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Water crisis an opportunity to become surplus nation: Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, Union Jal Shakti minister

Gajendra Singh Shekhawat just laid out a detailed road map on water for the next five years.

, ET Bureau|
Updated: Jul 07, 2019, 10.05 AM IST
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"70% of the water we use for domestic purpose gets wasted. We are looking at ways to clean, reuse and make this water usable," said the minister.
The Centre set up the Ministry of Jal Shakti by merging the ministry of water resources, river development and Ganga rejuvenation as well as the ministry of drinking water and sanitation. Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, who heads the new portfolio, says a unified ministry can effectively deal with the multiple issues related to water and river cleaning projects to ensure the country does not face water shortage. The MP from Jodhpur, who defeated Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot’s son Vaibhav in the recent Lok Sabha polls, tells Prerna Katiyar that increasing awareness among the public can help the government make India a water-surplus nation. Edited excerpts:

What can we expect from the new Ministry of Jal Shakti in the next five years considering the multifarious water problems the country is facing?
Water is a big challenge. India is home to 18% of the world’s population and 18% of the world’s livestock population. But India has just 4% of the fresh water resources of the world. Thanks to past generations or whosoever is responsible for this, we now have the most contaminated water sources — be it surface water or underground water.

Climate change exacerbates the problem — there is incessant rainfall in some part and drought in other parts. Because of this, our challenge has increased manifold. Keeping this in mind, our prime minister is working on two fronts. He declared the creation of the Jal Shakti ministry even before the elections were over. Various issues related to water such as urban drinking water, rural drinking water, Ganga, other rivers, irrigation, dams, water resources were being dealt by multiple ministries earlier. His vision was to deal with all of these together. Hence a unified Jal Shakti ministry was created.

This is the first initiative. The other initiative was to save water and increase groundwater level. 65% of our irrigation and drinking water needs are met using underground water. Taking the initiative to replenish these resources, he wrote to all village sarpanchs about 10 days ago. The letter was written in 12 languages on how to conserve water and replenish water bodies. He wrote ‘gaon ka paani gaon, ghar ka pani ghar mein aur khet ka pani khet mein rokna chahiye (water must be conserved at home, farm and village levels)’. He has motivated people at all levels to do this.

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Women fetch water from a lake that has almost dried up in Chennai, on June 11, 2019


On our part, we held a joint meeting with all state ministers who deal with water resources. Thirdly, in his recent Mann Ki Baat, the PM spoke elaborately about the need to conserve water resources. In this sequence, we launched the Jal Shakti Abhiyan. It has been decided that joint secretaries, hydrologists and engineers will be part of a team that will visit all water-stressed districts — where groundwater is depleting alarmingly — on a priority basis.

Collectors have been made nodal officers for the programme. They will create awareness, sensitivity and develop a plan for each district. Motivational as well as technological support will be provided in this way.

What about replenishing aquifers for groundwater conservation? Is there a plan to do this to help farmers get a steady supply of water?
We have asked the CGWB (Central Ground Water Board) to expedite its work on aquifer-mapping. By the end of March 2020, we will develop a 3D diagram and plan for aquifer status and aquifer recharge module for all waterstressed districts. We are working on that. This is a huge task.

What about cleaning the Ganga? Nitin Gadkari said in a recent interview that when he was the water resources minister, 30% of the projects on the river were completed. A large part of the task is still left, though. How do you plan to complete these?
On cleaning the Ganga, our approach has seen a paradigm shift. Rather than just cleaning Ganga, we have also included all its tributaries, sub-tributaries and distributaries so as to cover the entire river basin. For example, from Ganga to Yamuna, Yamuna to Chambal and further to Berach, Gambhir, Banas and so on. The idea is to treat the entire basin. We are working on this direction.

How can you keep Ganga clean without first cleaning up the Yamuna? So we are developing a network of sewage treatment infrastructure. In fact, a big treatment plant is going to come up in Delhi. This is going to be one of the largest sewage treatment plants.

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Volunteers clean the Ganga during the Ganga Dussehra celebrations in Varanasi on June 12, 2019


The NITI Aayog recently said in a report that overexploitation of groundwater is contributing to the worst water crisis in India’s history. You later said that India’s water problem was not that alarming. Can you elaborate?
See, it is not like this year has been an exceptionally bad year in terms of water. Water crisis has been there in some part of the country or other. The state I come from, Rajasthan, has seen drought in 60 of the last 70 years. But ancient systems and technologies of water conservation and rainwater harvesting kept us going. I remember that during my childhood, we used to drink rain water collected on the terrace of our houses. Water collected like this was used the entire year. We were able to survive because of these ancient techniques of water conservation. The challenge has become bigger now as water in our reservoirs has also depleted. This is a point of worry. But we are looking at this as an opportunity.

If the entire country comes together and works in one direction, the problem can be solved. I say this with such conviction because of the 4,000 BCM (billion cubic metres) water we receive as rain, we are able to use only 1,000 BCM. If we can save up to 2,000 BCM, then India will be water surplus. For the next many, many years, we will be water secure. We have to increase our awareness level and make it a movement of the common man. And we will still not be the first one to do it. Look at Israel — they have turned water crisis into an opportunity. They receive one-fourth of the rainfall we get in India. But they are water secure and their groundwater level is also increasing due to adoption of new techniques.

After a country-wide sanitation drive, the government has now promised piped drinking water connections to every household as part of Jal Jivan Mission. How do you intend to fulfil this promise?
Nal Se Jal (water via taps) is the PM’s flagship programme. Earlier, the goal was set for 2030 under the sustainable development goals. But the PM later made a commitment through the BJP manifesto in the run-up to the 2019 Lok Sabha elections that we will achieve this goal by 2024. We have personally asked all chief ministers, chief secretaries and officers concerned that they must prepare and submit their plans immediately. Water is a state subject but we want to ensure complete cooperation for completion of their projects.

We are sure that we can provide potable water to every tap in every household. But apart from this, there are two more focus areas of the prime minister: source of water for Nal Se Jal project must be sustainable for incessant supply. To keep the source sustainable, the mechanism — be it developing point-recharge system, water harvesting system, water replenishment system, aquifer replenishment — must be developed first.

Second, 70% of the water we use for domestic purpose gets wasted. We are looking at ways to clean, reuse and make this water usable for irrigation or other purposes. As far as groundwater is concerned, we have so many success stories — Maharashtra Jalyukt Shivar Abhiyan is successful, Rajasthan’s Mukhyamantri Jal Swavalamban Yojana is a model for the world, Gujarat has Sujalam Sufalam, Andhra Pradesh has Neri Chaatuu and so on. I can enumerate many villages that have successful programmes. There are hundreds of people and communities working in this endeavour. If we all feel responsible in this way it will make a big difference. We are looking at ways to integrate such initiatives.

Is there any specific plan in mind, apart from integrating existing schemes?
See, we can do a lot by making changes in these programme. For example, in case of MGNREGS (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme), 65% of the budget has to be spend on natural resource management. This is mandatory. Every year, Rs 25,000-30,000 crore is spend on this. If we use that in productive work for water resource management, along with convergence of various state and central schemes, we can make a big difference.

Similarly, larger companies need to make initiatives by way of CSR (corporate social responsibility). The bigger issue is to create awareness and to motivate people, parties and entities.

What about the river-interlinking project? It has been in limbo for a while?
River-interlinking is again a big issue. We have identified 30 such links in the Himalayan and peninsular regions. Undoubtedly, we need to resolve these outstanding issues. While we are discussing water scarcity, we are grappling with flood-like situation in some states. If we have to resolve these, we need to interlink rivers. But a consensus has to be reached with all states. We have had several rounds of meeting with these states. We have identified four important links. Some smaller problems remain but these should also be resolved soon.

What about the water crisis in Chennai? How is the government planning to avoid such crises in future?
As I said, rainwater harvesting is a big task. Chennai receives rainfall of 1,200-1,500 mm. It is an irony that a region that gets so much rain is grappling with water scarcity when there is no crisis in places that get much lower rainfall. Apart from solving problems at the local level, we are working on ways to provide water to Chennai from additional sources.

Are there new targets for Swachh Bharat Mission as well?
No one could have imagined that a programme aimed at changing the behaviour of 50 crore people could be successful. This is the only example in the entire world. This could be achieved only because of the driving force of Modiji. He proved that if political leadership works with commitment, then such a stupendous change can be brought about among crores of people. Now we have time till October 2 to cover all those who were not covered in the baseline survey to meet the 100% open-defecation-free (ODF) target.

Also the prime minister is now guiding us to work towards an ODF-plus programme. Under this, we are working on solid and liquid waste management simultaneously in villages. In liquid waste management, we are working on grey water, black water and faecal water all together. All these initiatives are being integrated — Jal Shakti, ODF-plus and the Nal Se Jal programme. That was why a unified ministry was created.

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