The dusty, historic, walled town of Burhanpur in Madhya Pradesh has several almosts: it was almost the site of the Taj Mahal, almost the main seat of Shah Jahan’s empire, and almost out of water in 2016-17.
But now, armed with a 400-year-old underground water harvesting system and spurred on by the Jal Jeevan Mission, Burhanpur has achieved a first: It is the first district in India—and the only one in Madhya Pradesh—to be certified as ‘Har Ghar Jal.’
The district went from being among 10 water vulnerable districts in Madhya Pradesh to having functional water supply in every household. When the Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM) was launched in 2019, only around 37 per cent of all rural households in Burhanpur had potable water — 34 months later, and four months after the scheme was implemented in the district, the administration announced that every single one of the 1,01,905 rural households in the district had access to potable water.
“I don’t know how far the nearest canal was, it felt like I was walking for hours for water,” says Parita, a young woman from the remote tribal village of Khatlavangram. “But now we get water outside,” she says, pointing to a tap built outside her mud house. “I can actually drink straight from the tap.”
But getting the ‘Har Ghar Jal’ certificate isn’t the be-all and end-all. Burhanpur still has to deal with issues of maintenance, misinformation, and a meagre water supply.
Most importantly, how many taps get water — and how often — is completely a call of the local ‘water men.’ And that is where organisational lapses become clear: habituated fears over groundwater depletion means that the water isn’t always released every day like clockwork.
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The long road to certification
To be certified, the district administration has to upload on the portal the Gram Sabha’s resolution that the scheme had been fully implemented. Then, a JJM team from Delhi goes to the district for a quality check. An engineer’s certification is the next step, and then finally the central government gives its seal of approval.
Following Burhanpur’s lead, 20 more districts have achieved the ‘Har Ghar Jal’ certification, as per details available on the JJM website. These include Goa, Puducherry, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Daman and Diu, and Dadra and Nagar Haveli. Telangana and Haryana report 100 per cent connections but haven’t been certified yet.
“You need surety and confidence to certify,” says Burhanpur district magistrate Praveen Singh. “The people of Burhanpur are sincere and cooperative. They follow the rules. Everything worked in sync here, and it’s driven by the Gram Sabha on the ground,” says Singh. “They’re all aware and are involved at every step — from testing water quality to collecting water tax,” he added.
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Water supply vs water shortage
The people of Burhanpur are both the beneficiaries of the scheme and its foot soldiers, making sure it flows smoothly.
The most important cog in Burhanpur’s water machine is the “water man.” Each village has at least one designated water man — sometimes more, depending on the size of the village — who releases the village’s quota of water at an agreed-upon time. The water men are caught in a tug-of-war between the responsibilities of supplying water and conserving water.
Vijay Dewar has this all-important job in the tiny, tribal village of Khatlavangram — known locally as Dhimanya. “People call me paani chhodne wala [the person who releases water] now,” says Vijay, who has lived in Khatlavangram his whole life. He was hired by a contractor to help lay pipelines in October 2020. While he is no expert, he now also attends to whatever plumbing issues occur.
Between 7:30 and 8:30 am, he releases the water from a pink-coloured ‘Jal Jeevan Mission’ tank. “The tanks are useful for other things too,” Vijay says. “You get a really good network on your phone if you climb to the top!”
A few kilometres away, in the much larger village of Khatla, the women say that water only comes every alternate day. The pipelines supply to main zones laid through the village, and two appointed water men, Sarif Qureshi and Tarar Ghormade, release water through one zone every other day.
Khatla already has three tube wells and 40 connections, but after years of scarcity and hardship, the villagers continue to live in the fear of running out of water.
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Misinformation and making decisions
Groundwater, the most preferred source of water in Madhya Pradesh, is scarce in the state: the levels declined by 63.24 per cent between 2010 and 2019. However, while there is running water, the problem of stagnant water persists. Drainage is still an issue in several villages — and with motors often running unchecked, plenty of water is wasted.
“We all just have to adjust now,” says Khatla’s water man Tarar Ghormade.
He doesn’t know how the decision to release water every alternate day in Khatla was made. The officials with the state administration say that the disbursement of water is completely up to the Gram Sabha.
The newly elected sarpanch of Burhanpur, Sevak Ram, says that they could use two more borewells to prepare better for the summer. But Ram and his two water men aren’t sure if the district can afford to have two more borewells given the water scarcity. This is a decision made by engineers at the top, who aren’t always clued into the daily functioning of village-level water politics.
“What you need is a greater dialogue between engineers and the villagers at a sub-district level,” says Rashmi Sharma, a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) and a former IAS officer, suggesting a helpline with experts for villagers when they need advice. “State and district administration can’t leave these problems to the Gram Panchayat, because addressing the root cause (declining groundwater levels) isn’t in the hands of the panchayat.”
On paper, the scheme works. And for the large part, it works in reality too — apart from the occasional inconveniences like a broken pump, or a private motor that monopolises water supply. The result had long been a pipe dream: a water supply to every household. Even if it was just a pipe sticking up from the ground.
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Working to keep water running
The silver lining to Burhanpur is undeniable — and the women also play an integral role in sustaining the scheme.
The water from different parts of the panchayat is tested every month by five locally appointed women, and self-help groups of five women also collect water tax from households. The self-help group based in Khatla travels to nearby villages to collect a water tax to pay for the maintenance of the mission. Since it’s at an initial stage, the tax can be a nominal amount of whatever the household can spare — and the panchayat is cutting households some slack since they just had local elections.
Manjubai, Surekhabai, Subhadrabai and Johra are proud to be involved in making sure the Jal Jeevan Mission flows smoothly in their district. It has already vastly improved their lives, they say.
“The best part is that schools too have water now. Girls can use the toilet at school with no problem,” says Manjubai.
She pauses for a moment. “No, the best part is now we don’t have to walk two kilometres for water only to find out the pump is dry!”
(Edited by Ratan Priya)