On October 2, 2014, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi talked about “Satyagraha se Swachhagraha”, during the launch of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, little did anyone think that it would play a decisive role in the 2019 general elections. After all total sanitation was never a national issue till then nor was it ever placed at the centre of political discourse. At the heart of it, Swachh Bharat was a call to give a great majority of Indians basic human dignity, in addition to improving their health and well-being.
Analyses showed how various schemes launched by Modi during his first tenure helped the Bhratiya Janata Party (BJP) win the recently-held general elections and improve its mandate to 303 seats in the Lok Sabha. If Swachh Bharat and the focus on improving livelihood in rural India was the focal point during Modi’s first term, the 2019 Budget continues that focus (on rural India).
From proposing a social stock exchange, which through an electronic fund-raising platform is expected to aid social enterprises and voluntary organisations, to the broad focus of ‘Gaon, Gareeb aur Kisan’ (village, poverty alleviation and farmer), Finance Minister Nirmala Sitaraman has announced a slew of announcements for rural and semi-urban India.
The Budget’s focus to provide gas connections and power supply to every household by 2022, through the Ujjwala scheme and the Pradhan Mantri Sahaj Bijli Har Ghar Yojana respectively, is in this line. The same year has also been set as a target for the government to build and deliver 1.95 crore houses in rural India.
The most ambitions — thereby challenging — goal among these is to provide every household water supply by 2024. Sitaraman stressed that the Jal Shakti Abhiyan would focus on a ‘Har Ghar Jal’ (water to every house) programme, and for this the government has identified 1,592 blocks in 256 districts across India which are water critical.
Other measures such as zero budget farming, solid waste management and aid to self-help groups will benefit the rural sector and thereby further consolidate the BJP-led government’s position there.
The Har Ghar Jal programme is going to be a challenge like no other. When Modi proposed Swachh Bharat it seemed like a very ambitious one, and, though the government claims to have built 9.6 crore toilets and that 95 per cent of cities are open defecation free (ODF), in its true sense there is a long way to go before India can be declared ODF. This is because infrastructure is only one part of the problem. Behavioural changes need to follow and it takes time for the wheel to turn. Water supply is an altogether different ballgame.
For starters India does not have adequate water to supply. More than 50 per cent of India’s agriculture is rain-fed. With an erratic monsoon cities across the country are facing water crises. A Niti Aayog report states that more than 21 cities could have zero groundwater by 2020. Reports suggest that more than 100 million do not have access to clean drinking water. In five years’ time where will the government find the water to supply entire India? To top this, to implement water-related schemes, smooth Centre-state ties are required, because water is a state subject. Then, as a Mint report suggested, the government, since 2014, cut the allocation for clean drinking water to augment the demand for sanitation. It cannot continue on that path anymore.
There are many problems in front of the government and they appear insurmountable at the moment — but, if the Centre finds a way to keep its promise, it will be nothing short of a miracle. It will be a much bigger achievement than what it has done under Swachh Bharat, and it will have its impact on the 2024 general elections.
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