‘Swa'-jal-dhara or ‘Pay'-jal-dhara—Securing the Right to Water in Rural India

Since the ascent of economic liberalization in the 1990s, Washington Consensus policies—exemplified by structural adjustment and reform—have become the norm across the globe. As a result the State redefines its role increasingly from that of a provider of basic services to a ‘facilitator' that enables access to these services. Resources like water, energy, health and education—rights that the state is bound to secure for its citizens on the path of development—are now called socio-economic goods that people must own and maintain on their own. Increasingly in almost all service sectors—energy, health, education or water—‘demand-driven' projects formulated and executed by ‘user committees' that are supposed to establish ‘community ownership' through initial cost-sharing with all operations and maintenance costs borne by the users. Added to this, establishment of independent regulatory commissions like those witnessed in the power sector mean that citizens can no longer hold the Indian State accountable for securing basic services for all citizens. Ability to pay, in other words being a ‘User' seems to be the new criteria for access to services in the economic logic of this paradigm shift. In effect, this implies privatization of resources through the divestment of state responsibility.

Reforms in the rural drinking water sector in India were adopted in 1999 through the Sector Reform Project (SRP) on a pilot basis and have been scaled up throughout the country in the form of Swajaldhara launched on 25th December 2002. It is premised on a demand-responsive approach where the community initially mobilizes 10% of the cost of the project demanded by it and the rest of the funds are contributed by GoI. The community further has 100% responsibility of operation and maintenance (O&M) through the User Committees set up for the same. An integrated service delivery mechanism is also envisaged which includes taking up conservation measures through rainwater harvesting and ground water recharge systems for sustained drinking water supply. So far 3 phases of Swajaldhara have commenced on the official understanding that these would achieve a high degree of participation and community control that would meet the needs of water for all (see GoI a; b; and c) .

Very often, the socio-political dynamic of a context alters significantly how policies and schemes are implemented and what they achieve for their intended beneficiaries. A preliminary survey of 15 villages in Rajsamand and Bhilwara districts of Rajasthan conducted in February 2006 raises questions that need to be investigated as an imperative if the right to water for all is to be realised.

This paper will draw upon the findings of this survey and similarly undertaken others to explore the dynamic between the Scheme and its ability to realize the right to water for all in an equitable and just manner. The parameters of Swajaldhara, the socio-political context and the process of implementation including bureaucratic practice will be examined to critique the rural drinking water policy of the Indian State and its underlying premise of Structural Adjustment.