Central government programmes on water emphasise groundwater management by the community in a decentralised manner but, by and large, these schemes are silent on the availability, training and deployment of a skilled workforce for this task, especially in rural areas.
Water management at the most decentralised, local levels is often a part-time, volunteer or unpaid activity. This neither helps cultivate water security nor does it help cultivate meaningful livelihoods to manage precious water resources, found an analysis by the global research organisation, the JustJobs Network, with Bengaluru-based Arghyam, working for safe and sustainable water.
Over 80% of India’s urban and rural domestic water supplies are served by groundwater. India has 18% of the world’s population but only 4% of global renewable water resources within its territory. Over 250 of 700 districts have “critical” or “over-exploited” groundwater levels, according to the most recent Central Ground Water Board data from 2017.
Water management programmes
There are several programmes for water supply and management in India, with the goal of water-secure villages, including one for delivering good quality piped water supply to villages through the Jal Jeevan Mission, for groundwater management through the Atal Bhujal Yojana and for water and sanitation under the Swachh Bharat Mission.
Workers in these programmes should be from the community, have knowledge of the science behind groundwater and surface water, have the skills to support their community to plan water usage based on its availability, and build, operate and maintain structures and systems to ensure water security.
Rural unemployment was at 8.35% as of February, as per data from the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy. On World Water Day, our story highlights the urgent need for skilling and upskilling local workers in water management so as to address the challenges of managing limited resources. This can help India solve two crises: one of greater water insecurity as resources deplete, especially with a warming climate and the second of a lack of gainful employment for the country’s large labour force.
JustJobs’s Jal Kaushal project, supported by Arghyam, tries to map the landscape of the management of rural water commons, jobs and skills at the village, district and state levels. With no government body with the mandate to map this skills gap or to create job roles for water management, train or employ frontline workers, Jal Kaushal also hopes to create a blueprint for action on water security through sustainable livelihood and skills.
India is the world’s largest user of groundwater, drawing 25% of global groundwater. Water security is key for India’s continued socio-economic development. Nearly 62% of India’s irrigated agriculture is dependent on groundwater, while some 85% of rural India’s drinking water supply depends on groundwater. Groundwater, important for both lifeline and livelihood activities, is a common resource and requires adequate conservation and management.
Indian villages are served by surface water sources such as rivers, ponds, lakes and groundwater sources such as wells, tube wells, bore wells, piped water through bore wells and handpumps.
There are multiple agencies and government programmes on water, which often do not have convergence on the ground. Further, many of these schemes recognise the need for a skilled water cadre for efficient and effective implementation of the schemes, but most schemes are silent on how to ensure the availability of this skilled cadre.
We reached out to the Ministry of Rural Development and to the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation on Thursday, March 17, but did not hear back from them. The story will be updated when we receive a response.
Even though there could be an estimated cadre of 5 lakh to 10 lakh skilled personnel in the country (assuming that at least two-three people per village have been trained) to undertake various water-linked activities, these workers are largely invisible, and they have no job security beyond the period of the programme.
Further, there are no data at the village, gram panchayat or district level of this skilled cadre, nor does a mapping of what skills are required for adequate water management exist. Every time a new programme is launched, new personnel are trained, resulting in a multiplicity of efforts. There are also insufficient data to understand the effectiveness, sustainability and demand and supply gap of all such people working on rural water issues.
Ensuring productive jobs
Through these government schemes and civil society initiatives, community members do get sporadically trained and engage on a voluntary basis on aspects of water management in the village. The tasks and responsibilities of these trained workers range from a worker digging wells, mason or a plumber for laying and maintaining of pipelines, a pump operator, “bhujal jankaars” as para-hydrologists, “jal sahelis” responsible for desilting ponds, “dhara sevaks” for spring shed management and other community resource persons.
But even in flagship programmes, tasks of these skilled personnel are not defined as “job roles and responsibilities” and there is no clear mobilisation, upskilling and associated remuneration, an analysis of the guidelines of the Jal Jeevan Mission and the Atal Bhujal Yojana show. As a result, even if civil society groups do mobilise and train these workers, they have to sustain their interest in undertaking water management without a path to income and job progress.
There have been some attempts to mainstream skilled cadre through “full-time jobs” such as Jal Surakshaks in Maharashtra, who have been trained and certified to monitor the groundwater situation, and to handle water-level measuring instruments, identification of wells, and digitally share information with the Ground Water Survey and Development Agency at different block and district headquarters.
Through livelihood missions such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, the National Rural Livelihoods Mission and State Rural Livelihoods Missions, workers have been engaged at the village level for the construction, operation and maintenance of waterworks on a contract basis. “Swacchagrahis” and Accredited Social Health Activists, are engaged in testing water quality, in addition to the other tasks that they perform, on a part-time or on an incentive basis.
In a few states, traditional jobs of water managers such as kollalus in Garhwal, and chowkidars in the Kumaon hills in Uttaranchal, or havaldar, jagliyas or patkaris in Maharashtra, have been “formalised” with roles, responsibilities and remuneration defined. However, despite efforts being taken in the direction of “creating jobs”, most community resource persons continue to engage on a voluntary or shramdaan (donation of labour) basis.
Government-formed sub-committees, such as Village Water and Sanitation Committees and Water User Associations at the gram panchayat level, need to play a significant role to ensure adequate planning and implementation of water management. However, the capacity of these bodies is inadequate and they often require hand-holding, such as for tasks like mapping water resources and even in holding regular meetings, from other non-profits or civil society groups, found researchers from JustJobs Network in conversations with nonprofits working on water management.
Nidhi Batra is a green jobs and skills specialist. She is a fellow with JustJobs Network, leading the Jal Kaushal project.
This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.