Scaling up Community Managed Water Supply Programme

J. James

A demand based, community-managed and conservation-focused approach was envisioned to bring about a reform at the sectoral level. However, the large scale programme faced a set back when factors like people’s participation and community ownership were ignored. This experience brings forth a lot of lessons to be learnt before implementing such large people centered projects.

Despite the history of community and government investment in rural water supplies, the high official statistics of rural water coverage, and the vast sums of money spent on providing rural drinking water so far, there are still severe problems in India’s water sector. ‘Water is becoming an increasingly scarce resource in India, yet it continues to be used inefficiently on a daily basis in all sectors, while sectoral demands (such as in drinking water, industry, agriculture and others) are growing rapidly in line with urbanisation, population increases, rising incomes and industrial growth. … There is, furthermore, insufficient water available in most basins to address environmental and ecological considerations or ensure adequate supplies for other non-consumptive uses

A concrete step to redress this situation, at least with respect to rural drinking water supply, were the sector reform pilot projects (SRPP) started by the Government of India in 1999, which were scaled up in 2002 as the Swajaldhara programme.

Against this backdrop, a comprehensive reform agenda for the water sector in India was laid out by a large joint exercise by the Government of India along with the World Bank and other bilateral and multilateral donors in the late 1990s. The vision for rural drinking water supply included a demand-based, community-managed and conservation-focused approach, which are the key characteristics of the SRPP. These sector reforms were implemented on a pilot scale in selected villages in 67 districts spread over 26 states in the country. The idea was that once the strategy of reform is demonstrated successfully in these 67 pilot districts, PRIs can take on the responsibility of implementing this innovative concept in future projects in other districts. This article discusses the experience, issues,  concerns and lessons learnt in implementation of the pilot project in Khammam district in Andhra Pradesh followed by the scaling up programme.

Pilot project in Khammam district

Khammam district was considered a progressive district in Andhra Pradesh because the Panchayat Raj Engineering Department (PRED) had begun community mobilisation efforts on its own from 1997, 2 years before the Sector Reform Pilot Projects (SRPP) were introduced. Around 325 Grama Deepikalu (Village-level Women Workers), had been appointed and were carrying out community mobilisation and awareness generating activities to prepare communities to bear the costs of operation and maintenance of water supply schemes. Around 125 villages had formed village water user groups and committees and collected around Rs. 6.8 million (around Euro 121,000) by March 1999. This was one of the major reasons why Khammam was chosen for the SRPP.

Yet, Khammam district had its share of problems, with around 30% of its 2,900 rural habitations (average of 160 households and 600 people) not having access to safe potable water despite spending around Rs. 200 million on on-going schemes. All this was the ‘normal’ supply driven mode of provision, and much was expected of the new ‘demand-driven’ mode initiated in 1997. The announcement of SRPP was thus a fillip to their on-going efforts. The proposed water schemes were envisaged to tackle four distinct types of water supply problems in these habitations: excess fluoride, brackishness, excess iron and a declining ground water level.

The district administration in Khammam had begun its demand-driven initiative in 1997 without the help of NGOs. But it soon found that in order to implement this large work order, in a demand-driven participatory mode with communities, its past experience of working through government staff was insufficient. Convinced still that NGOs were unnecessary and unreliable, and unhappy with APARD’s capacity to provide the required training, it looked elsewhere for support. Finally, UNICEF funded 7 development professionals in the District Project Monitoring Unit (DPMU) in Khammam district, who joined in February 2002 and, along with 8 facilitators to work in a variety of implementation fields. By this time, more than 18 months had passed since the project sanction, during which the district went ahead with physical work, contrary to the spirit and provisions of the SRPP.

An assessment carried out during May 2002 brought out some interesting, yet disturbing findings. While the project made an impressive physical coverage, it fell short on awareness generation and capacity building aspects. Moreover, MOUs were in English and not understood by villagers. No base line survey was conducted for water management, operation and maintenance, etc. There was no PRA/PLA exercise conducted, nor PRA/PLA training been imparted. There was no Project Implementation Plan in place. Villagers had not discussed any village-level plan before start of any activity. Major expenditure on implementation of water supply schemes were taken up as suggested by PRED and there was no ‘people’s estimates’ in regard to the materials required.

In short, pilot project implementation was not adequately oriented towards participatory and people-centric approaches, central to sector reforms. Hence, the casual departmental supply driven mode continued.


It is clear that national and state governments were unprepared for the SRPPs, and it took a long time to put in place even the minimal support structure required for implementation, including conceptual clarity, capacity building inputs and a monitoring system. District administrations did the best they could to switch from their supply driven mode of water supply provision to the new demand-driven approach. Even a progressive district like Khammam found the new scale of operation a daunting task.

Village communities responded to the opportunity of sector reform by making their contributions in the hope of an improved water supply. But the formation of committees and a functional takeover of O&M and finances do not constitute community management in the full sense of the term – in the manner in which NGOs and some donor-assisted projects like Swajal had demonstrated prior to the SRPP. The lesson that all members of the community have to be involved for success does not seem to have informed implementation efforts. The poorest of the poor continue to be left out of ‘community’ management.

Yet, before these insights could be gleaned from the SRPP implementation experience, the GoI scaled up the SRPP into a country-wide programme of community managed water supply and sanitation called Swajaldhara.  The Swajaldhara Programme inaugurated on 25 December 2002 scaled up the Sector Reform Pilot Project into a countrywide programme, with few alterations to the basic design. But scaling up without examining and acting on the available evidence on SRPP performance has overlooked problems that could be potentially expensive to the country as a whole.

Factors responsible for inadequate Scaling Up

  1. Analysis

Documenting and analysing its performance systematically should have been a pre-condition to scaling it up to a countrywide programme. 

ii. Adequate awareness

While there were facilitating government orders, training manuals, clarity on institutional structures, establishment of a project support unit, and IEC guidelines, the operational details of the sector reform approach were just not understood well enough by senior and junior level government staff in state and district offices. Thus implementation of these pilot projects continued in the same supply-driven top-down community-insensitive mode of traditional rural water supply infrastructure delivery – except that the same government engineers were not doing community mobilisation as well.

On the other hand, the communities too were unprepared for the programme. While the central government had a reform agenda and vision, this was not adequately transferred to villagers whose effective participation in and ownership of SRPP could have made it a successful example of community managed rural water supply. The cascading flow of information from centre to state to district to village reduced to barely a trickle of relevant and timely information. Even where communities were visited by government staff or NGOs, the messages they carried did not manage to fully inform the communities about the scope of true community management.

iii. Effective Capacity Building

Training manuals are necessary for uniformity in disseminating the project approach and for informing trainers and trainees alike, but a common understanding of the approach is a prerequisite. However, effective training has also to be tailored to requirements. Teaching engineers how to do a PRA is less important than teaching them why a PRA is useful!

But district-level demand for good training and trainers – prior to even community mobilisation – had to come from awareness of the importance of good training. And the only way district administration and RWS officials would know about the importance of training is if they were to go through training themselves. Thus, capacity building has to be planned in an iterative fashion, so that personal experience of trainees can turn them into trainers and crusaders for training.

 iv. Lack of people’s participation

In many cases, including Khammam, the way in which physical works were undertaken under the SRPP were almost identical to that under the ‘old’ system: the engineer prepared the technical drawings of the proposed scheme, the contractor was given the job, the cheque was given by the engineer to the contractor, and the villagers watched the scheme being built and commissioned by a local VIP. What was perhaps different was that some meetings were held in the village concerning the proposed project; the village headmen was now required to sign on the technical drawings and on the cheques to the contractor, and the villagers were supposed to elect a VWSC and pay 10% of the total cost as contribution. 

v. Realistic O&M Costing

Contrary to the earlier official perception that people are not willing to pay to maintain government assets, the SRPP demonstrated (yet again) that communities are willing to pay – so long as the need is acute and they can expect improved service after payment. While senior government officials in the country seem to have explicitly realised this and made 100% O&M as a requirement for the sector reform projects, what is not so well understood is that this may not be sufficient for system sustainability. For, to be truly sustainable, O&M collection has to ensure that there is money to replace the water supply system at the end of its lifetime. If not, systems will have to be constantly replaced. Such O&M costing, however, while insisted upon in the sector reform project guidelines, is hardly ever followed for the simple reason that this is often beyond the paying capacity of communities. Recognition of this situation ought to have elicited innovative financing schemes by the government.

  1. Business as usual

In the absence of any special measures to include the poorest and the women in decision making, to ensure that information was available to all members of the ‘community’, and that the proposed water supply scheme would service the traditionally discriminated sections of village society – the scheduled tribes (like the lambadas in AP), the poorest of the poor (who are not credit-worthy and cannot take loans or join Self Help Groups), including widows, the physically and mentally disabled, the chronically ill, and the aged – the SRPP could be mistaken for business as usual.

Small lessons for Scaling Up

The Indian experience yields several lessons not only for the future but also for other developing countries. In addition to the issues mentioned above, detailed facilitating action is necessary at the district and sub-district levels. Since these are very often brushed under the carpet or lost in the fine print or broad sweep buzzwords and phrases like ‘participation’, ‘capacity building’, ‘IEC’ or ‘HRD’, multi-stakeholder workshops, it is useful to review these briefly.

  • Define operating rules at the local level – by involving major stakeholders, including village communities, NGOs, local line department staff, resource persons, donor agencies and others working in the area. This could be part of the awareness raising activity, but getting this group to discuss the project thoroughly will enhance their understanding of the project – and their individual roles and responsibilities.
  • Write a clear manual in the local language setting out these operational aspects. This can be used in subsequent capacity building sessions at local and district levels, and to orient new government officials posted to the district.
  • Hold regular multi-stakeholder meetings at the district and sub-district levels with line department staff, representatives from local government and community-based organisations (e.g., women’s self help groups), to inform them about the intricacies of the new scheme and to discuss trends and problems in implementation, for speedy redressal. Issues that cannot be resolved at this level could be sent up for discussion at similar meetings at the state level. But this has to be done on a long term basis – as a permanent district and state-level support for future interventions.
  • Set up a network with office bearers and clear operating principles to assist village communities facing problems in implementing the new scheme. Only if a permanent structure of self-help is set up can communities truly manage their own (water) resources. Critical information needs require resolution at watershed or basin level, in an integrated approach to water management, which requires periodic assessment, and thus a permanent institutional structure. Since local water use if affected, participation by local community representatives in such a network is essential.
  • Set up a learning alliance for feedback into future policy: A cohesive effort is needed from the entire water sector, including government, NGOs, donor agencies, and the private sector, to learn and improve, based on the key elements of information flows, networking of effort and multi-stakeholder campaigns. Only such an effort can address the challenges posed by the new dimensions of scaling up – effectiveness and sustainability.

Scaling Up: Swajaldhara and Beyond

The Swajaldhara is acknowledged as a scaling up of sector reforms. In this sense, the scaling up of community management of rural water supply has already taken place in India. However, there are several lessons that could have been learnt from the initial pilot projects undertaken under the rubric of Sector Reforms.

It is still not too late for the Government of India to make a comprehensive action plan to improve performance of the Swajaldhara and to initiate similar reforms in other areas of water management, including the inter-linking of rivers, within the overall perspective of integrated water resources management. But all this still requires a massive effort to understand what is required, generate awareness and agreement among the major stakeholders, and to build capacity to carry forward the initiative. While the Government is adept at framing policies, finding funding, and organising facilitating action through government orders, the real challenge is in motivating district level staff to perform up to the expectation of their real clients, the rural communities. And, rural communities need to be given the institutional space to enforce their status as rural clients for government services, and the capacity to exploit this space effectively, while taking on the responsibility of maintaining assets created by government efforts.

Only when the Sector Reform Pilot Project is placed in this context, does it appear in its true perspective – an important first step in a long and difficult journey. Completing one step is an achievement, no doubt, but resting so early will make it more difficult to rise again in order to complete the rest of the journey.

A.J. James

Environmental & Natural Resource Economist, 609B Hamilton Court, DLF City Phase 4, Gurgaon, Haryana, INDIA 122 002, Telephone: (+91 124) 505 1338, Email:

A longer version of this article first appeared as “India’s Sector Reform Projects and Swajaldhara Programme – A Case of Scaling up Community Managed Water Supply”, 2004,

IRC International Water and Sanitation Centre; available at




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