“Jal hi jeevan hai.” [Water is life.]
If you have spent any amount of time in India, chances are that you have read this quote somewhere – painted on a wall, at the back of a bus or on a poster. But in spite of such high regard for nature’s most precious resource, we are facing one of the worst water crises in the world. 80% Indian households don’t have access to piped water. 1 in 3 schools lack access to safe drinking water and 38% primary health centres (PHCs) don’t have a water connection.
Clean water is the foundation of a healthy economy and the repercussions of these alarming statistics go far beyond the dismal picture they paint. They represent the enormous health and economic costs to our nation. Waterborne diseases affect nearly 37.5 million Indians annually and leads to stunted development in approximately 20 million children. Lack of safe drinking water negatively impacts school attendance and job opportunities. The economic cost of this amounts to USD 600 million with 73 million days of lost labour. Close to 54 per cent of rural women and girls spend an estimated 35 minutes procuring water every day, time they could be spending on other income generating activities.
Solutions Falling Short
Water management and sanitation services are indispensable for our fight against poverty and sustainable economic growth. Over the years, successive governments have worked on groundwater recharging projects, micro-irrigation schemes, and policy reforms for better water management. Under the Jal Jeevan Mission, 37.5 million water connections have been created. Water credits have helped to break the affordability gap.
Investment in creating infrastructure is definitely the first step to providing equitable access to water. But to be effective, we need to ensure that it is functional through regular maintenance. There will be breakdowns and damage which will need repair. So, while we build public service infrastructure and provision loans to set up water connections, what is the plan for its upkeep? Where is the professional capacity to reinstall, maintain, and repair? And without functional infrastructure, how can we expect long-term and sustainable impact?
For scalable and sustainable solutions to the water crisis, we need to target gaps in human resources and technical skills while creating awareness about hygiene and conservation.
Skilled plumbers at the village level can take ownership of the newly created infrastructure. They can ensure regular supply of clean water and correct any errors in the grey water disposal systems. Additionally, they can serve as local champions for awareness intitiatives. This is also an opportunity to create millions of jobs for youth and help the formal economy recover from the pandemic.
Community Water Warriors
It is estimated that 60% of Indian plumbers don’t have any formal training. Typically, one joins as a helper. With self-learning and on the job training, they branch out as an independent plumber. But with initiatives like Jal Jeevan and Swachch Bharat, there has been a burgeoning demand for skilled plumbers. We must meet this demand by scaling up local capacity.
Currently, there are 250,000 plumbers in India, concentrated in the urban centres. Of them, close to 150,000 may need formal training, retraining, and certification. Additionally, we need at least 500,000 new plumbers, spread across the 250,000 gram panchayats in the country. Building a cadre of this size, during a pandemic, means we need remote training model and multi-lingual vernacular content.
Further, this new generation of plumbers will need not just technical know-how but analytical skills so that they can observe, identify, and solve problems. They must be trained to correct errors in the existing water and sanitation systems in homes, schools, PHCs etc. so that they use water efficiently. The training must also include awareness of building regulations and health and safety protocols so that they can repair, install, and maintain drainage and water systems.
With improved people and communication skills, they can evolve into a role that goes beyond plumbing. As ‘Community Water Warriors’, they can act as champions of awareness campaigns and guardians of local infrastructure. They can take on the critical role of educating and mobilizing the community on issues like reducing wastage, safely storing water during a breakdown or electrical failure, the importance of hand-washing, and proper technique of boiling and filtering water.
For a Better Future
Well-trained and skilled plumbers can go a long way towards providing a sustainable solution to India’s water crisis. As the local infrastructure expands the demand for their services will also see a corresponding rise, increasing their earnings.
Creating and improving the livelihood of plumbers will boost local economies and take us one step closer to providing equitable water access to the citizens of our country.