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Supporting community-managed handpumps in West Bengal, India

Published on: 20/05/2015

The Community Water Plus project assesses twenty cases of support to community managed rural water supplies across India. IRC carried out one of these studies around support to community-managed handpumps in Patharpratima, West Bengal. The case study concludes that an effective mechanism for support has been established, which costs the equivalent of around 0.75 US$/person/year. 

Since 2006 Water For People has followed a programmatic approach to comprehensively address water (and sanitation) needs in Patharpratima block of West Bengal. In that it has sought to achieve universal water supply coverage in a limited number of Gram Panchayats, mainly through handpumps. In addition, institutional arrangements were put into place for community management and support to community-based water committees.

This study set out to assess this support arrangement, in terms of the type and extent of support that is provided to these community-managed handpumps, the effects this has on service delivery and the resource implications. The study took place in Digambarpur Gram Panchayat, with a comparison made to the neighbouring Dakshin Gangadharpur Gram Panchayat, where the support structure was not set-up.

The institutional set-up found in the study is one of community management with direct support. Community water committees carry out day to day operation and minor maintenance activities. In addition, they keep a basic administration of the limited tariffs they collect, and which they use for some minor repairs. The level of professionalization of the water committees is very basic. This is reflected for example in the semi-formal governance set-up of the water committees as self-help groups, but not as service providers, the absence of statutes or clear election procedures. Also administration is done in a basic manner. Only the technical maintenance is professionalised through the outsourcing of this task to handpump mechanics, called Jalabandhus, who carry out repair services.

A complex of four support organisations has evolved to support water committees in this. The Gram Panchayat provides the first line of support to water committees, and in turn is supported by the block authorities. Digambarpur Angikar, a grassroots NGO provides software support and help programme implementation and is in turn supported by Water For People. The service provider functions are shared between Gram Panchayat (funding and coordinating major maintenance), water committees (operation and administration)) and the Jalabandhus (repairs). The Gram Panchayat (and block) present strong local leadership and willingness and to support community management, but they lacking professional skills, tools and resources to do so. The NGO "branch" of the support arrangements has medium to high performance indicators, but lacks the application of tools and methods for some support areas and ways to track the service providers it has supported are lacking.

This set-up contrasts sharply to the control area, where the service provider function is almost exclusively fulfilled by the Gram Panchayat – though in fact barely fulfilled. The service provision in the control area is therefore classified as "direct public provision with community involvement".

The water supply service provided in Digambarpur, however, is still very basic. This is largely due to the fact that the quantities obtained from the handpumps are very low. People use them only for drinking and cooking; other users like washing and laundry are done in the numerous open ponds. But, this is still better than in the control area. There service levels are lower, particularly in terms of accessibility and reliability. Through the direct public provision model, break-downs cannot be quickly addressed and pumps are out of function for a longer time, meaning people also need to walk longer to fetch water. As a result, also user satisfaction is lower than in Digambarpur.

The costs of this service delivery model are shared between the various organisations involved. Capital costs are largely carried by the government and NGOs. The level of software support during capital investment – considered crucial to the success of this model is some 10% of total capital costs. Communities are expected to cover the operation and maintenance costs through tariffs. Though these are low a modelling exercise showed they are sufficient to cover minor maintenance. For capital maintenance, however, tariffs are insufficient. And in fact, the bulk (about 90%) of capital maintenance costs is carried by the government, at about 0.30 US$/person/year. The expenditure on direct support is mainly made by the NGO branch of the support model, and currently stands at an equivalent of 0.45 US$/person/year.

The study concludes that a clear support model has evolved to support community-managed handpumps, both in terms of the capital maintenance of these handpumps, as well as in the software of community management. Through that support, water committees can function and carry out basic organisational and financial management and outsource technical maintenance to Jalabandhus. As a result, everyone in Digambarpur has now access to functional handpumps – even though these provide only a basic level of service. It now costs about 0.75 US$/person/year to provide ongoing support, both for capital maintenance and for direct support whilst communities cover operation and minor costs.

Recommendations are formulated to further professionalize this model. Water committees should have standard statutes for water committees and clear election procedures. But also variants to the current water committee model could be tried out, including having one water committee taking care of several pumps to get to further economies of scale. The support entities themselves can also professionalise further, particularly by standardizing much of their work in products and tools, such as guidelines and manual for water committees, or monitoring of the satisfaction of the water committees with the support provided.

Note: this report is a beta-draft, as financial data are being harmonised across all case studies in the project.

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