India: A tap and toilet at home offers hope and dignity in rural Karnataka

August 22, 2013

Graham Crouch / World Bank

Geeta Bhogan remembers the time not so long ago when all 15 members of her husband’s extended family took turns to fetch water from the borewell a long distance from their home in Bekkinakeri village, in Karnataka’s Belgaum district. They would ride a bullock cart in groups of 4, making a number of trips a day to fetch the 50 pots of water they needed to survive, and to care for the family’s 5 cows and buffaloes. While these 2 km trips were difficult at the best of times, they were even more arduous in the searing summer heat of northern Karnataka. “The unfailing grind made the men late for work in the mornings and took a toll on everyone’s health,” Geeta recalls. “We fell sick more often due to this never-ending strain.

Today, Bhogan’s family no longer needs to make this onerous journey. Thanks to the Karnataka Government’s Jal Nirmal Project, supported by the World Bank, the family now has a water connection within their home. 23 year old Geeta, near full term in her second pregnancy, is both relieved and happy. “Now we have a tap at our doorstep and have begun to get water for two hours each day,” she said with a smile.

Acute water scarcity and poor water quality

Similar stories are unfolding across rural Karnataka. Since 2006, household water connections and regular supply of drinking water have made these backbreaking water duties a thing of the past for rural people. Given the differences in geology across the region, where barren earth and rocky soil stretch over vast expanses of the landscape, the project is tapping a variety of water sources, choosing the one most suitable for each village.

Large parts of Karnataka have very poor groundwater quality,” explained S. Satish, the World Bank’s team leader for the project. “Many areas have fluoride and even arsenic in the well-water, making it unsafe for drinking or for use by livestock. Since surface water sources such as rivers and canals are generally the most sustainable sources of supply, the project has tapped these wherever it can,” he adds.

One such village is Kusugal on the outskirts of Hubli town, where the borewell water was hard, muddy and brackish. This made it difficult to cook the lentils (dals) for family meals, and caused a host of debilitating diseases such as dysentery and diarrhea which sapped the nutrition of young children. The stored water also accumulated a suspicious film on top, and became a breeding ground for mosquitoes that carried the chikunguniya and malaria parasites. Skin diseases and unsightly guinea worms were common.

With poor water quality and drought conditions for the past three years, the villagers regularly traveled to Hubli, 8 kms away, to fetch drinking water. They took a bus into town but had to hire a tanker on their return, paying Rs. 80 per trip, an expense most rural families could ill-afford. Not surprisingly, people refused to marry their daughters into local families - a telling benchmark for the quality of life in a village – as they were unwilling to condemn them to a life of constant drudgery.

A tap in every home

For Kusugul, we tapped the water from the canal flowing nearby,” said Satish. “But, since Karnataka’s canals generally dry up in summer, we had to make provision for storing the water in a huge reservoir to meet summer needs. These reservoirs - or ‘tanks’ as they are locally called - have existed for centuries as part of the traditional rain-water harvesting system in southern India. But, where there is no such reservoir nearby, the project has dug a new one to ensure uninterrupted water supply throughout the year.” The stored canal water is then treated before being carried through a network of pipes into village homes.

And, where the canals and rivers were too far away - as in Geeta Bhogan’s Bekkinakeri village, for instance - the project has drilled new borewells and arranged for the water to be chlorinated before piping it into homes. Almost every home in the village now has water flowing for 1-2 hours each day.

The project departs from the conventional thinking and follows a demand driven approach. It requires that villages request to participate in the project, and communities, together with the village council – the gram panchayat (GP) – pay 15% as their contribution toward the capital cost of installing the infrastructure. The remaining 85% flows from the project. Communities are mobilized into village water supply and sanitation committees and are empowered to make decisions and control the resources for constructing as well as operating and maintaining their water supply programs. Families that have opted for water connections contribute Rs. 300 per household for installation, with a monthly fee of Rs. 50 for water use thereafter.

In Kusugul, Leela Madugouda Patil, 24, mother of two, got her family’s water connection a few months ago. The availability of an unlimited supply of water at her doorstep is a pleasant change for this young housewife who moved into the village ten years ago as a new bride and has long suffered the privations of acute water scarcity. “Getting water at home is so much better than having to walk to the borewell to bathe and wash,” she said. And the water is safer, too.

Backyard toilets

The project has also improved sanitation. In Bekkinakeri for instance, the residents have banned the generations-old practice of open defecation – an often dangerous exercise, especially when women venture out into the fields at night.

Toilets have been built in almost every home, generally within the backyard, and proper drainage has been provided, along the roads wherever possible. Women can now sit outside their homes and chat with each other on warm summer evenings, something they could never do earlier because of the constant stench from the stagnant waste water that collected all over the village. Not surprisingly, many other villages are now asking for similar drainage.

15 year-old schoolboy, Nagaraj Parashuram Muse has become the envy of his friends ever since his family installed a toilet three years ago. “I was always scared of stepping on snakes at night or being attacked by stray dogs when I used the open fields. I queued up for hours to help my parents collect water and sometimes missed school. Now I am happy,” said the beaming boy who dreams of serving his village as an engineer when he grows up.

Bekkinakeri’s Geeta Bhogan is also happy with the proximity of a toilet. “Swatchhta ahe” (things are much cleaner now) she said. 

" The toilet and our easy access to water have made a big difference to our lives. Today we only need to fill 2 barrels of water unlike the 10 barrels we needed to fill earlier. And, since the water is clean, we save on doctor’s bills, and can use the money to pay the monthly water tax instead. "

Yashoda Narayan Bailurkar

Olmani village, Belgaum district, Karnataka

A superstar village

Belgaum district’s Olmani village, one of the area’s most barren villages where wells dried up in the scorching summer heat, is now considered a ‘superstar’ and an ideal place to marry daughters into.

Yashoda Narayan Bailurkar, 62, had a toilet installed in her home last year at a cost of Rs 7,000.  She takes great pride in maintaining a spotless toilet and follows her grandchildren whenever they use it to clean up after them. “I used to be scared to go to the fields at night especially since the nearby forest is full of wild animals like elephants, fox and wild boar,” she said. “The toilet and our easy access to water have made a big difference to our lives. Today we only need to fill 2 barrels of water unlike the 10 barrels we needed to fill earlier. And, since the water is clean, we save on doctor’s bills, and can use the money to pay the monthly water tax instead.

The project has made important strides in improving rural sanitation,” said the World Bank’s Satish. “This is one of India’s greatest challenges as nearly 70 % of the rural population continues to defecate in the open – more than half of the world’s people who do so.

So far, the project has benefitted some 6.80 million rural people in 11 districts of Karnataka. Many more are eagerly waiting to be connected to the new water supply system and better sanitation.

Maryam Tukaram Khade, hearing and voice impaired since birth, puts it simply. “Pani changla” (water is good) he said, a delighted smile lighting up his face as the water gushes forth from the tap outside his home.