Online edition of India's National Newspaper
Monday, Oct 27, 2003

Pilot project with a new approach

By Kalpana Sharma

WANGI KHURD, (Osmanabad dist.), Oct. 26. ``In the last months, we have had to work the pump for 10 minutes before a thin trickle of water begins to flow,'' said Kalavati Deodhar Gunjal, sarpanch of Wangi Khurd in Bhoom taluka of Maharashtra's Osmanabad district. Yet, her village is one of the luckier ones. Barring this year — because of the failure of the monsoon — it has always had sufficient water from the open wells and borewells that dot the village.

Wangi Khurd is also fortunate that it is among the 30 villages — 10 each in Osmanabad, Satara and Thane districts — selected for Jalswarajya, a pilot project that the Maharashtra Government has introduced this month.

The project will run for six years on a World Bank loan of $181 millions and cover 2,800 village panchayats in 26 districts. Sudhir Thakre, who heads the project monitoring unit, said that even if 10 per cent of the villages in the State were covered by the project, it would spread ``like a contagion'' to the rest of the State.

Jalswarajya represents a dramatic change of approach from the past where the Government sent engineers to survey villages, decide on water sources, and implemented a variety of water-related schemes consulting the villagers. Over the years, the Government has installed hand-pumps, dug open wells and borewells, built overhead tanks and installed pipes to supply water to common standposts and even to individual houses. Despite all this, and an expenditure of Rs. 19,000 crores since the formation of the State, today over 5,000 villages in the State are dependent on tankers for the minimum amount of water — 40 litres a day for a person.

Under the new scheme, the funds for water development will go directly to the gram panchayat. Before any money is released, the panchayat has to fulfil a number of obligations. It has to form a Village Water and Sanitation Committee (VWSC) in which at least half the members are women. The committee will undertake the implementation of the project. The panchayat must also set up a social audit committee that will check the expenditure. The VWSC will plan and design the water project — by finding a new source, improving or repairing existing sources, water conservation, roof-water harvesting, changes in cropping patterns, or a combination of all these.

But central to any final decision is the vote of women. Under the scheme, the panchayat has to hold a mahila gram sabha a day before the gram sabha. Even the gram sabha must have at least 50 per cent of the women present. Only then will the decision on the scheme the village adopts be taken into consideration.

Giving this power to women has brought in dramatic changes in the villages chosen for the project, says Hanumant Gunjal, a farmer. Ms. Kalavati admitted that the women of the village never used to step out. Now they are actively involved in deciding on the water scheme that the village would forward to the Government. They have helped to dig soak pits to reuse wastewater, build percolation tanks to replenish underground aquifers, and create kitchen gardens that use household wastewater.

The other major departure from previous schemes is that Jalswarajya expects villagers to contribute 10 per cent of the costs. In the past, such a provision would have been skirted with a few people paying the whole amount. Now, with the creation of women's savings groups, the women have worked out how much each household should contribute towards the scheme. And they go from house to house to collect the amount. Those who cannot pay are given the option of providing labour towards the water project.

But can such a scheme be sustained over time? ``It will run because our own money has gone into it,'' said Lata Gunjal. ``It is like our own scheme.''

It is this sense of ownership that has changed the approach of people towards the question of water in these villages. The villagers have unanimously concluded that they need an open well rather than borewells. They have already identified the best location for the well.

They will decide who helps them dig the well, how much they will spend on it, and how they will regulate the use of that water. This represents a major departure from the past when it was assumed that the Government would supply water and maintain the system.