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Mahabhagirathi : Bhagirathi Phase - II

Droughtproofing Drinking Water Through Panchayats


Zila Panchayat, Dhar approved an ambitious scheme on March 18 by the name Mahabhagirathi to combat drinking water crisis due to drought in this tribal district (53% tribal population). It has already begun its execution directly through villagers and Gram Panchayats -- the Government plays only the role of a guide. This is the first scheme of its kind in the country where we are attempting to take the management of drinking water back from the Government to the villagers through the Panchayats. All 669 Gram Panchayats of Dhar district have approved Mahabhagirathi drinking water microplans prepared by the villagers themselves in all 1487 villages with the support of trained animators. These plans include the total funds of Rs. 6.05 crores already available with the Gram Panchayats under the Jawahar Gram Samriddhi Yojana (JGSY) and State Finance Commission grants. In Gram Sabhas on April 14, these plans were approved and numerous instances of public contribution to solve drinking water problems came to light. This day was celebrated as the Day of the Mahabhagirathi Resolution where villagers took the Mahabhagirathi (Bhagirathi means Herculean, hence Mahabhagirathi could be translated as Super-Herculean) resolution that they shall take responsibiltiy and action to solve their drinking water problems thorugh the resources and efforts of the villagers and the Panchayats. These plans will be executed in a month (latest by May 13) and in 56 villages the execution has already been started or even completed. After one month, i.e. on May 14, the expenditure incurred and the review of work done shall be scrutinised again by the Gram Sabhas and further plans will be made.

An explanation regarding the name MAHABHAGIRATHI is in order. It may be recalled that King Bhagirath succeeded in bringing the Holy Ganges from the Heaven to the earth after a Herculean effort and succeeded where others had failed. Since that day, any Herculean effort is referred to idiomatically as a Bhagirathi effort. The task before the villagers and the Gram Panchayats being even more stupendous in the context of the severe drought in the district this year, this has been referred to as Mahabhagirathi. The name is also appropriate because the Zila Panchayat and the Gram Panchayats of this district had three years earlier initiated a more limited self-reliance effort in the area of drinking water under the name of Bhagirathi and this second phase goes way beyond the earlier effort.

The Problem

Dhar district had about 2,300 handpumps when the Rajiv Gandhi Drinking Water Technical Mission began in 1986. Today, it has over 11,500 handpumps. Thus, in 14 years, the number of handpumps has increased fivefold. Clearly, the problem is no longer a no-source problem which was the original focus of the Drinking Water Technical Mission. In the same period, the number of irrigation tubewells has been growing at a pace of 4% p.a. whereas population has been growing at 2%. As a result, 2 of the 13 Blocks have become white areas (groundwater utilisation exceeding 80%) and the remaining 11 have become grey areas (groundwater utilisation exceeding 65%). In the competition between public drinking water and private irrigation water, increasingly, groundwater is going for private irrigation purposes. As a result, drinking water sources (mainly handpumps) are getting increasingly depleted. Thus, the central drinking water issue today is no longer absence of a source but summer drinking water crisis.

This year, Dhar as well as 3 adjoining districts are suffering from drought. The rainfall was two-third of normal and that too early in the monsoon season. This is not too severe compared to earlier droughts. However, it has resulted in a far more acute drinking water crisis due to groundwater over-exploitation. Out of the 11,500 odd handpumps in the district, already 2,500 have gone fully dry at March end. This stage was not reached even in the month of June last year. Another 2,000 are already affected and their yield has started declining. Overall, 40% of the handpumps in the district are already affected and by May this is expected to increase to 50%. Certain Blocks are more affected than others. Even at March end, in the Blocks of Nisarpur, Nalchha, Kukshi, Umarban and Tirla, between 60 to 45% of the handpumps were affected. Here too the number of affected handpumps will rise in the coming weeks and months. Long term solutions like comprehensive groundwater recharge will have to wait the upscaling and consolidation of watershed and similar programmes as well as groundwater regulation legislation. However, people's drinking water needs have to be met immediately.

The Solution

The traditional solution of water transportation is a hangover from the no-source days. Today, the problem is a summer lifting problem. A handpump is drilled to a depth of 400 feet and riser pipes are placed till a depth of 120 feet. The remaining 280 feet is for groundwater recharge in the borewell to give sufficient yield. As the groundwater recedes, pipes are added. However, 150 feet is the upper limit since beyond this water cannot be lifted by manual hydraulic pumping and the pipes become so heavy that they are liable to fall under their own weight. Even so, water can be pumped up with submersible pumps. A 1200 litre iron tank / cistern can be placed right next to one such depleted handpump borewell fitted with submersible pump for water storage and working as a drinking water standpost. A drinking water cattle trough will take care of cattle drinking water problem too. In a very large number of villages this has been identified as a way of providing sufficient relief to tide over the summer drinking water problem.

Another solution being resorted to in a very large number of villages is the tapping of dugwell potential because although groundwater aquifers have dried up primarily due to the pressure of private irrigation, sub-soil water has escaped such over-exploitation.

Besides these, control of water wastage, social regulation of tubewell irrigation repair of existing piped water or spot source supply schemes, restoration or desilting or deepening of existing dugwells or bavadis, timely collection and payment of water supply electricity bills, disconnecting illegal water connections and training school children in water management are some other solutions through which the drinking water problem is being alleviated in a large number of villages. all the steps towards community ownership and management of water problem. These will result in a sustainable people-managed solution of what is essentially a management rather than a supply problem relating to the most important common property resource--water.


One of the important solution under Mahabhagirthi is lifting water through pump and storing it. This involves a submersible pump, additional hundred feet of riser pipe, starter and panel box which will cost about Rs. 20-25 thousand. A locally fabricated 1200 litre 3.5 mm thick iron tank / cistern will cost about Rs. 6000. The total cost is, thus, merely 25-30 thousand. This may be compared with the cost of water transportation. This year, the average problem village will require transportation for about 2 months or 60 days. The typical tractor-load costs about Rs. 600 per trip. The average village will, thus, need about Rs. 1000 per day. The cost of the current year transportation alone will be Rs. 60,000. In normal subsequent years, a recurring cost of approx. Rs. 30,000 p.a. will also be incurred compared to the one time cost of 30,000 and annual recurring cost of about 5,000.

The funds for the various types of drinking water solutions are already available with the Gram Panchayats in the form of the State Finance Commission (SFC) grants and Jawahar Gram Samriddhi Yojana (or JGSY, the recast JRY scheme) funds. The SFC grants already permit expenditure on drinking water. JGSY is no longer an employment generation scheme but a rural infrastructure scheme. We have just released the last instalments of both which amount to a total of 2.8 crores and Rs. 3.25 crores more are expected in April-May 2000 under JGSY. The total available fund of Rs. 6.05 crores is a very large sum of money. Spread over 669 Gram Panchayats, this amounts to approximately Rs. 1 lakh per Panchayat. Besides this, public contribution is also a significant source of resource mobilisation.

At the state level, PHE Department budget excluding establishment is only Rs. 60-70 crores Per annum. On the other hand, JGSY allotment for the State is 202 crores and State Finance Commission grants are Rs. 76 crores annually. Thus, Gram Panchayat have 5 times as much money available with them for dealing with drinking water problem in comparison with State Government Department.


Village-wise Mahabhagirathi drinking water plans for all 1487 villages and 669 Gram Panchayats of the district have been prepared through animators trained in PRA (participatory rural appraisal) techniques at 155 cluster headquarters of Rajiv Gandhi Education Mission. For this, all 155 cluster Academic Co-ordinators have been given two-day training by master trainers at district level between March 31 and April 3 including actual preparing of drinking water plans in some villages as part of training. Most of the animators are Education Guarantee Scheme (EGS) centre gurujis or village watershed programme secretaries since they are local villagers who are more at one with the villagers than with the Government. Women's drinking water watch committees are also being formed in every village to check wasteful or unclean water use. PHE handpump mechanics and sub-engineers as well as Sarpanchas, Up-sarpanchas and Gram Panchayat secretaries have been briefed about how they can tackle the coming dry summer through the resources and efforts of the Panchayat and the village community. April 14, the day of the Gram Sabha, was celebrated as Mahabhagirathi sankalp divas in all 669 Gram Panchayats. All 669 Gram Panchayats have passed Mahabagirathi resolutions to adopt their own drinking water drought-proofing microplans and to resolve that they take the responsibility for solving their water problems through their own resources and efforts. The Mahabhagirathi village-wise drinking water plans will be executed by May 13. On May 14, a second Gram Sabha will be organised to share the experience, evaluate the expenditure and the execution, as well as to plan ahead.


The decision, investment, recurring cost, procurement, management and maintenance will all be done fully by the Gram Panchayats. Thus, this programme, named Mahabhagirathi (after the partly Panchayat financed and run Bhagirathi programme taken up in 1997 by Zila Panchayat, Dhar) goes beyond Bhagirathi in laying the foundations for the first comprehensive fully independent Panchayat-based drinking water strategy in the country.

Thus, approximately Rs. 5-6 crores will be harnessed towards solving the drinking water problem in over a thousand villages in the space of just one and a half month.