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Water supply and sanitation in India: Meeting targets and beyond

A large developing country like India is critical to meeting the target 7C of the Millennium Development Goals which calls for halving the proportion of the population (baseline 1990) without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation by 2015. Even though the MDGs set out to measure and reduce the population with sustainable access to safe water and sanitation, difficulties were encountered in measuring “safe” and “sustainable”, which led to a revision of the target to achieving access to improved sources of water and sanitation. It has been argued that the revised goals grossly over-estimate the access to safe water and sanitation.

Table 1 shows the distribution of India’s population with access to an improved drinking water source. By 2010, 92% of the population had access to an improved source of water, which brought down the proportion of the population without such an access from 31% in 1990 to 8% in 2010. If Target 7C of the MDG (improved water access) were to be applied on a country-level basis, India is well on its way to surpass the target by 2015.

However, it is a somewhat different story on the sanitation front. Though the proportion of the population with access to improved sanitation nearly doubled in the last 20 years, a majority of the population still does not have access to any sanitation and has to resort to open defecation. The five states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand and Orissa – largely rural and located in the central and eastern parts of the country – have less than 30% access to any sanitation source. It appears that India is likely to miss the Target 7C of the MDG (improved sanitation access), and any hope of achieving the target by 2015 rests on the progress made in these five large states.

Access to water and sanitation also involves issues of gender and caste. In 2005, only half the population had access to water on premises, and 12% spend thirty minutes or longer daily to get water for the household. Of the households that don’t get water on premises, adult females are responsible for fetching water in 81% of the families. Even among children below 15 years of age, girls are four times more likely than boys to be responsible for collecting water. Indian society has an uncomfortable history with caste discrimination, as lower castes have been traditionally entrusted with occupations such as collecting human/livestock waste.

These underlying traditions show up in the data as well. The states with the highest rates of access to sanitation (except the capital region of Delhi) are the eight north-eastern states and the southern state of Kerala, all of them known for an egalitarian society.Additional analysis of the sanitation data by income quintiles reveals that the poorest 40% in India have hardly benefitted from improvements in sanitation. The poorest quintile is 47 times more likely than their richest counterpart to practice open defecation, a disparity three times more severe than that observed in Africa.

Although urban areas of the country fare better than their rural counterparts on water and sanitation access, a larger and denser population, coupled with dwindling natural sources of freshwater pose unique challenges to large cities such as Bangalore, Mumbai and New Delhi.

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