One of the first decisions by the re-elected Narendra Modi government was to integrate different ministries and departments dealing with water into one ministry — the Ministry of Jal Shakti. Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, who was earlier Minister of State for Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare, was given the task of managing this Ministry, which includes the mammoth task of providing functional piped water to all India households by 2024. In an interview with BusinessLine , Shekhawat said the government is confident of repeating its success in sanitation in the field of water supply, too. Excerpts:

What are the major challenges that we face if piped water is given to all households by 2024?

Water is a global issue. Our country is facing challenges regarding drinking water and making water available for irrigation. Availability of water or precipitation is favourable to us but the problem lies with managing that water.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi realised this and this is why this Ministry was formed. The impact of climate change is visible all over the world, and in in India also.

The big programme announced by the Prime Minister — Jal Jeevan Mission — is to give functional tap-water to every household in the country by 2024.

In the last 70-72 years, only 3.5 crore Indian rural households were given functional tap-water. We have a total of 18.5 crore households. Which means we have to cover 4 times more households in next 5 years. Moreover, the PM stressed upon source sustainability. So, we need plans for sustainable use of surface water and groundwater. After supplying the water, we need to plan for the reuse of the grey water, or discharged water. Both these would be taken care through the convergence of different schemes taken up by the State governments and the Central government.

This is a big challenge. But we are confident of meeting the challenge as we have done with Swachh Bharat Mission.

Do you need a lot of co-operation from the State governments?

Actually, water is a State subject. The implementation has to be done through the States. When I was assigned as the Minister of Jal Shakti, we called a meeting of State ministers of water resources and discussed all these issues.

We called another meeting of State Ministers and senior State officials on August 26. That was a day-long workshop and we received encouraging responses. Based on the feedback received from the workshop, we organised six regional workshops in which Ministers and all senior officials engaged in the implementation from the States participated. We requested them to prepare a roadmap along the lines of the scheme, with the year-wise implementation schedule.

We have already released the first installment of the annual funds which together would be around ₹4,000 crore to the States.

Now that the government has decided to have a single national level water disputes tribunal. Will this also come under Jal Shakti Ministry? How is it coming along?

The first water tribunal act was drafted in 1962. Nine tribunals were set up under this Act. Four of them managed to resolve the disputes. The longest time a tribunal worked on a case was 32 years, in the case of Ravi-Bias.

Looking at this and damage being caused due the delay, we decided to move an amendment Bill — the Inter River Water Disputes Tribunal Amendment Act, 2019.

The Act has been passsed by the Lok Sabha. Due to paucity of time, it could not be discussed in Rajya Sabha. As per the amended Act, regular Bench of the tribunal will be working five days a week and basin-wise sub-benches will be constituted. We have proposed a time-frame for giving the verdict — one and a half years for arbitration and three years for judgment.

You have spoken about the need for farmers reducing their water use by 10 per cent...

Our dependency on underground water is the highest in the world. As per the rough estimates, India accounts for one-fourth of the total water globally extracted from underground.

Our dependence on groundwater is as much as 65 per cent and our sources are depleting very fast because we are overdrawing.

Because of this exploitation, out of 6,800 blocks in the country, nearly 1,500 blocks are in a critical condition.

In his first Mann ki Baath after re-election, the PM gave a clarion call for water conservation. Since then, it became a people’s movement. Subsequently, we wrote letters to 2.5 lakh sarpanchs and gram pradhans for holding a gram sabha dedicated to water conservation, Nearly 1.5 gram sabhas were organised since then.

After that, Jalshakti Abhiyan was taken up. Jalshakti Abhiyan officers were given charge of the 1,500 blocks in 256 districts where groundwater condition is severe. More than 2 lakh water harvesting structures and traditional water bodies were restored as part of this campaign.

The fourth mandate given to them is to create awareness in the society about water conservation and recharging of underground water.

Underground water being an invisible resource and people are not aware of the status of these aquifers. All this happened in the last three months!