By Debika Goswami
India ranks thirteenth position on the list of extremely high water-stressed countries in the world per the Aqueduct Water Risk Atlas released by the World Resources Institute. “The recent water crisis in Chennai gained global attention, but various areas in India are experiencing chronic water stress as well,” said Shashi Shekhar, former secretary of India’s Ministry of Water Resources, and senior fellow, WRI India. No doubt, Government of India’s Jal Shakti Abhiyan (JSA, a water-saving program), which is set to recuperate the country’s water management system, is an appropriately timed action. In two phases, this time-bound campaign, designed with a mission mode approach, intends to improve water conservation in approximately 1,500 blocks of 254 districts that are drought-affected, water-stressed, and have overexploited water resources. Nuh in Haryana is one such district to be covered under JSA. With an average level of groundwater development around 67 percent, the district falls in the “critical” category and hence requires immediate attention.
It is often experienced that success of nationwide designed campaigns such as JSA depends on the degree of its decentralization and the effective involvement of local self-governing institutions like panchayati raj institutions (PRI), which are the lowest tier of the governance fulcrum in rural India. The role of PRIs in mobilizing and igniting participation of local communities, creating awareness about the importance of Jal Sanchay (water conservation) through use of simplified methods and motivating them to take relevant action based on the government guidelines is vital in making JSA a grand success. Envisaging that sarpanches and other elected representatives of PRIs will take a leading role in creating public awareness and providing adequate impetus to appropriate demonstrative measures of water conservation, a one-day nationwide event in the form of special gram sabhas (village meetings) was called on August 24, 2019. As a part of its flagship program Good Rural Governance, S M Sehgal Foundation (Sehgal Foundation), a public charitable trust working in Nuh for the last two decades, collaborated with the district administration and gram panchayats of a number of villages across five blocks of the district in mobilizing local communities and generating mass awareness regarding water conservation.
Apart from falling in the critical category, the groundwater of Nuh is moderate to highly saline with a concentration of high values of fluorides in specific pockets, making it mostly unfit for drinking and agriculture purposes. Considering these facts, most of the special gram sabhas organized on August 24 in the district emphasized mass awareness generation with regard to immediate care and cautious planning for further development of groundwater, with specific focus on water conservation mechanisms including rainwater harvesting to augment water resources.
In villages Bukharaka and Notki, Nagina block, special gram sabhas were jointly organized by PRIs, Public Health and Engineering Department (PHED), district consultant of JSA, members from the office of additional deputy commissioner and team members of Sehgal Foundation. Discussions revolved mostly around the importance of conservation and increasing villagers’ awareness of the usefulness of low capital-minimum operating cost solutions like soak pits to serve the dual purpose of groundwater recharge and liquid waste management. In a similar gathering in village Raipur in Punhana block, a representative of PHED introduced the villagers to GOI’s Jal Shakti Abhiyan, shared the gravity of the impending water crisis that every Indian will face in the years to come, and appealed individual villagers to personally contribute and do their bit to save water. The gram sabha in Raipur culminated with a rally on water conservation and sanitation led by the sarpanch that used slogans and banners to generate awareness among the villagers about water conservation and proper wastewater management.
In villages of Taoru block (Goela, Kharkhari, and Bhango), villagers were addressed by the sarpanches, members of district administration, and PHED on the importance of afforestation, which is crucial in water conservation and water retention in the soil. Some sarpanches vowed to promote plantation drives in non-forest common panchayat lands; and motivating schools and youth groups for plantation and protection management. In Saimirbass and Mundaka villages of Ferozepur Jhirka block and Ranika village of Nuh block, use of techniques like rainwater harvesting to promote accumulation and storage of rainwater for reuse rather than allowing it to runoff was mentioned. Sehgal Foundation’s efforts in the construction of watershed structures in a number of schools in Nuh district has solved a drinking water crisis for schoolchildren, encouraging them to stay longer hours in school.
High levels of enthusiasm were noticed among the villagers who participated in this series of special gram sabhas. But how should this zest be sustained, both at individual as well as at community level? The answer lies in effective rollout of a series of intensive activities to be conducted by village, block, and district-level authorities as well as locally active nongovernment organizations (NGOs), volunteers, youth, and media.
Local self-governing institutions like PRIs should devise mechanisms to ensure community engagement in planning, implementation, and management of the structures to be constructed under JSA campaign. In addition, gram panchayats can also come up with new policy interventions for incentivizing individuals or groups of villagers who build water-saving structures.
The role of district administration will also be crucial to determine the success of JSA in the district. Instead of taking the special gram sabhas as a one-time event, the district administration should ensure that the findings from these gram sabhas can ultimately culminate to create block-level water conservation plans. This in turn should be treated as essential to formulate a holistic water conservation plan for the district with the aim to strategize the conservation, recharge, and improvement of water-use efficiency. In addition, district administration can make plans to assess and recognize the best performing gram panchayats as a token of motivation and appreciation of their efforts. It should also encourage and mobilize print and social media to further promote the cause of water conservation and engage eminent personalities to generate mass awareness about the campaign.
Local NGOs working in Nuh should be engaged for community mobilization and further creation of simple but motivating information, education, and communication materials to preserve the momentum generated by the gram sabha platforms and further encourage the spirits of the common villagers. Students of schools and colleges should also be motivated to participate in water conservation activities within their capacities. The role of youth in motivating their families and communities is very crucial, so far as behavior change with regard to efficient water management is concerned.
Thus, the special gram sabhas, aimed to trigger community participation in improving water conservation in Nuh, Haryana, signify just the beginning of a series of more concerted efforts, which will eventually determine the success or failure of Jal Shakti Abhiyan in the district.
 India will soon run out of water; ‘extremely high’ crisis level: Report
 GROUND WATER INFORMATION BOOKLET,MEWAT DISTRICT, HARYANA
(Debika Goswami is program leader, Good Rural Governance at S M Sehgal Foundation)