Water supply and sanitation in India

Water supply and sanitation in India

Water supply and sanitation in India continue to be inadequate, despite longstanding efforts by the various levels of government and communities at improving coverage. The situation is particularly inadequate for sanitation, since only one of three Indians has access to improved sanitation facilities (including improved latrines). While the share of those with access to an improved water source is much higher than for sanitation (86%), the quality of service is poor and most users that are counted as having access receive water of dubious quality and only on an intermittent basis. As of 2003, it was estimated that only 30% of India's wastewater was being treated, with the remainder flowing into rivers or groundwater. [http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-toilet6sep06,0,2934595,full.story?coll=la-home-center Using shame to change sanitary habits] , "Los Angeles Times", 6 September 2007] The lack of toilet facilities in many areas also presents a major health risk; open defecation is widespread even in urban areas of India, [http://www.boloji.com/wfs5/wfs739.htm The Politics of Toilets] , "Boloji"] [http://www7.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0705/feature3/text3.html Mumbai Slum: Dharavi] , "National Geographic", May 2007] and it was estimated in 2002 by the World Health Organisation that around 700,000 Indians die each year from diarrhoea.

The level of investment in water and sanitation is relatively high, but the local government institutions in charge of operating and maintaining the infrastructure are weak and lack the financial resources to carry out their functions, partly due to very low tariff levels.

In particular in sanitation, innovative approaches have been initiated to increase especially rural sanitation through community-led total sanitation that emphasizes demand for services and community action instead of supply-driven programs of latrine construction by the government. In rural water supply, the focus has also shifted away from supply-driven to demand-driven approaches.


86% of the population in India has access to an improved water source, but only 33% has access to improved sanitation. In rural areas, where 72% of India’s population lives, the respective shares are 83% for water and only 22% for sanitation. [ UNICEF/WHO Joint Monitoring Program estimate for 2004 based on the 2001 census and extrapolation of previous trends. See [http://www.wssinfo.org/pdf/country/IND_wat.pdf Water] and [http://www.wssinfo.org/pdf/country/IND_san.pdf Sanitation] ]

According to Indian norms, access to improved water supply exists if at least 40 liters/capita/day of safe drinking water are provided within a distance of 1.6km or 100 meter of elevation difference, to be relaxed as per field conditions. There should be at least one pump per 250 persons.

Service quality

Water and sanitation service quality in India is generally poor.

Water supply

None of the 35 Indian cities with a population of more than one million distribute water for more than a few hours per day, despite generally sufficient infrastructure. Owing to inadequate pressure people struggle to collect water even when it is available. According to the World Bank, none have performance indicators that compare with average international standards. [http://www-wds.worldbank.org/external/default/WDSContentServer/WDSP/IB/2006/05/03/000012009_20060503095630/Rendered/INDEX/36065.txt World Bank 2006] ]

A 2007 study by the Asian Development Bank showed that in 20 cities the average duration of supply was only 4.3 hours per day. No city had continuous supply. The longest duration of supply was 12 hours per day in Chandigarh, and the lowest was 0.3 hours per day in Rajkot. [ ADB 2007, p. 3 ]

In Delhi residents receive water only a few hours per day because of inadequate management of the distribution system. This results in contaminated water and forces households to complement a deficient public water service at prohibitive 'coping' costs; the poor suffer most from this situation. It is estimated that non-revenue water in Delhi is close to 60%, including physical and commercial losses of 40% and 15% respectively. [http://www-wds.worldbank.org/external/default/WDSContentServer/WDSP/IB/2006/05/03/000012009_20060503095630/Rendered/INDEX/36065.txt World Bank 2006] ]


Most Indians depend on on-site sanitation facilities. Recently, access to on-site sanitation have increased in both rural and urban areas. In rural areas, total sanitation has been successful (see below). In urban areas, a good practice is the Slum Sanitation Program in Mumbai that has provided access to sanitation for a quarter million slum dwellers. [http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/TOPICS/EXTWSS/0,,contentMDK:20879544~menuPK:3810623~pagePK:210058~piPK:210062~theSitePK:337302,00.html Water Supply & Sanitation - Reaching the Poor Through Sustainable Partnerships: The Slum Sanitation Program in Mumbai, India ] ]

Sewerage, where available, is often in a bad state. In Delhi the sewerage network has lacked maintenance over the years and overflow of raw sewage in open drains is common, due to blockage, settlements and inadequate pumping capacities. The capacity of the 17 existing wastewater treatment plants in Delhi is adequate to cater a daily production of wastewater of less than 50% of the drinking water produced. [http://www-wds.worldbank.org/external/default/WDSContentServer/WDSP/IB/2006/05/03/000012009_20060503095630/Rendered/INDEX/36065.txt World Bank 2006] ]

As of 2003, it was estimated that only 30% of India's wastewater was being treated, with the remainder flowing into rivers or groundwater. [http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-toilet6sep06,0,2934595,full.story?coll=la-home-center Using shame to change sanitary habits] , "Los Angeles Times", 6 September 2007]

Water supply and water resources

Depleting ground water table and deteriorating ground water quality are threatening the sustainability of both urban and rural water supply in many parts of India.

Responsibility for water supply and sanitation

Water supply and sanitation is a State responsibility under the Indian Constitution. States may give the responsibility to the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI) in rural areas or municipalities in urban areas, called Urban Local Bodies (ULB). At present, states generally plan, design and execute water supply schemes (and often operate them) through their Sate Departments (of Public Health Engineering or Rural Development Engineering) or State Water Boards.

The national trend is to decentralize capital investment to engineering departments at the district level and operation and maintenance to district and gram panchayat levels. [ [http://planningcommission.nic.in/reports/genrep/wtrsani.pdf Planning Commission 2003, p. 23-26] ]

Highly centralized decision-making and approvals, which are characteristic of the Indian civil service, also affect the management of water supply and sanitation services. For example, the current process of design approvals is centralized with even minor technical approvals reaching the office of chief engineers. A majority of decisions are made in a very centralized manner at the headquarters. [ [http://www-wds.worldbank.org/external/default/WDSContentServer/WDSP/IB/2006/11/27/000020953_20061127111653/Rendered/INDEX/37377.txt World Bank Punjab 2006, Annex 1] ]

Policy and regulation

The responsibility for water supply and sanitation at the central and state level is shared by various Ministries. The Ministry of Rural Development is responsible for rural water supply through its Department of Drinking Water Supply (DDWS).

The Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation is indirectly responsible for water supply and sanitation in the National Capital Territory of Delhi and other Union Territories. Concerning cities in the Indian states where most of the population of India lives, the Ministry only has an advisory capacity and a very limited role in funding.

Unlike in many other countries, there are no autonomous regulatory agencies for water supply and sanitation in India at the state or national level.

Service provision

Urban areas

In urban areas municipalities, called Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) are in charge of operation and maintenance. Some of the largest cities have created municipal water and sanitation utilities. However, these utilities remain weak in terms of financial capacity.

However, in practice decentralization, initiated with a constitutional amendment in 1992, remains far from complete. ULBs remain dependent on capital subsidies from state governments and tariffs are also set by state governments, which often even subsidize operating costs. [ [http://planningcommission.nic.in/plans/planrel/fiveyr/10th/volume2/v2_ch6_1.pdf 10th Plan, p. 613] ] Furthermore, there is no separation of accounts for different activities within a municipality, which can lead to the limited tariff revenues to be diverted for uses other than the operation and maintenance of the water and sewer system.

Rural water supply

There are about a 100,000 rural water supply systems in India. At least in some states responsibility for service provision is in the process of being partially transferred from State Water Boards and district governments to Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI) at the block or village level (there were about 604 districts and 256,000 villages in India in 2002, according to Subdivisions of India. Blocks are an intermediate level between districts and villages). Where this transfer has been initiated, it seems to be more advanced for single-village water schemes than for more complex multi-village water schemes.

Despite their professed role Panchayati Raj Institutions currently play only a limited role in provision of rural water supply and sanitation. There has been limited success in implementing Swajaldhara with low priority by some state governments to support decentralization. [ [http://www-wds.worldbank.org/external/default/WDSContentServer/WDSP/IB/2006/11/27/000020953_20061127111653/Rendered/INDEX/37377.txt World Bank Punjab 2006, Annex 1] ]

Cost recovery is low and a majority of the rural water systems are defunct for lack of maintenance. Some state governments subsidize rural water systems, but funds are scarce and insufficient. [ [http://planningcommission.nic.in/plans/planrel/fiveyr/10th/volume2/v2_ch5_5.pdf 10th Plan, p. 604] ]

Rural sanitation

Community-led total sanitation (CLTS) is an innovative methodology for mobilising communities to completely eliminate open defecation. CLTS is characterised by participatory facilitation, community analysis and action, and no hardware subsidy. Communities mobilise themselves to construct latrines and achieve total sanitation. CLTS is an entry point for other livelihoods activities as it mobilises community members towards collective action and empowers them to take further action in the future. Sanitation improvements have immediate health benefits which quickly demonstrate the success of collective action in improving personal and community wide wellbeing. CLTS outcomes illustrate what communities can achieve by undertaking further initiatives for their own development. CLTS was first pioneered in Bangladesh in 1999 and has been widely adopted within that country and beyond, particularly within South and Southeast Asia. CLTS is said to have great potential for contributing towards meeting the Millennium Development Goals, both directly in water and sanitation, and indirectly through the knock-on impacts on combating major diseases and improving maternal health. However, rapid institutional take-up of CLTS is raising some dilemmas and challenges. Not least of these is the need to shift donor mindsets away from a focus on subsidy. [ [http://www.livelihoods.org/hot_topics/CLTS.html IDS Livelihoods] ]

History and recent developments

Decentralization since 1993

In 1993 the Indian constitution and relevant state legislations were amended in order to decentralize certain responsibilities, including water supply and sanitation, to municipalities. Since the assignment of responsibilities to municipalities is a state responsibility, different states have followed different approaches.

Total Sanitation Campaign since 1999

In 1986, the first structured programme for rural sanitation, the Central Rural Sanitation Programme, but it had minimal community participation. In 1999, the scheme was restructured. It was made more demand-driven and people-centered under the name Total Sanitation Campaign (TSC) or Community-led total sanitation (see above). [ [http://www.irc.nl/page/35966 IRC 2007] ]

Swajaldhara since 2002

Sin 2002 the Government of India has rolled out at the national level a program to change the way in which water and sanitation services are supported in rural areas. The program, called Swajaldhara, includes the phasing out of supply driven programs; decentralizing service delivery responsibility to rural local governments and user groups; adopting an integrated approach to water supply and sanitation and improving hygiene behavior; generating sanitation demand through awareness campaigns. It follows a pilot program launched in 1999. [ [http://ddws.nic.in/swajaldhara/html/index.html Swajaldhara] ]

A World Bank study on rural water supply systems in ten states has shown substantial inefficiencies associated with a supply-driven approach compared to decentralized, community-driven approaches such as Swajaldhara. Nevertheless, more than 90% of rural water supply investments in India continue to be channeled through more centralized, supply-driven approaches. [ Presentation by Smita Misra, World Bank, 22th of February 2008, Washington DC ]


There are only limited data on the operating efficiency of utilities in India, and even fewer data on the efficiency of investments.

Concerning operating efficiency, a study of 20 cities by the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission with the support of the Asian Development Bank showed an average level of non-revenue water (NRW) of 32%. However, 5 out of the 20 cities did not provide any data and for those that provided data there probably is a large margin of error, since only 25% of connections are metered, which makes it very difficult to estimate non-revenue water. Also, three utilities show NRW levels of less than 20%, two of which have practically no metering, which indiates that the numbers are not reliable and actual values are likely to be higher. [ ADB 2007, p. 3 ]

Concerning labor productivity, the 20 utilities in the sample had on average 7.4 employees per 1,000 connections, which is much higher than the estimated level for an efficient utility. [ ADB 2007, p. 3 ]

In Delhi, which was not included in the ADB study, non-revenue water stood at 53% and there were about 20 employees per 1000 connections. Furthermore, only 70% of revenue billed was actually collected. [ [http://www.adb.org/Water/Indicators/Profiles/Delhi_city.pdf Delhi ADB 2001] ]

Tariffs and cost recovery

Water and sewer tariffs in India are generally low and do not recover operating and maintenance costs.

Urban areas


Water metering is the precondition for billing water users on the basis of volume consumed.

According to a 2002 study of 300 cities about 62% of urban water customers in metropolitan areas and 50% in smaller cities are metered. [ NIUA 2002. The evaluation is based on a survey of all 23 metropolitan cities in India (cities with more than 1 million inhabitants) and a representative sample of 277 smaller cities with an aggregate population of 140 million. ] Users of standposts receive water free of charge.

A 2007 study of 20 cities by the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission with the support of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) showed that only 25% of customers of these utilities were metered. Most other customers paid a flat tariff independent of consumption. Some utilities, such as the one serving Kolkata, actually do not bill residential users at all. [ ADB 2007, p. 9 ]

Tariff levels

According to the same ADB study the average tariff for all customers - including industrial, commercial and public customers - is 4.9 Rupees per cubic meter. [ ADB 2007, p. 3 ]

The average "residential" tariff, however, is much lower. A typical water tariff charged to urban residential customers "with meters" in India was around 1.5 Rupees per cubic meter (US$ 0.03) in 2002, only about one tenth of operating and maintenance costs. [ National Institute of Urban Affairs (NIUA), 2002, Status of Water Supply, Sanitation and Solid Waste Management in Urban India, quoted in: World Bank/PPIAF/WSP/WBI: Water Tariffs and Subsidies in South Asia: A Scorecard for India, 2002, p. 4 ] Urban residential customers "without meters" paid on average around 45 Rupees (US$ 0.90) per month in 2002, only about one seventh of operating and maintenance costs.

Industrial customers pay much more than residential customers, but still less than the economic cost of water supply.


Urban water tariffs are highly affordable. A family of five living on the poverty line (US$9 per capita per month in 2000) which uses 20 cubic meter of water per month would spend 1.2% of its budget if it has a water meter and 2.0% of its budget if it does not have a water meter on its water bill. This percentage lies well below the widely used affordability threshold of 5%. [ ibid, p. 7-8 ]

Cost recovery

According to the 2007 ADB study of 20 cities the average operating ratio of these utilities is 1.63, indicating that on average they are far from recovering their operation and maintenance costs, which would imply an operating ratio of 1. [ ADB 2007, p. 3 ] Seven utilities had an operating ratio of less than 1, indicating that they were able to generate a cash surplus to partially finance investments. The lowest operating ratio (0.44) was found in Chennai. The highest operating ratio (5.33) was found in Indore.

Delhi example

In Delhi revenues were just sufficient to cover about 60% of operating costs of the city’s utility in 2004; maintenance has, as a result, been minimal. In the past, the Delhi utility has relied heavily on government financial support for recurrent and capital expenditures in the magnitude of Rupees 3 billion/year (US$65 million/year) and Rupees 7 billion/year (US$155 million/year) respectively. As financial support for both capital and recurrent expenditures has been passed on as loans by the Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi, the utility’s balance sheet is loaded with a huge debt totaling about Rupees 50 billion (US$1.1 billion) that it is unlikely to be able to service. Accounts receivable represent more than 12 months of billing, part of it being non recoverable. [http://www-wds.worldbank.org/external/default/WDSContentServer/WDSP/IB/2006/05/03/000012009_20060503095630/Rendered/INDEX/36065.txt World Bank 2006] ]

The average tariff was estimated at US$ 0.074/m3 in 2001, compared to production costs of US$ 0.085/m3, the latter probably being a very conservative estimate that does not take into account capital costs. [ [http://www.adb.org/Water/Indicators/Profiles/Delhi_city.pdf Delhi ADB 2001] The same source estimates the working ratio at 2.45, which implies that current revenues must be less than half of recurrent costs ]

Rural areas

In Karnataka tariffs in rural areas cover only one third or less of operation and maintenance costs, leading to deficient maintenance and poor services. [ [http://www-wds.worldbank.org/external/default/WDSContentServer/WDSP/IB/2004/03/22/000012009_20040322111003/Rendered/PDF/271800IN.pdf World Bank 2004, p.5] ]

In rural areas in Punjab, operation and maintenance cost recovery is only about 20%. On one side the O&M expenditures are high due to high salary levels, high power tariff and high number of operating staff. On the other side, revenue is paid only by the 10% of the households who have private connections, while those drawing water from public stand posts do not pay any water charges at all (though the official tariff for public stand post users is Rs.15 / month per household). [ [http://www-wds.worldbank.org/external/default/WDSContentServer/WDSP/IB/2006/11/27/000020953_20061127111653/Rendered/INDEX/37377.txt World Bank Punjab 2006, Annex 1] ]

Subsidies and targeting of subsidies

There are no accurate recent estimates of the level of subsidies for water and sanitation in India. It has been estimated that transfers to the water sector in India amounted to 5.470.8 crore (US$ 1.1 billion) per year in the mid-1990s, accounting for 4% of all government subsidies in India. About 98% of this subsidy is said to come from State rather than Central budgets. [ Srivastava, D.K. and Sen, T.K. (1997), Government Subsidies in India, National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, New Delhi, quoted in: World Bank, Water tariffs... (2002), p. 8 ] This figure may only cover recurrent cost subsidies and not investment subsidies, which are even higher (see below). Given the low level of cost recovery (see above) the actual level of recurrent subsidies may be even higher than the estimate above.

There is little targeting of subsidies in Indian water tariffs given that all consumers pay less than full costs. According to the World Bank, 70% of those benefiting from subsidies channeled towards private connections are not poor, while 40% of the poor who do not use any public water services are excluded altogether. World Bank 2002, p. 12 ]

Investment and financing


During the 9th Plan (1997-2000) 395bn Rupees (in current prices) were invested by the central government and state governments in water supply and sanitation. [ [http://planningcommission.nic.in/reports/genrep/wtrsani.pdf Planning Commission 2003, p. 51-53] ] This corresponds to about US$ 9.2bn using the 1999 exchange rate, or US$ 3.1bn annually assuming that the 9th Plan covered three years. This corresponds to about US$ 3 per capita. This investment level is low compared to countries with a similar level of development.

The share of water and sanitation investments in total plan investments was 4.6%, which was the highest share of water and sanitation investments in total investments in the history of India. About 94bn Rupees (24%) are financed by the central government and 301bn Rupees by state governments (76%). Central government-financed investments are heavily focused on rural areas, with a total of 88bn Rupies or 93% of centrally financed investments. There was an equally strong focus on water, accounting for 93% of centrally financed investments, as opposed to only 7% for sanitation. [ [http://planningcommission.nic.in/reports/genrep/wtrsani.pdf Planning Commission 2003, p. 51-53] Data on state-financed investments are insufficient to allow a breakdown by water vs. sanitation or by urban vs. rural areas. ]


State Financing Corporations (SFC) play an important role in making recommendations regarding the allocation of state tax revenues between states and municipalities, criteria for grants, and measures to improve the financial position of municipalities. SFCs are in some cases not sufficiently transparent and/or competent, have high transactions costs, and their recommendations are sometimes not being implemented. [ [http://planningcommission.nic.in/plans/planrel/fiveyr/10th/volume2/v2_ch6_1.pdf 10th Plan (2002-2007), p. 611] ]

The current system of financing water supply and sanitation is fragmented through a number of different national and state programs. This results in simultaneous implementation with different and conflicting rules in neighboring areas. In rural areas different programs undermine each other, adversely affecting demand driven approaches requiring cost sharing by users as in Swajaldhara Schemes.

External links

* Comprehensive Portal on Water in India: [http://www.indiawaterportal.org India Water Portal]
* [http://www.solutionexchange-un.net.in/en/Water/introduction.html Solution Exchange:Water Community in India]
* Water and Environmental Sanitation Network India: [http://www.wesnetindia.org WES-Net India]
* Asian Development Bank/Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission: [http://www.adb.org/Documents/Reports/Benchmarking-Data-Book-Utilities-in-India/default.asp 2007 Benchmarking and Data Book of Water Utilities in India]
* [http://web.worldbank.org/WBSITE/EXTERNAL/TOPICS/EXTWSS/0,,contentMDK:20879544~menuPK:3810623~pagePK:210058~piPK:210062~theSitePK:337302,00.html World Bank:Reaching the Poor Through Sustainable Partnerships: The Slum Sanitation Program in Mumbai, India]


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