Drinking water: A political priority at long last

Little over a week ago, Prime Minister launched a project to supply drinking water to Mirzapur and Sonbhadra districts in the Vindhyachal region of Uttar Pradesh. If all goes according to plan, rural households in 2,995 villages in this water-starved region will in 2022, for the first time, have access to drinking water supplied through taps.

Most media houses duly filed the despatch, but the story did not get the headline focus it deserved. Most overlooked the fact that at present only 6.51% households in Uttar Pradesh, the most populated state in the country with 200 million people, receive drinking water supply through taps. Taking all the states together, Uttar Pradesh is ranked fifth from the bottom. The media is not at fault really. In many ways they were merely mirroring an unfortunate truth. Drinking water has always been a low political priority.

Some of us may recall how a cabinet nominee in the previous regime headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh turned down the offer on finding out that the assignment was going to be drinking water. It was in the person’s view not weighty enough.

This is ironic because the development lexicon recognizes safe drinking water and sanitation as a basic human right. TThis is for a reason: safe drinking water is indispensable in ensuring sustaining healthy livelihoods to people. As such, the fact that it is not a political priority is baffling.

According to the United Nations Development Programme, every $1 of investment in water can generate $8 worth of economic development. The health benefits can be staggering given that lack of drinking water is a major cause for the killer disease diarrhoea.

A study published by the United Nations Children’s Fund, or Unicef, in 2017 estimated that diarrhoeal diseases accounted for nearly 1.3 million deaths a year among children under five years, making them the second most common cause of child deaths worldwide. More than half of these deaths occurred in just five countries, including India, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Ethiopia.

A study by the Indian Council for Medical Research in May this year confirmed these trends. It found that nearly a tenth of the deaths of children under the age of five in India, even today, occurred because of diarrhoea. Inevitably, the poorer you are, less the access to safe drinking water. This is exactly why the odds are stacked against children born in poverty.

Furthermore, the burden of accessing drinking water, like it is for collecting cooking fuel, inevitably falls on women. Providing access to drinking water in taps will unveil benefits miraculously similar to that provided by the use of cooking gas. Not only will it relieve them of the drudgery of collecting drinking water, it will also generate health benefits.

In a social media post, Dr Sujay Shad, a New Delhi-based surgeon, had this frightening information to share:

“Young men in some Bundelkhand villages can’t get brides because of perpetual water shortages. Women trudge long distances for water, leading to knee, hip, spinal deformities and arthritis. Epidemic prevalence of uterine and rectal prolapse in these regions.”

This is the political economy of a development strategy, which for the last seven decades has failed to make provision of safe drinking water its central focus. This is despite the fact that it is both good economics and good politics. It is probably the single biggest reason why the country’s health fabric is so vulnerable.

This is probably also why Prime Minister has sensed another opportunity in delivering another public good and dominating the political narrative. This is exactly what he did by going into mission mode in providing cooking gas, which garnered electoral mileage in the 2019 general election. That was similar to the campaign to provide toilets, a promise he made in his Independence Day speech in 2015.

Drinking water and sanitation are desirable twins and, hence, it makes eminent sense to provide them together, not as a privilege, but as a fundamental right.

Anil Padmanabhan is managing editor of Mint.Comments are welcome at anil.p@livemint.com

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