The pipes are laid, the taps installed and the village tank is under construction
— all promising signs that, come spring, Girja Ahriwar will get water at her
doorstep and finally shed a lifelong burden.
"I go out and put the jerrycans in the queue at around 5 a.m. and wait there
with the children," Ahriwar, a mother of three who lives in the central Indian
state of Madhya Pradesh, said about her routine of fetching from the village
hand pump. "Sometimes it could take five or six hours. I have to stay there
because if I leave, someone else moves ahead."
India, one of the world's most water-stressed countries, is halfway through an
ambitious drive to provide clean tap water by 2024 to all of the roughly 192
million households across its 600,000 villages. About 18,000 government
engineers are overseeing the $50 billion undertaking, which includes hundreds
of thousands of contractors and laborers who are laying more than 2.5 million
miles of pipe.
The project has a powerful champion in Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has
slashed through India's notorious red tape and pushed aside thorny political
divisions to see it through. His success thus far helps explain his dominance
over the country's political landscape.
Modi has remained popular despite a weak economy and a bungled initial
response to the coronavirus that left hundreds of thousands dead. He has
increasingly relied on communal politics, continuing to consolidate a Hindu
nationalist base he has worked for decades to rally.
But the mission to deliver water to every household combines two of Modi's
political strengths: his grasp of the day-to-day problems of hundreds of
millions of India's poor and his penchant for ambitious solutions. Modi,
who grew up in a poor village, has spoken emotionally about his own mother's
hardship in fetching water.
About one-sixth of India's households had a clean water tap when the
program, called Jal Jeevan Mission, began in 2019. Now, almost half
"You rarely have this drive from the government, the head of state, and it is
well funded. Behind the concept, there is budget," said Nicolas Osbert, who
leads the UNICEF water and sanitation unit in India. "All social sectors were
impacted by COVID. Not this one. This one was preserved."
The country's water problem speaks to the mismatch between its global
economic ambitions and the dire conditions of much of its 1.4 billion
population, two-thirds of whom still live in rural areas.
On July 1, with little warning and no public ceremony, U.S. forces abandoned
the sprawling Bagram Air Base, the hub of the 20-year U.S. war effort in
Afghanistan. Six weeks later, on Aug. 15, Taliban fighters swept into the
base and freed thousands of prisoners — including senior Taliban and al-Qaida
figures — from a prison complex at Bagram.
A base that was once a bustling city housing tens of thousands of troops is
now a desolate ruin. Within Bagram's concrete blast walls, a bedraggled unit
of Taliban fighters guards the emptied prison, once the site where the U.S.
military detained thousands of people suspected of being insurgents, often for
long periods without charge or trial. The guards camp amid mountains of debris
and personal belongings abandoned by fleeing prisoners, and damaged
equipment left by U.S. and Afghan government forces.
The prison, known as the Detention Facility in Parwan, was built by the United
States in 2009. It replaced a nearby detention center at Bagram, known as the
Bagram Collection Point, where detainees endured abusive treatment at the
base. U.S. military pathologists ruled that two detainees died in 2002 from
beatings inflicted while in U.S. custody.
While the Parwan facility provided more humane conditions for prisoners, it
became the source of violent protests in February 2012 that led to the deaths
of Afghans and Americans after Qurans confiscated from prisoners were burned
by U.S. soldiers.
The United States transferred the Parwan detention facility to Afghan
government control in 2013 after turning over 3,000 Afghan prisoners to
In 2019, the United Nations reported that the facility, under the control of
the Afghan National Army, was overcrowded and that solitary confinement was
being used as a form of discipline.
When U.S. forces seized Bagram Air Base in late 2001, it was an abandoned
wreck fought over by the Taliban and U.S.-backed Northern Alliance militias.
The base was first constructed by the Soviet Union in the 1950s and served
as a hub for Soviet military operations for a decade before troops withdrew
Rebuilt by the U.S. military, Bagram expanded into a home away from home for
tens of thousands of U.S. and NATO troops.
Today, the base and the prison are quiet. Taliban guards said Bagram was
controlled by two Taliban commanders, one with 500 men under his
command and the other with 200 men.