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India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi is ready with one of independent India's most ambitious projects Image Credit: ANI

If you visit the dashboard of Indian government’s site you will see a steady and silent revolution taking place. A first of its kind, it is a mammoth last-mile-development project.

The Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM) aims to supply tap water to every Indian house that will cost a whopping $51 billion to the exchequer.

Even in times of COVID-19, the JJM site claims, funds to the tune of Rs 1816 crore have already been spent in the countryside, and more than 54 million households have started getting drinking water.

Modi’s adversaries felt that with the construction of the Ram temple, the BJP will lose their central poll winning strategy. But Modi seems to be one step ahead

- Sheela Bhatt

All the new tap water connections are linked to a user’s Aadhar card. This new water supply infrastructure of tanks and pumps has geo-tags and bar codes, making it one of the savviest projects of digital India.

Looking at its speed, scale and efficiency this pet project of prime minister Narendra Modi, called “Nal main Jal” (water in tap), has an ambitious target to supply tap water to 15.70 crore (83%) Indian homes.

Modi’s critics find it “mission impossible” but the Indian government is pushing it like never before.

On August 5, when Modi performed the bhumi pujan (groundbreaking ceremony) at the Ram temple in Ayodhya, his critics felt a sigh of relief. Modi’s adversaries felt that with the construction of the Ram temple, the BJP will lose their central poll winning strategy. But Modi seems to be one step ahead.

A senior leader and confidante of Modi told me, “BJP certainly wants to throw a challenge to the opposition. We welcome the development agenda.”

This may seem like a tall assertion right now, but if JJM -- under Modi’s watch -- can achieve even 50-60% of its target, it will inevitably become the BJP’s top poll plank in 2024.

Make it a people's movement

In fact, Modi has told the top brass at JJM that “water” is everybody’s business. The executives have a brief: make it a people’s movement.

Led by Bharat Lal, JJM director, an astute officer who enjoys Modi’s confidence, a project of this scale has been taken up for the first time in independent India. This is a country where “panghat” (river bank where women folk fetch water) is the most romantic and inseparable metaphor used in folk tales, literature and films.

To remove panghat visits from the lives of rural folk and discard the burdensome exercise of drawing groundwater with help of pumps, a massive micro-management machinery is underway involving millions.

The JJM has industries, government agencies, UN agencies and NGOs involved with it. It is an exciting project whose success depends entirely on people.

In every village of India, the government will have to find water resources, or create them. An infrastructure of pipelines will then be handed over to the people for operation and management. Wastewater management is integral part of this process too.

'Tap water in our kitchen?'

Most parts of rural India have old water systems. Hargovind Patel, former employee of the previous Gujarat version of JJM went to Jaisalmer, a desert region, this year to help a UN agency survey a water project. Patel says, “A village woman in Rajasthan asked me with disbelief in her eyes, “really, we can now have tap water in our kitchen?”

Under JJM all village panchayats will need a Paani Samiti (water committee) to look after their water supply system. Interestingly, water management is a state subject, and the JJM’s success will depend on the state’s implementation of it. In 18 big states the federal and state government will share the cost, equally.

While talking to the Gulf News, Bharat Lal says, “Every State is collaborating in the implementation of JJM. The motto of the mission is ‘building partnerships, working together and changing lives.”

“What is more, the union minister of drinking water and sanitation is holding regular meeting with Chief Minister of various states. The progress speaks for itself as more than 20 million households have got new tap water connections in the last one year. JJM will help in faster socioeconomic development. It’s all about improving quality of life and ease of living.”

The government has created clusters of 30-40 villages where NGOs and government appointed trainers would provide training to local masons, water pump operators, tanks keeper, engineers to handle water resources and distribution systems. More than 2200 laboratories will help test water qualities at block levels.

A nation of complexities

India has its complexities. Out of a total 18.93 crore rural households, only 3.23 crore (17%) Indian homes have tap water connections. Out of India’s around 6,49,000 villages only 40,000 villages (and just 10 out of 739 districts) have tap water in all rural homes.

In West Bengal just 2% of homes have tap water while in Uttar Pradesh 4% homes have drinking water inside their homes. Government is aware that the concept of “Aatmanirbhar Bharat” doesn’t work without water management in country.

Bharat Lal adds, “Clean water is a basic necessity. If, every household has assured clean water supply, not only quality of life of women and children would improve but productivity and efficiency of working classes will also go up substantially.”

Of course, the state governments need hand-holding in such massive projects. Any non-resident Indian can now contribute to the Rashtriya Jal Jeevan Kosh to improve water supply in their ancestral village. The government monitors the use of foreign funds and send videos on how the money is being spent.

In Modi’s scheme of things, Functional Household Tap Connection (FHTC) is among top priorities. By 2024 the buzz will be around four letter word FHTC. It will be added to Indian political lexicon of 2024 like Open Defecation free (ODF) had become in 2019 elections.

Just like construction of more than 10 crore toilets added strength to Modi’s poll plank in 2019, his government will reach out to women voters all over India by offering them the luxury of having running water in their kitchen taps by 2024.

Sheela Bhatt is a senior Indian journalist. She is based in New Delhi.