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Thursday, October 21, 2021

Exclusive: In Bihar’s water scheme, a tale of 2 wards: from dry taps to wide smiles

The Indian Express investigation found, the scheme has been blighted by political patronage in awarding several contracts -- from the family of BJP leader and Deputy Chief Minister Tarkishore Prasad to those of senior JD(U) leaders such as ex-state secretary Anil Singh -- and shoddy work in some villages.

Written by Santosh Singh | Madhubani, Samastipur |
Updated: September 25, 2021 7:44:58 am
Bihar news, Tap water connections, clean tap water, bihar rural homes, Express investigation, Patronage pipeline part 3, JJM, Jal Jeevan Mission, Patna news, Bihar news, Nitish kumar, current affairs, Indian express newsHar Ghar Nal Ka Jal in Jhakhra, Samastipur; a dry tap in Simri, Madhubani. (Express photo by Santosh Singh)

UNTIL TWO years ago, Kanchan Kumari used to stand in a queue outside her neighbour’s borewell every morning, waiting to fill her quota of two buckets. It meant getting late often for college. Today, the Economics student has tap water at home, and is able to spend most of her time on her BA final-year exams.

About 90 km away, Ramesh Mishra and his neighbour Kanhai Chandra Mishra point to the rust-tinged taps outside their homes and share a dry laugh. Four days after the taps were installed in April, the water supply stopped. And they are still waiting.

On one hand, the Bihar government’s Har Ghar Nal Kal Jal scheme to provide drinking water to 1.08 lakh panchayat wards is a success, 95% complete in five years and changing lives for the better.

On the other hand, as The Indian Express investigation found, the scheme has been blighted by political patronage in awarding several contracts — from the family of BJP leader and Deputy Chief Minister Tarkishore Prasad to those of senior JD(U) leaders such as ex-state secretary Anil Singh — and shoddy work in some villages.

At ward No.15 in Samastipur’s Jhakhra, where Kanchan Kumari hails from, the scheme has brought relief to a village that was desperately dependent on a depleting ground water table, marred by frequent fights over water, and where women and children spent most of their time in water queues. “Our lives have changed with a twist of the tap,” says Gayatri Devi, a local resident, with a bright smile.

But at ward No.5 in Madhubani’s Simri, the taps are dry, and there is a glaring gap in implementation with no official supervision. The tanks have been built, the pipes have been laid from the borewell, and the taps fixed — and yet there is no water. Because? The contractor has not yet provided an electric connection for the motor to pump water from the borewell to the tanks. “The contractor is getting money for nothing,” says Vishwajit Mishra, a farmer.

In this ward, The Indian Express investigation found, work under Har Ghar Nal Ka Jal is among a clutch of contracts awarded by the Public Health Engineering Department to Sunil Kumar Jha, the nephew of former PHED Minister and BJP MLA Vinod Narayan Jha. PHED implements a bulk of the work under the scheme, and awards multi-ward contracts of Rs Rs 30-57 lakh through a bidding process.

In Jhakhra’s ward No.15, meanwhile, the work is being implemented by a local panchayat committee under the Panchayati Raj Department. Work under this department is for single wards, and the project cost (for unfiltered water) is around Rs 15 lakh.

“Before we got Har Ghar Nal ka Jal, our ward in Jhakhra was badly affected with the water level receding to 125-150 feet — from 80-100 feet in case of good rains or floods in a year. The seasonal Jamuari and Balan rivers were also running dry until this monsoon,” says Mahendra Mahto, an elderly resident.

“Most of us are small time farmers and daily wage earners, and only a few can afford submersible pumps…one set costs around Rs 1.2 lakh. Our entire panchayat used to depend on the affluent few with submersible pumps, drawing water from 300-400 feet,” he says.

“We completed the scheme in March 2021, and today have tap water in all 200 homes of the ward. Water is supplied three times a day…for two hours in each shift,” says Rajkumar Singh, panchayat ward member.

“The scheme has changed the face of this ward. We used to fight for water till recently but the scheme has brought peace…and the happiest lot are the women,” says Shivshanker Mahto, the borewell operator.

“We used to spend at least two-three hours in a queue for water. I would leave home early to be among the first in the queue. We were completely dependent on a few neighbours to get water from their submersible pumps. They did not charge us but it never felt good to stand in a queue outside their homes,” says Anju Devi, a Jhakhra resident.

“I can never forget those long queues with some of us carrying our children,” says Sweeti Kumari, Devi’s neighbour.

Says Ranjeet Nirguni, the BJP candidate who finished second in Sarairanjan in the 2015 Assembly polls: “In areas like this with a receding water table, the Nal Jal scheme is the only solution. Now, a common water tank with taps at every door feels like a luxury.”

At ward No.5 in Madhubani’s Simri, meanwhile, Ramesh Mishra asks his neighbour Kanhai Chandra Mishra: “Do you get tap water?” The sarcasm-tinged response: “When?”

At one corner of the village, farmer Gopal Mishra is seething with anger. “I gave a portion of my land for building a tower for the water tanks. But the contractor has not yet provided an electricity connection for the motor,” he says, pointing to the “zero” on the electricity meter.

When contacted, Pradeep Kumar, the PHED executive engineer in Madhubani, said: “I have joined here recently. I have not received any complaint about the scheme not working in Simri. Now that it has been brought to our notice, we will take action against the contractor and try to resume water supply.” The contractor, Sunil Kumar Jha, was not available for comment.

According to local residents, this ward has a population of about 1,000 and 270 Har Ghar Nal Ka Jal connections. “Most of the taps have rusted by now,” says Ramesh Mishra, turning the tap outside his home. “See, it is dry.”

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