Jal Shakti Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat promises a robust National Water Policy in three-four months, says while cleaning the Ganga is a priority, we can’t have a cut-off date for it, reiterates the BJP had no involvement in Rajasthan crisis, and urges states to launch groundwater conservation initiatives.
LIZ MATHEW: We are now facing an unprecedented health crisis. What challenges does the coronavirus pandemic pose to the Jal Jeevan Mission which was announced by the Prime Minister on August 15 last year?
Every sector has suffered because of the pandemic. Individuals, departments and even governments have been affected by it. After the first phase of the nation-wide lockdown was announced on March 24, everything came to a standstill.
On March 26, the Prime Minister told me to look at the lockdown as an opportunity. There are a few things that contaminate a country’s rivers and water resources. We believe industrial effluents are one of the primary causes. The Prime Minister told me that the lockdown is an opportunity to study the contribution of industrial effluents in polluting our water bodies since all businesses are shut now. We started the study and continued it through the second phase of the nation-wide lockdown as well. It provided us very good insights and inputs for policy planning in the future.
As far as drinking water is concerned, all through lockdown one and two we did long video conferences with state governments, both at the minister and secretary levels. Two rounds of meetings were held, and with some states we even had three rounds. We urged states to prepare their action plans for the current year and for the coming three years as well. By the time the lockdown ended, every state had discussed its annual action plan with us and we had approved it as well.
After the second phase of the lockdown, we got permission to work on water-related activities. We told states that this is a good opportunity for us. We knew that after the lockdown a lot of people would be looking for jobs. Many people had returned from foreign countries and wanted employment here.
We told states that you already have funds from the government and now you can begin work by using these (unemployed) people. In villages which already had infrastructure such as water tanks and tubewells, retrofitting work could get started. In villages where 60 per cent of the homes had water connections, we told states to provide it to the remaining 40 per cent as well. The process also helped people get jobs as plumbers, masons, for digging trenches, for fittings… So as we ensured that drinking water reaches everyone, the mission has also helped create job opportunities for many in these difficult times.
I am very happy that after the lockdown, close to 45 lakh water connections have been established. Forty-five lakh homes have got drinking water.
LIZ MATHEW: In the backdrop of the pandemic, how will expenditure cuts by Central and state governments affect water projects?
The revenues of both the states and the Centre have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic. However, the finance department and the Prime Minister have assured us that the Jal Jeevan Mission will not face any funds-related issue. But yes, the states have to give their share. Northeast states and hilly states have to give 10 per cent, and the other states have to contribute 50 per cent.
When the Narendra Modi government came to power six years ago, fiscal deficit was a big challenge. We have achieved a lot of success in controlling it. A difficult situation has emerged because of the pandemic. To ensure that there are no hurdles to investment in development programmes, the borrowing limit of states has been increased from 3 per cent to 5 per cent. This will ensure that they don’t feel stressed and we complete the mission in time.
LIZ MATHEW: As the political crisis unfolded in Rajasthan, you were the face and voice of the BJP. Both the BJP and you kept insisting that your party did not have any role in the crisis. But can you completely deny the BJP’s role in what happened in the state?
I have been answering this question for the past 35 days. Let me give you the answer I gave a television news channel recently. Imagine a husband and a wife are living in a house in a good neighbourhood. One day they have a fight. The argument intensifies and they come out on the streets. The accuse each other of many things. It is only natural for neighbours to come out of their houses to see what is happening. Some may peep from behind their curtains, some may come out on the road to see what is happening. If you call watching the fight ‘involvement’, then yes the BJP was involved (in the Rajasthan crisis). But why did they fight and come out on the street in the first place? We had no role in that.
HARISH DAMODARAN: What will the total cost of the Jal Jeevan Mission be, and how will you manage the funds for it in the wake of the pandemic?
The total expenditure, including the state and Government of India’s share, will be around Rs 3,60,000 crore. The Centre’s share will be around Rs 2,20,000 crore. There will be no hurdles in provision of the Centre’s share.
HARIKISHAN SHARMA: You have said that as part of the Jal Jeevan Mission, one lakh new water connections are being established every day, and that so far one crore connections have been provided. How many of these connections have been provided under old schemes by previous state and Central governments? Should the credit be given to them?
Firstly, we can’t distinguish the UPA government’s schemes or schemes by the state governments when it comes to drinking water. For the past 20 years, several water schemes have been launched under different names. It’s the same for sanitation and schemes for housing… In all these schemes, before Narendra Modi became Prime Minister, there was a piecemeal approach to work. Modiji gave these schemes a new definition. He said we will complete every project that we take up. When we gave gas cylinders, we didn’t ask people about their political leanings, when we opened bank accounts for them, we didn’t ask them for their religion or caste. We are committed to providing benefit of schemes to 100 per cent of the country’s population.
My statement where I mentioned the one crore figure is an old one. The figure now will be much higher. We have provided connections to all types of villages. If a village has the infrastructure and 400 out of its 500 homes have water connections, we have ensured that connections also reach the remaining 100. We never said we have provided connection to the first 400 homes. We said that 100 per cent people should have water connections. Taking credit is not my aim, my aim is to deliver.
ESHA ROY: The National Water Policy has been pending for many years. What is its status now?
In 2012, a National Water Policy was devised. But I think a comprehensive document could not be prepared. I don’t want to criticise those who made the effort to put it together, but I think we couldn’t develop a holistic approach to work on the country’s water issues.
In 2019, when the Jal Shakti Ministry was launched, under the guidance of the Prime Minister we began work on a new policy. For the first time, we got subject matter experts on board. Earlier, committees with bureaucrats as members were set up for such work. These bureaucrats consulted experts and framed the policy. Since Independence, water policy has been formulated four times.
I made Mihir Shah (economist, water policy expert, and former member of the erstwhile Planning Commission) the chairman of the committee. I got water experts and retired bureaucrats who have worked in the field on the committee. The first time I spoke to the team, I gave them just one vision, which both the Prime Minister and I wanted to see happen. I told them that this should be the country’s last water policy. I told them that the water policy should be like the Gita, Bible and Quran, a document which holds relevance many, many years after it was written. I am happy to inform you that a few days ago I did a review meeting on the first draft of the policy.
It was a very detailed meeting and I have urged the team to work further on a few points. In the next three-four months, we will come up with a robust water policy. I told the team that we have so far focused on the supply side and that we must now also focus on demand management and people’s participation. The Prime Minister has been underlining the need for people’s participation to ensure the success of any project.
The new policy will include surface water, ground water, the use of water, the re-use of water, sewage water, drinking water… Everything will come under it.
LIZ MATHEW: The Rajasthan unit of the BJP has asked its MLAs and workers to be ready for elections. Given the situation in the Congress, do you see the BJP forming a government in the state in the near future?
I think for the next six months we should not raise this issue. Yes, we have to be prepared. There are many panchayat and municipal elections coming up. The kind of political situation Rajasthan has seen in the last 35 days, the way the government split into two factions… Are all the issues that led to the split settled now? Given the situation, Muralidhar Rao, our general secretary may have told our workers and MLAs to stay prepared.
HARIKISHAN SHARMA: The Ganga covers nearly 1,000 km in Uttar Pradesh and the stretch is also one of the most polluted part of the river. As per the Uttar Pradesh government’s report to the National Green Tribunal, 290 drains still flow into the Ganga and its tributaries in the state. About 80 of these flow into the Ganga directly. Can you elaborate on the government’s efforts to clean the river? Also, there was talk of a Ganga Act. What is its status now?
After detailed studies, research, data collection, policy planning and preparation, work on cleaning the Ganga practically began in 2016. I want to give you examples of a few towns. In Varanasi, there were 29 major drains. Of these, 27 now have traps (to capture waste). Whenever there was talk of pollution of the Ganga, pictures of Kanpur’s Sisamau Nala were flashed. It is now a picnic and selfie point. Of Kanpur’s 48 drains, only eight do not have traps installed on them now. In Rishikesh and Haridwar, no drains are left. I agree that 80 drains may still be left, but you also have to see that we have installed traps on or shut nearly 500 drains. We have never said that we have completed 100 per cent work on cleaning the Ganga.
When we look at water quality parameters, dissolved oxygen levels are very important. Only in two stretches in Uttar Pradesh and three-four stretches in West Bengal the dissolved oxygen is below the desired level in the Ganga now. We work to complete all our projects, but there cannot be a cut-off date to claim that the Ganga is clean now. The issue of pollution of Ganga was there before we were born, and will remain in the future too, but we need to establish a direction. Let’s first restore what we have lost in the past and devise ways to make it sustainable for the coming days.
I personally believe that things cannot be kept clean by making laws. If there is a need to enact laws to stop pollution in the Ganga or any other river in the country, then under the subject of water in the Environment Protection Act, the government of India has unlimited powers. When we designated the National Mission for Clean Ganga as an authority in 2017, we got all the powers. We can penalise the state government, municipality, industry or individual (if they contribute to polluting the Ganga).
A draft (of the Ganga Act) has been prepared and once all the departments give their inputs, it will be sent to the Cabinet for approval. The process is underway. The Act (law) will come. The Ganga is a matter of faith for us and will always be a priority for us.
LIZ MATHEW: The Prime Minister had announced 2024 as the deadline for the Jal Jeevan Mission. Due you think the Covid crisis and the lockdowns that followed have delayed the project?
It will be completed by all means.
LIZ MATHEW: During the Rajasthan crisis, there was speculation that the leadership wanted to promote you as the face of the BJP in Rajasthan. It was also because Vasundhara Raje has been chief minister for multiple terms and she is also the party national vice-president now. Are you looking forward to going back to state politics?
From the background that I come from, the individual is not important. In 2018, when there was talk about making me the party state president, then too I had said the same thing. For us, it is not about getting a post. It is about fulfilling a responsibility and doing good work. My philosophy is that wherever one works, he or she should work for the country. Whatever I can deliver today, I should focus on that and work.
HARISH DAMODARAN: How can we improve the efficiency of canal use in the country?
In Punjab, about 65 to 70 per cent of irrigation is done through underground water or supplemented by underground water. It is a matter of concern. The underground water reserve in Punjab is depleting fast…
Of course states need to work on this. But because it is a state subject, they have to take the initiative. Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has started a Pani Bachao Paise Kamao (Save Water, Earn Money) initiative. We had requested him to provide electricity through a meter, even if it is free. People should know how much electricity they are consuming. So he took some measures in some districts. This helped in calculating the average consumption of electricity. For example, if a farmer who consumes electricity worth Rs 1 lakh in a year, reduces the usage to Rs 40,000, the remaining Rs 60,000 will be deposited in his bank account. In this way, less electricity will be consumed and water will also be saved.
So all state governments have to take similar steps. The Indian government is ready to help the states with whatever measures they undertake.
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