Barriers to Community Based Water Supply and Sanitation in India


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This article is based on an article in Poverty In Focus Number 18, August 2009 (International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth IPC-IG) by Nitish Jha (Energy and Resources Institute,New Delhi). It conducts a sociological analysis of access to water and sanitation in India, emphasising the challenges encountered in community-based schemes.



In India, there is an urgent need to address the institutional and social obstacles to the provision of water and sanitation. Institutional hurdles, compounded by bureaucratic inertia and the lack of political will to foster greater convergence, create a breach between project planning and implementation. Meanwhile, attitudinal and socioeconomic barriers pose challenges not just to the operation and management of community-based schemes but, in some cases, to their very adoption.

Despite the large investments in water infrastructure for drinking purposes and other domestic uses, India still ranks 133rd among 180 countries for its poor water availability—1,880 cubic metres per person annually. Over 480 million people (or at least 45 per cent of the population) still lack access to adequate safe drinking water (Pangare et al., 2006). Nonetheless, figures on water supply coverage indicate that India is well on its way to covering its entire population of more than 1 billion (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: National Coverage Rate of Improved Drinking Water (%), Source: Prepared using data from WHO and UNICEF (2006, p. 32)
Figure 1: National Coverage Rate of Improved Drinking Water (%), Source: Prepared using data from WHO and UNICEF (2006, p. 32)

The mid-term assessment report of the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) for water supply and sanitation shows that India has surpassed Target 10 in terms of nationwide water supply coverage (WHO and UNICEF, 2006). According to that source, 87 per cent of the population was covered in 2004, up from 70 per cent in 1990. Of those covered in 2004, almost 70 per cent lived in rural areas (Figure 1). These national-level statistics seem to be at odds with unofficial sources and, even if true, they conceal wide regional disparities.

According to WHO and UNICEF (2006), sanitation coverage increased from a mere 14 per cent to 33 per cent in the period 1990–2004, and most of the gains were in rural areas (see Figure 2). The estimates seem quite low, but it is possible that the real circumstances are worse because these figures are based on physical infrastructure delivered, rather than on observations of the actual practice of indoor sanitation. Even in terms of nominal sanitation, however, as indicated by standard coverage, India appears to be worse off than some low-income countries.

Figure 2:National Coverage Rate of Improved Sanitation (%), Source: Prepared using data from WHO and UNICEF (2006, p. 32)
Figure 2:National Coverage Rate of Improved Sanitation (%), Source: Prepared using data from WHO and UNICEF (2006, p. 32)

The questions that bedevil service delivery in India’s water supply and sanitation sector is why, despite more than six decades of official efforts to bring these utilities to the poor, access to safe water is still highly inequitable and open defecation remains widespread. Studies reveal that there are problems with the way in which these schemes are planned and delivered by governments, on one hand, and users’ receptivity of the schemes, on the other.

On the supply side, the breach between planning and effective implementation in this sector by state agencies is due to various factors, including the lack of institutional convergence; the limited budgets or personnel available for implementation; an emphasis on meeting delivery targets in infrastructural terms rather than on the scheme’s long-term management; the absolute discretionary authority and lack of accountability of state agencies; and, not least, limited understanding of the fact that sociocultural factors play a substantial role in determining why schemes succeed or fail (McKenzie and Ray, 2005).

Community-Based Provision: A Recent Institutional Innovation

Given these problems and the private sector’s negligible presence in this field, a new model is being tried, in keeping with recent thinking in international policy circles about how best to supply these utilities to rural and some poor urban communities. This fresh approach combines water and sanitation delivery, and entails transfer of the management of the drinking water supply and sanitation schemes from state governments to user communities.

The main goal is to have communities participate in the schemes’ management, thereby increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of water delivery. There are definite advantages to such an institutional arrangement if the transfer to community management is carried out smoothly. These schemes often fail, however, because mechanisms to foster community ownership are poorly designed and implemented.

Barriers to Community-Based Water Supply Management

It is hoped that community members, led by locally-elected water committees, will be able to run their own schemes with minimal external assistance. However, the chief obstacle to an effective switch to community management of water supply is the prevailing view that water is a right to be provided by the state. In many cases where making water available is problematic, it is hard to convince capable people to play voluntary roles in procuring and supplying water to the larger community for a fee. A related problem is that of using short-term programmes to build much-needed organisational capacity among the user community in managerial, financial and technical terms.

The dynamics of community decision making also deserve attention. In many communities, disadvantaged groups are excluded from decision-making processes. A scheme’s design and implementation should give due consideration to the issue of who performs tasks of system management. Otherwise, it is very likely that the groups with the heaviest burden in water and sanitation management at the household and community levels will be put under further strain, simply because they have no say in decisions that adversely affect their welfare.

Another cornerstone of community management is economic self-reliance, especially in matters of day-to-day operation and maintenance. Despite expressions of willingness to pay during a project’s initial stages, the subsequent inability of a critical number of households to pay for services would threaten a scheme’s financial sustainability. Hence, if a community has a substantial proportion of poor households that cannot afford even minimal payments, it might be necessary to use a subsidy from external sources or cross-subsidies within the community.

As regards technical management, agencies of the Indian government want communities to retake the lead in water and sanitation management (a role they played before government supply was instituted), but there is no explicit recognition of the fact that the technology for utility delivery has changed considerably. This unfamiliarity poses challenges because of issues such as water treatment, as well as the use, maintenance and repair of non-local and largely invisible (that is, underground) infrastructure (Black and Talbot, 2005).

Barriers to Community-Based Sanitation Management

As with water supply schemes, social, financial and technical factors limit equitable access to sanitary facilities. In the case of sanitation, however, cultural and attitudinal barriers pose challenges to the very adoption of modern practices, let alone the operation and management of community-based schemes. In many parts of the country, open defecation is a longstanding and socially-sanctioned practice. The implementation of community-based schemes is bound to suffer if the delivery of physical infrastructure is stressed without addressing the attitudes that are not conducive to its proper use.

From a social or religious viewpoint, the non-adoption of indoor sanitation is due to the perception of faeces as being ritually and literally polluting. This attitude is exacerbated by the negative view of toilets being located close to homes because of the smells they generate. Another major obstacle to acceptance of toilets is the need for maintenance. In households, this duty—along with bringing water for personal cleansing post-defecation, as well as the socialisation of children in matters of sanitation and hygiene— usually falls to women.

Communal toilets are more cost-effective than individual household toilets in terms of the money and land they require, but their maintenance problems tend to be more serious. Different castes, religions or ethnic groups in a community have their own social norms, which include restrictions on interactions with others. Such limitations on group members not only include rules about whom they may trade with or marry, but also more mundane matters such as with whom they may eat, bathe or share a toilet.

Failure to take account of such matters often results in communal toilets being built in a sanitary “no man’s land” or in an area where one social group uses the toilet to the exclusion of all others. Because of the consequent lack of well-defined roles and duties, these structures are poorly maintained and ultimately fall into disuse. Conversely, some counterintuitive attitudinal factors result in some village residents preferring open defecation to indoor sanitation. For instance, for relatively wealthy, highcaste women who are otherwise subject to ritual seclusion, communal defecation allows for a degree of social interaction that they would lose if they opted for toilets in or near their homes.


Community schemes complement rather than replace traditional water and sanitation management. A scheme brings with it a new set of tasks to be performed, and thus imposes an additional burden. Certain individuals bear the brunt of this heavier burden of water and sanitation if the new intervention ignores the existing division of labour.

An explicit account of water- and sanitation-related tasks and roles reveals the extent of the burdens borne at different levels within a community— individuals, households and groups. For example, an examination of the prevailing gender division of labour in the rural water and sanitation sector may highlight the exclusion of women from decision-making in both the household and public realms, despite their responsibility for many of the tasks in this sector. Based on an appraisal of the gender division of labour in any given community, therefore, a concerted effort can be made to ensure that women play a role equal to men in all aspects of decision-making in the sector.

Other fault lines may stem from caste or class. A caste-based analysis may show that one group bears an inordinately heavy burden for sanitation in the community but is simultaneously excluded from drawing water from the village well. This burden will grow if social relations remain unchanged, even as a new scheme is being introduced. In India, projects have been scuttled because local elites have captured resources such as water. Moreover, schemes are often designed to exclude certain groups on the basis of their caste or religion, which may correlate with their weaker political and economic status.

Thus, for community-managed utility provision to be sustainable in the long term, donor and implementing agencies should pay more attention than they have so far to social and attitudinal factors.In the medium term, they should also consider the importance of “handholding” in the capacity building process. Until such time as there is greater parity in decision-making, there should be less emphasis on participatory management per se and more on factors such as institutionalising leadership and rules, building skills and creating knowledge.


Black, M. and R. Talbot (2005). Water — A Matter of Life and Health: Water Supply and Sanitation in Village India. Oxford University Press, New Delhi and UNICEF.

McKenzie, D. and I. Ray (2005). “Household Water Delivery Options in Urban and Rural India”, Working Paper 224. Stanford Center for International Development (SCID), Stanford University.

Pangare, G., V. Pangare and B. Das (2006). Springs of Life: India’s Water Resources. Academic Foundation. New Delhi. World Health Organisation (WHO) and United Nations Children’s Fund

(UNICEF) (2006). Meeting the MDG Drinking Water and Sanitation Target: The Urban and Rural Challenge of the Decade. WHO Press. Geneva.

See also

Community Based Urban Water Supply Management Project - Armenia

External Resources


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