What is the primary source of drinking water for Indian households?

24 April 2023 | Deveopment, Drinking Water, Infrastructure

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Hand pumps and tube wells remained the most common source of drinking water in India in 2020-21 with 39.7 percent of Indian households relying on them.

Figure 1


Only 36.6 percent of Indian households had access to piped drinking water, as of 2020-21, data from the Multiple Indicator Survey (NSS round 78) released by the National Sample Survey Office shows. There was a wide gap between rural and urban areas – while 61.4 percent of urban households had supply of piped drinking water, in rural areas, the corresponding share was only 25 percent.

Hand pumps and tube wells remained the most common source of drinking water in India in 2020-21 with 39.7 percent of Indian households relying on them. In rural India, hand pumps and tubewells supplied drinking water to nearly half of all households, and public taps were the main source of drinking water for a tenth of households. 

In urban India, tube wells and hand pumps were the source of drinking water for 15 percent of households. Bottled water was particularly common in urban areas with 9.8 percent of urban households relying on them for drinking water while 7.3 percent of households relied on public taps.

Nearly every Indian household (96 percent) had access to an “improved source of drinking water” in 2020-21, the NSS Round 78 survey shows. Improved sources of drinking water cover a range of water sources including drinking water obtained from a piped connection, public taps, tube well, hand pump, protected wells, protected springs, tankers, bottled water and rainwater. These sources are considered to be “likely safe from contamination”.

However, owing to its broad coverage of sources, “improved drinking water sources” do not necessarily imply safe or sustainable drinking water. For one, hand pumps and tube-wells which are included as improved sources rely entirely on shallow groundwater which is often unsafe for consumption. For instance, presence of fluorides, arsenic, iron, nitrate and high levels of salinity is reported in groundwater throughout the country. Moreover, improved drinking water sources (including piped water when available intermittently) require manual storage and handling which when practised unsafely can lead to contamination

Further, access to water varies widely by caste and class. While almost half (48 percent) of upper-caste households had access to piped drinking water at the national level in 2020-21, this was true for only 30 percent of households belonging to Scheduled Caste (SC) communities and 21 percent of Scheduled Tribes (ST) households. Similarly, while only 3.1 percent of upper-caste households depended on an “unimproved source” of drinking water in 2020-21, the corresponding share was more than three-fold (11 percent) among households belonging to Scheduled Tribal communities. 

Piped water access varied from one in every four households that belonged to the bottom two income quintiles to 57.2 percent in households belonging to the richest quintile. While almost half of the households belonging to the poorest two quintiles relied on hand pumps and tubewells for drinking water, the corresponding share in the richest quintile was 21.3 percent.

Lack of access to safe drinking water along with sanitation and hygiene (WASH) contributes to 90 percent of all diarrhoea-related child deaths in the country, which is the third leading cause of child mortality in India. Previous research has also found links between suboptimal water access and water quality to child stunting through its effects on the dietary and nutrition intake of children. Stunting affects more than 1 in every 3 children in India but predominantly children from marginalised communities (40 percent of children from SC and ST communities).

As many as 41 percent of households in rural areas (18.4 percent in urban areas) did not have the principal source of water located inside the house as per the NSS Round 78 survey. Lack of access to water inside the home also means that the household members need to go out to fetch water, a task that is disproportionately performed by women. In 2011-12, women in India spent 323 minutes per week (as compared to 155 minutes by men) fetching water, data from the India Human Development Survey showed.

India aims to supply 55 litres of prescribed quality piped drinking water per capita per day to every rural household in the country by 2030 as a target to achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6. To achieve this target, the Indian government revamped its earlier National Rural Drinking Water Programme (NRDWP) and launched its flagship drinking water programme – “Jal Jeevan Mission” – in August 2019. The Jal Jeevan Mission aims to provide functional tap water connections with “water of prescribed quality” to all rural households in the country by 2024. 

Since 2020-21, the Jal Jeevan Mission has provided piped water access to an additional 8.5 million rural households bringing the coverage of piped drinking water to cover nearly 60 percent of rural households, data from the Jal Jeevan Mission dashboard shows. 

However, there seems to be a gap between the coverage as reported by Mission’s dashboard, and the findings of the NSS Round 78. In 2021, for instance, 38.5 percent of rural households had potable tap water supply in their homes (as of Mar 31, 2021), data on the Jal Jeevan Mission shared by the Ministry of Jal Shakti in the Parliament shows. While some gap between the two is expected given their different timelines (the NSS 78 was collected between Jan 2020 – Aug 2021),  the share reported by the dashboard was significantly higher than the share (25 percent) of rural households that reported tap water as their primary source of drinking water as reported by the NSS Round 78.

As of April 2023, eight states and union territories – Goa, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Dadra and Nagar Haveli, Haryana, Gujarat, Puducherry, Punjab and Telangana – have provided 100 percent access to piped water in rural areas, the Jal Jeevan Mission dashboard reports. Himachal Pradesh and Bihar also have more than 95 percent of households with access to piped water.

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Nearly all states record significantly higher access to tap water in 2023, as compared to what the NSS Round 78 data showed for 2020-21 (Figure 2). In Bihar, where the difference is the largest, access to piped drinking water is 86 percentage points higher. Odisha registered the second highest increase at 55 percentage points, followed by Tripura (54 percentage points) and Andhra Pradesh (50 percentage points). Among all the states and union territories for which the two data points are available, only Jammu and Kashmir reported no change in rural households having access to piped water. 

However, despite the staggering progress reported in several states, nearly half (48 percent) of the  16.2 million rural households that lacked piped water access at the start of the Mission (in 2019) still remain uncovered. Field reports (such as this, this, and this) have also revealed that tap water connections may not always lead to adequate availability of water, and decisions on supply, though taken by gram sabhas, can often be erratic and marred by power imbalances.

This is Part 1 in our series looking at household access to basic infrastructure and facilities based on findings from the NSS Round 78. In Part II, we look at the use of clean fuel for cooking and Part III examines how many Indians live in a pucca house with basic amenities including a kitchen, a bathroom, a toilet and some mechanism to dispose of garbage


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