Interview with D. Thara: “Water and waste issues are taking centre stage”

D. Thara, Additional Secretary, Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs

With Indian cities urbanising at a rapid pace, their water resources have been getting stretched and waste generation has been rising significantly. This has necessitated the expansion of the water pipeline network and the creation of a robust waste management system. The government has implemented several measures aimed at providing access to drinking water to all households, ensuring water security and improving wastewater treatment methods. In an interview with Indian Infra­str­uc­ture, D. Thara, additional secretary, Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, discusses the journey of the sector over the years, the progress made under key government programmes, the role of the private sector and the future outlook. Excerpts…

How would you assess the progress made in water and waste management in urban areas? What have been the ministry’s noteworthy achievements and initiatives?

The issues relating to the water and waste sector are taking centre stage in India. The focus is on various aspects of water management, ranging from the source of water to the methods of distribution, and on creating water security at every level, from households to cities and to the country as a whole.

India is witnessing surplus rainfall conditions, with some very intense spells of rains owing to climate change. This is steering a shift in approach to achieving water security. The decentralisation of water resources by bringing them closer to the cities and a greater focus on surface water rather than groundwater have become critical for the government.

Over the years, various government programmes have been launched to enhance capacity building. The focus is on systematically addressing the problem. For instance, awareness about swachhta (cleanliness) has been promoted under the Swachh Bharat Mission by enabling competition among cities and instilling a sense of responsibility in citizens to maintain cleanliness in common/shared spaces in the community, in addition to keeping their own households clean.

While the sector has made significant progress, there is still a long way to go, especially in terms of handling and processing the waste generated. Sub­stantial work is currently under way for the remediation of dump sites across various cities. Many cities have started issuing tenders for projects relating to the remediation of dump sites. That said, it is pertinent to note that this is a state subject and the central government can only act as a catalyst by intervening through its schemes.

I believe that there is a growing collective consciousness among citizens today regarding the water and waste sector, and this is very encouraging.

The focus of the government now is on improving the quality of water that is being supplied to households. In urban areas, 80-85 per cent of households have access to reliable water supply. However, access to quality water still remains a major concern. The quality of water gets affected not only by leakages in the pipeline network but also by the low maintenance of storage tanks at the household level. For this, the government is focusing on adequate capacity building at the state level. For instance, under the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) 1.0 programme, projects worth around Rs 720 billion have been completed. Also, with government programmes such as AMRUT, states are now able to issue tenders and plan their projects for building the required infrastructure. There has also been a str­eamlining of processes for obtaining land and other statutory clearances, which used to be very cumbersome earlier.

“Private sector involvement has started gaining traction in the treated water reuse space, and this trend is expected to expand to other areas as well.”

What has been the progress in achieving a circular economy in the water sector?

The bigger concern in India is not the amount of waste that is being generated, but the lack of regulations and governance around its management. Many cities reuse their treated used water from sewage treatment plants (STPs) for downstream agriculture. However, there is a need for higher governance than merely the promotion of reuse of wastewater. The treatment standards need more critical monitoring and there is also a need to establish a structured reuse mechanism. This way, the quality of water can be monitored, maintained and supplied to the end consumer. Many cities and players are now entering the treated reused water market to generate revenue. It is expected that in the next two to three years, India will be able to recycle and reuse around 5,000 million litres per day of wastewater.

“The concept of sustainable communities should be introduced, wherein households in a community come together to form clusters to create water grids and energy grids.”

What are your views on the involvement of the private sector in the water and waste sector?

The water sector has seen significant involvement of the private sector, with around 750 contractors associated with the AMRUT programme across several areas. For instance, more than 0.13 million km of pipeline has been laid for sewage and water supply. How­ever, the challenge extends beyond building adequate capacity to ensuring adequate maintenance, water quality, timely completion of projects and ease in project implementation. So far, the adoption of models like build-operate-transfer has been limited in the water sector. This is because, in India, water is not considered a pric­ed commodity. However, with the rising wa­ter scarcity, changes in this regard are expected to take place in the futu­re. For ins­tance, private sector involvement has started gaining traction in the treated wa­ter reuse sp­a­ce, and this trend is expected to expand to other areas as well.

“There is a growing collective consciousness among citizens today regarding the water and used water sector, and this is very encouraging.”

What are the key challenges that need immediate attention?

Today, the major challenge that the sector faces relates to the state of the existing infrastructure and the lack of adequate manpower. Capacity needs to be increased multifold in order to supply water to every citizen as well as to overcome the challenge of water scarcity in the country. Also, the capacity of contractors and implementing agencies needs to be ra­m­ped up to deliver projects within the targeted time­ frame. The water network infrastructure al­so needs to be augmented by the implementing authorities. So­me of the other challenges are inadequate funding and the mindset of citizens.

“Capacity needs to be increased multifold in order to supply water to every citizen and to overcome the challenge of water scarcity.”

What will be the government’s focus areas and priorities over the next two years? What will be the key trends that will shape the sector in the next 25 years?

In the short term, the government is focusing on areas such as urban planning, urban water, urban solid waste management, urban mobility, urban governance, and capacity building.

In the long run, a change in the governance structure at the city level is imperative. The concept of sustainable communities should be in­tro­duced, wherein households in a community come together to form clusters to create water grids and energy grids for themselves. This can be done by harvesting water at the source and thus becoming self-sufficient entities.

Furthermore, since the distribution of wa­ter resources cannot be made more centra­lis­ed, citizens must be empowered and enabled to manage their water usage better. Rainwater harvesting needs to be adopted at the household level and technologies need to be made more affordable for citizens. Another future fo­cus area in the water sector is the setting up of decentralised STPs at the household level, thereby facilitating the reclamation of wastewater. Ultimately, the integration of new-age te­chnologies in the water sector will play a key role in shaping the future.