Access to drinking water

Most Indians now have access to clean drinking water, but progress on tap water has been slower.

Access to clean drinking water is one of the most important conditions for human health. Most Indians now have access to clean drinking water, but progress on tap water has been slower.

Improved access to drinking water

Over time, the definition of access to water has expanded to cover at least basic aspects of the quality of this water. The World Bank defines people with access to "basic drinking water services" as people using safely managed water services as well as those using basic water services, which is drinking water from an improved source (piped water, boreholes or tubewells, protected dug wells, protected springs, and packaged or delivered water) provided the collection time is not more than 30 minutes for a round trip[1].

At the beginning of the 2000s, fewer than eight in ten Indians had access to basic drinking water, lower than in neighbouring Sri Lanka, and lower than the world average. Over the last two decades, India has made steady progress. Nearly 95% of Indian households now have access to basic drinking water, a rate of progress that has surpassed the world's on average. Access to basic drinking water is better in urban than in rural areas in India.

Drinking water by source

Data on access to drinking water in India comes from the National Sample Survey which in various rounds has asked a large representative sample of Indian households what their principal source of drinking water is. The most recent such data comes from the 78th round of the survey, conducted in 2020-21, where over a million people across all states were surveyed[2].

Hand pumps or tube wells are the single largest source of drinking water for rural Indians, while piped water is the biggest source for urban Indians.

There are some key peculiarities at the state level. Bottled water (which includes home delivered cans of water) has become an important source of drinking water in the southern states, and in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana in particular. In Kerala, on the other hand, household wells are the most important source of drinking water in both the rural and urban parts of the state.

Progress on tap water

While there has been overall progress on drinking water, tap water access has expanded only slowly, particularly in urban areas. On the other hand, bottled water has become a key source of drinking water, serving nearly one in ten urban households.

Could tap water access have improved significantly since 2021? There has been no official household survey on tap water since then, and bottom-up survey data can often illuminate who truly does use an asset or amenity in a way that top-down administrative data that exists as a by-product of government schemes cannot.

Administrative data from the union government's Jal Jeevan Mission scheme does indicates an expansion in the government's provisioning of household piped water - 75% of rural households had a tap water connection in their homes as of March 2024, according to the scheme's dashboard. However, gaps between this administrative data and household data for years when both datasets are available indicate that the number of tap water connections provided according to the scheme may not directly translate into the number of households who get drinking water primarily through tap water.

According to the mission's annual reports, 46% of rural households had received a tap water connection in their homes by the end of 2021[3]. However NSS survey data find that just 25% of rural households had as their primary source of drinking water a tap in their homes or yards as of August 2021[4].

[1] World Development Indicators Glossary (World Bank)

[2] Multiple Indicator Survey in India, NSS 78th Round, 2020-21 (National Sample Survey Office)

[3] Annual Report 2021-22 (Government of India, Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation, Ministry of Jal Shakti)

[4] Multiple Indicator Survey in India, NSS 78th Round, 2020-21 (National Sample Survey Office)

To cite this article: Rukmini S (2024), 'Access to drinking water.' Published on