By Archana Chaudhary

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s popularity has endured over the years in part because of his concern to give poorer Indians things like cooking gas, toilets and electricity. Now he wants every rural household to have water by the next national elections in 2024.

The Rs 3.6 lakh crore ($ 49 billion) program will put piped water to all of India’s 192 million rural homes – more than all homes in the United States – over the four coming years. It will not be easy: currently, only 70 million Indian households have running water, or about 36% of the target.

People collect water from a pump in a village in Khair district, Uttar Pradesh, India on Wednesday, September 2, 2020. Six months after the start of the pandemic – as the world developed attempts to restore some semblance of normalcy – the virus is coming in force to the vast Indian hinterland, home to 70% of its more than 1.3 billion citizens.

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“The mission is a recognition that if we in India do not regulate our water availability it could become a limiting factor in our quest for faster socio-economic development”, Bharat Lal, who heads the Jal Jeevan mission , a special division for pipelines and drinking water at the Indian Ministry of Water, said in an interview in New Delhi. “Water is critical, the most important fundamental.”

Modi’s government has faced months of protests from farmers against a law they say will strengthen business influence over agriculture, a move that has helped rally opposition forces that also accuse him of fueling sectarian tensions between Hindus and Muslims. Yet programs like the Running Water Plan help explain why the ruling Bharatiya Janata party has steadily consolidated power across the country since 2014.

Access to water is becoming an increasingly urgent political issue: the government’s planning body predicts that demand will double the available supply by 2030, leading to shortages for hundreds of millions of people. people who will hurt economic growth. The 2018 report said India “is suffering from the worst water crisis in its history and millions of lives and livelihoods are at risk”.

Resource depletion

Modi’s program aims to provide at least 55 liters of clean drinking water to each person per day by building new pipelines and renovating existing networks, Lal said. It plans to use groundwater in areas of large river basins and set up desalination plants in coastal areas, he added.

Currently, India is the world’s largest extractor of groundwater – more than China and the United States combined – accounting for nearly a quarter of the total extracted globally, according to Water Aid. Groundwater levels in the country fell by 61% between 2007 and 2017, the government told parliament in November 2019, citing data from an irrigation census.

A fisherman walks past a hose and motor used to pump water from Bendsura Reservoir in Beed District, Maharashtra, India on Sunday, April 14, 2019. A three-year drought has left some farmers with no income to repay their loans , with tragic

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“The plan will work if India can simultaneously boost water sources,” said Romit Sen, associate director of the Institute for Sustainable Communities in Montpellier, Vermont. “We’ll have to fix the backend to make sure it doesn’t encourage exploitation. “

Past efforts to provide safe drinking water to Indian villages have largely failed. In 2018, India’s federal auditor blamed poor contract execution and management for shortcomings in its rural drinking water program, a former avatar of the country’s piped water surge.

Modi’s plan calls for working with village organizations, states and private companies. He is already seeing some initial gains: the number of rural households with tap water has more than doubled since 2019 to reach around 70 million.

Electoral connection

Adding more than 100,000 water connections every day has also meant creating more jobs and income in companies that make pipes, cement and plastics, Lal said. The government plans to contract works worth $ 27 billion in 2021.

Since coming to power, Modi has used social assistance programs to target voters, especially women. In 2016, the government subsidized cooking fuel for poor families. Two years later, before the national elections, he introduced a minimum wage as well as social security for domestic workers, most of whom are women. It also increased maternity and childcare benefits.

“Socially and politically, a program like this really matters. In most parts of India, women collect water for their households, ”said Aditya Bhol, researcher at the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. “Having said that, this is an ambitious plan and building on past plans in this area, the government will need to make sure it thinks long term.”

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