government is planning to introduce a water credit system along the same lines as the carbon credit system, and this will go a long way in promoting water conservation at a micro level. An initiative to conduct a “PaejalSurvekshan” similar to the SwachhSurvekshan is also being considered. While the SwachhSurvekshan measures the performance of cities on several parameters including the perception of citizens, the Paejal survey would only be based on material facts with performance indicators being measured scientifically. Cities would then be ranked on the basis of these indicators.

While today there is enough knowledge regarding water problems and most aspects have been studied, this knowledge has not reached citizens. This is a very big challenge. In the water value chain, citizens are only concerned about water supply. Only when there is a shortage do water issues pinch them. The issues pertaining to sewer maintenance, sewage treatment, and operations and maintenance of infrastructure are secondary for them. Massive steps need to be taken to spread awareness in this regard and, today, it is important for citizens to recognise water as a non-renewable resource.

Water has traditionally been seen as a free resource. It has now become crucial to look at water as a bankable resource in order to encourage citizens to use it judiciously. This can be done by bringing in private players. Currently, very little is being paid for water. By encouraging private participation, water services can be managed by competent and data-transparent service providers. Besides, water infrastructure could be disaggregated where pipeline laying and management can be privatised. Several models could be considered for this.

However, so far, there has been a mixed outcome from public-private partnership (PPP) projects. Key reasons for the failure of some of these projects has been a lack of financial incentives and risk sharing. Policymakers tend to ignore the risk-sharing aspect of public-private partnership contracts, making them biased towards the government as compared to private players. The ultimate success of a project, nevertheless, is subject to multiple factors such as the private agency, the governance model and the openness of the system. The government therefore needs to go about PPP projects in a careful, calibrated manner. Moreover, to make citizens more accountable, the government is planning to introduce cluster metering under the JJM that will provide complete information on the amount of water being consumed, treated and used. Water data can play a crucial role in transforming consu0mption patterns.

The issue of non-revenue water needs to be resolved as well, not in terms of water that has been consumed in slums or other areas and not been paid for, as that is only a service gap, but in terms of leakage. This represents an infrastructure gap which can be solved through the use of advanced technologies such as smart meters, sensors and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems. The use of SCADA systems has also been mandated under AMRUT and the JJM. However, the deployment of advanced equipment for existing pipelines can be a challenge as some of the trunk pipelines are really very old.

Another major issue being faced by the water and wastewater sector is the operation and maintenance of the infrastructure created. In this regard, for sewage treatment plants, the Central Pollution Control Board has also issued guidelines which specify that all treatment plants have to be connected to central city CCTVs for better monitoring. Besides, there is also a need to develop more capability in the private sector, since, at present, there are very few companies engaged in the construction of sewage treatment plants.

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