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India

Hungry but not thirsty

By Alka Pande
Lucknow, July 18 (IBNS)

Having been a member of many Parliamentary Committees on various important issues, Gurudas Kamat’s political career is a long roster studded with achievements, not the least of which is representing India in Kashmir and Human Rights issue at the United Nations……’’
This is how the official website of a senior Congress leader Gurudas Kamat describes him.
Unfortunately, this dynamic Indian leader did not understand the dynamism of sensitive issues like water and sanitation and refused to head the Ministry of Drinking water and Sanitation.
`It is really unfortunate that the minister who was put in charge of this portfolio did not realise the opportunity that was offered to him which would have given him an opportunity to serve the rural citizens of India. This is a country where even today giving water to a thirsty person is considered a “punya ka kaam’’ (deed of blessings), said a representative of an International agency working on issues of water and sanitation.
Indian government keeping up its words given at various platforms, including that of the United Nations, (UN has recognised water and sanitation as human rights) recently set up a separate ministry for Drinking water and sanitation. Earlier, it used to be a department under the Ministry of Rural Development.
Last week, reshuffling the cabinet the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh chose Gurudas Kamat to head the ministry of Water and Sanitation as Minister for State (Independent charge). However, Kamat requested the PM to “relieve him of the duty’’.
The rumour was that Kamat found the portfolio too small and unimportant for a politician of his stature albeit his argument to go before the public was ; “There is no question of disappointment as drinking water and sanitation are important issues concerning a large section of the society. The reasons are totally personal.’’
Politically the issue may have got subsided but the social workers and environmentalists all across India have taken a dig at Kamat for refusing the post.
“Water and sanitation are the most important aspects of the communities and for the uplift of the rural population of India but for our politicians it is the priority,’’ says Sanjay Singh a social activist from the parched Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh. “The politicians in India are hungry for power but they do not have the thirst to serve their own people, who have brought them to power,” Singh adds.
Presently, rural drinking water coverage in India is around 70 per cent whereas the investments are to tune of about 35,000 crore Rupees.

Similarly, rural sanitation coverage at individual household level is around 64 per cent and the government has so far invested somewhere around 20,000 crore under its Total Sanitation Campaign. Yet Kamat found the job too small.  “At a time when water is already starting to decide political equations world over, considering water as an unimportant subject is rather unfortunate,’’ Says Ranjan Panda, the environmentalist from Odisha.  He says that India is already in a state of water crisis and providing drinking water, which is a fundamental right for the citizens of the nation, is already proving to be a Herculean task. Quitting by the minister is highly condemnable.

The government has eventually handed over the ministry (as additional charge) to Jairam Ramesh, who is also a cabinet minister for the ministry of Rural Development.
Since Ramesh has established his credentials as a climate crusader whilst heading the Ministry of Environment in the past and therefore his appointment has given a reason to a few to heave a sigh of relief.

“It is fortunate for the ministry and also for the common people. With multinationals eyeing water resources and majority of population still waiting to be covered under sanitation – the issues require sincere attention and immediate action. Keeping in view the earlier track record of Ramesh, we can expect some good decision from his side,’’ says researcher and analyst Yogesh Bandhu.
However, there are different views and concerns as well.  “As the evidence go, Ramesh has been an active minister and Rural Development is the most time and energy consuming ministry of the nation. Immediately after taking over, the minister has already sounded a thorough review of the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme besides completing the survey of families living below the poverty line. In such a situation he will not be able to devote the time required for the critical issues like water and sanitation. A separate minister to deal with these issues is quintessential,’’ says Panda, the environmentalist.

The challenges Ramesh is set to face are to ensure sustained supply of drinking water and functional sanitation systems in the country, especially in the rural areas. India is facing the problem of water scarcity, which is topped with contamination. According to World Bank statistics, open defecation is another big challenge before the nation, which is losing 6 per cent of its GDP every year due to lost productivity.

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About WashMedia-South Asia

WashMedia-South Asia is a group of South Asian journalists working on water, sanitation and hygiene issues. Theses journalists are from Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

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