The Need of Devolution in Rural Drinking Water Supply Planning in India

In context to the development and devolution processes in India, year 2010 has been observed as ‘Year of Gram Sabha’ (Village Committee), in realizing the mandate of self-governance, transparent and accountable functioning of our Gram Panchayats (PRI).  Over a decade of constitutionally mandated Panchayati Raj (Village Governance) it had first time over one million women (in 2006) as elected representatives.

I will also take note from one of the very interesting studies carried out by PRIA New Delhi in early 2010, on various aspects of ‘water governance’ and ‘third generation of reform’ in selected states of India.

When we talk about the existing capacity of PRIs in developing and managing WatSan facilities, there is no denying fact that, in the world’s largest democracy, the Panchayati Raj offers tremendous potential to make a positive difference. But, how this potential will be realized, depends a great deal on how well the Panchayats are empowered by the means of funds, functions and functionaries [3 Fs]. The measurement frame also revolves around the building the capacities of the elected representative in the Panchayat and lesser influence of bureaucratic system.

Though, it is evident that, the effective decentralization process requires a clear delegation of roles and responsibilities (Functions) at each level of government, backed by sufficient resources (Funds) and human resources (Functionaries) to carry out the assigned duties. The Local governments (PRIs) are ideally entrusted to provide services like health, education, water supply, among others, with the idea that, they are closer to the people and in a better position to appreciate their concerns, so their active involvement will certainly yield results on ‘sustainability’ aspect.

One of the letter written by Government of India in 2009 to all states reads “..the Union Government has a critical role to play in the devolution of 3Fs upon the PRIs, because of its basic responsibilities to ensure governance in accordance with the constitutional provisions and also because of the increasingly large fiscal transfers it makes to the States in the functional domain of the PRIs, mainly through Centrally Sponsored Schemes (CSSs) and Additional Central Assistance schemes (ACAs)….”

It further says “…doubts are often expressed about the capacity and accountability of PRIs. This is a vicious circle since, unless 3 Fs are devolved, the PRIs would not be able to prove their comparative advantage. Empowering Panchayats, with clear roles and authority assigned to different levels through activity mapping, is a strong incentive to build capacity and also to get other pre-requisites for effective performance into place. This is amply proved by the implementation of NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) through the Panchayats, which after some initial difficulties has now stabilized…”

The ‘Article 40’ of the Constitution of India explains that “State shall take steps to organize village Panchayats and endow them with such powers and authority as may be necessary to enable them to function as units of self-government”.

Therefore, the devolution of functions, functionaries and funds (3Fs) are the necessary requisite for the proper functioning of the institutions of local self governance, which has not happened in most of the states of India yet. In the absence of clear devolution of 3Fs, either different institutions of local self governance are playing common role in a particular sector or not playing any role, at all. So, the provision of water and sanitation are not different in this way.

In some of the states of India, who have devolved the functions at the lowest level, are facing the problem of human and financial resources. There are some key issues those can provide more opportunities for the devolution and better functioning of PRIs in water and sanitation facilities:

  • Institutions like State Finance Commission (SFC) and District Planning Committees (DPCs) have great potential to catalyze the process of devolution.
  • Functions related to supply of safe drinking water must be devolved at the block level and below it with in a district. Given the scenario, where overall policy formulation for drinking water supply could be done at state level, needs complete devolution in terms of feasibility, planning, implementation and operation and maintenance and institutional recruitments at Panchayat level.
  • Higher accountability to be fixed on administrative and technical staff /officials at each level / tire, of the local government, i.e. at Panchayat, Block and District.
  • It is also suggested that the ‘water committees/VWSC should be given options to outsource the development of water supply scheme to the agency of its own choice after consultation with the community preferably at Gram Sabha. This would enable the community to obtain a higher quality of service and minimize capital and maintenance cost, through competitive selection of service providers among existing public and private agencies and other organizations.
  • The devolution of funds is among one of the critical issues to be strengthened at the institutions of LSGs. So, better financial strength of the institutions will enable them to outsource the technologies and human resources in order to provide better services.

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