Friday, January 4, 2019

The hiding hand that shifts the rural water supply paradigm

The Mission Bhagiratha program of the Government of Telangana that provides treated water through a piped network is truly an impressive achievement. If the numbers are to be believed, this has to stand up with the best in terms of project execution efficiency.

Sample this,
Launched in August 2016, Mission Bhagiratha, Telangana’s ambitious project to supply drinking water to every household outside municipal corporation limits, is nearing its March 31, 2019 deadline. And government officials say 1,00,200 km of the 1,04,749-km network of pipelines — around two-and-a-half times the Earth’s circumference — has been laid... As of today, drinking water reaches bulk collection points in 22,947 villages. The deadline to provide water at these collection points to the remaining 1,021 villages is January 10. The deadline to complete the project to provide drinking water through individual household taps is March 31, 2019... houses in 17,000 habitations were provided individual drinking water tap connections as on December 18, 2018. These households will start receiving purified drinking water shortly. About 95 per cent work of laying pipelines to the remaining 6,968 villages is completed and only last-mile pipes and taps have to be fixed... The 49,120-km primary pipeline network has already been laid through which water is being pumped. Around 51,080 km of a separate 55,629-km intra-village pipeline network has been completed.
Those conversant with the challenge of executing such projects in such tight timelines will vouch that this is a big deal, real world-class project execution, even with the discount for the quality and other parameters.

Hopefully it upends the conventional wisdom on rural drinking water supply and made Indian states re-imagine the delivery of drinking water to villages. 

Such projects naturally raise concerns across the spectrum of opinion makers. Will the water sources be always available? How will the infrastructure facilities be maintained? How will the leakages be plugged? Will water be billed? Who will pay for it? How will the bills be collected? How do we ensure quality of supply is acceptable? Given leakages and collection problems, will the delivery be efficient? And so on.

Needless to say, all of these are important questions. And for sure, in the coming years, there will be several examples of villages falling off the grid for various reasons and going back to bores, treatment facilities falling into disrepair, water leakages across the network, water pilferage and uncollected arrears, episodes of people in villages falling sick due to water contamination, mounting electricity arrears, discovery of poor quality works and materials, and so on. Several of them will, ex-post, be decried by opinion makers as being examples of populist misadventures and bureaucratic inefficiency. 

All fair points for arm-chair analysis, research publications and op-eds, and talking heads on television. 

But they miss the point about the re-imagination here. There is no developed country which supplies drinking water to the predominant share of its rural population through ground water bores. They all deliver surface water treated and piped to small habitations. No surprise here since this is perhaps the only way to sustainably and at scale deliver drinking water to population habitations, rural or urban. 

The journey to that destination can happen either in a planned and piecemeal manner or in the one-swoop manner of Telangana. Opinion makers and consultants would prefer the former. But if the Telangana government decided to plan everything and mitigate all these risks before venturing out with this project, it can safely be said that it would never have taken off. And Telangana would have lost the opportunity to break out of an entrenched retrograde development narrative and adopt perhaps the only sustainable approach to delivering drinking water to rural areas. Albert Hirschman's principle of hiding hand assumes relevance here. 

Undoubtedly, in the years ahead, all the aforementioned scenarios will materialise and the government will be criticised for this plunge. 

Looking ahead, perhaps the only fair prospective criticism of the government, in my opinion, would be, apart from egregious project execution failures and corruption, for not having put in place the required mechanism and response to emergent problems. And the latter failing is most likely. 

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