Water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) service levels remain stubbornly low in rural India despite high levels of public expenditure recently. In many areas, this is because service levels have slipped back for reasons including inadequate protection of water sources (quantity and quality) and more attention given to capital expenditure than expenditure on operational and capital maintenance. This paper argues that adoption of a life-cycle cost approach (LCCA) could play a significant role in rectifying this by providing a framework for identifying and plugging gaps in the present pattern of expenditure. It is argued that LCCA will provide a sound basis for implementing the WASH Guidelines released by the Rajiv Gandhi National Drinking Water Mission in 2010. These guidelines signal a shift away from viewing the provision of WASH services as primarily an engineering challenge to one that requires activities that include source protection, institution building and long-term support and pro-poor planning, all of which need to be budgeted for by WASH service providers and/or users. Preliminary findings indicate that LCCA can be used to assess actual life-cycle costs of sustainable, equitable and efficient WASH service delivery. The challenge now is to investigate how best LCCA can be mainstreamed into WASH planning and other governance processes.

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