Pipe dream: Why safe tap water remains a privilege in India

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September 26, 2021 3:45 AM

Despite govt efforts, safe tap water remains a privilege in India due to concerns over steady supply, quality checks, testing and real-time surveillance of consumer complaints, among other factors

jal jeevanGujarat plans to provide tap connections in 11.15 lakh households during 2020-21

Clean drinking water from taps is a privilege in India. That’s because piped water supply isn’t universally available in many areas and tap water isn’t potable. Besides installation of a seamless network of supply, reliable and real-time monitoring of water quality, the health hazards associated with piped water require a lot of ‘trust’ for it to be consumed directly from taps.

Recently, Puri in Odisha became the first Indian city to provide 24×7 safe drinking water from taps for residents in July this year. It’s indeed a laudable effort for a city, which is also a major tourist hotspot, to provide clean water to nearly two crore people annually. The city has installed water fountains to eliminate the use of plastic water bottles and reduce 400 metric tons of plastic waste.

Puri may have taken the lead in 24×7 supply of quality tap water, but the road to achieve 100% target for every household in India is no cakewalk. In addition to providing potable tap water connection in rural India under the government’s flagship ‘Har Ghar Nal Se Jal’ scheme, factors like steady water supply and quality checks, testing and contamination-free water at local level are a concern, as also a real-time surveillance system to track and log consumer complaints, remove overhead water tanks, pumps and RO-based water filters—the efforts to achieve a seamless supply are far and wide.

“What Puri has achieved is commendable and can certainly be done across India with proper planning. However, some challenges remain like legacy water pipelines with leakages, undetected mixing of water supply with sewerage and uncertainty in source water availability all through the year,” says Dr Sunderrajan Krishnan, executive director, India Natural Resource Economics and Management (INREM) Foundation, a research institution probing societal issues concerning water, public health, agriculture and the environment.

Even though the efforts of the city are laudable, experts also feel the focus should not be to achieve the coverage but sustain the gains in the long run. “All this can be achieved through efficient service delivery benchmarks with adequate operation and maintenance of created infrastructure,” says Anshuman, associate director, water resources, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), New Delhi. TERI is a not-for-profit, policy research organisation working in the fields of energy, environment, and sustainable development.

Country under a mission
Clean drinking water is a must for the population to have reduced burden of water-borne diseases and to have an improved life. But it also requires substantial capital investments for related infrastructure and necessitates efficient operation and maintenance for sustained and effective service delivery, besides adequate awareness generation and capacity building of relevant stakeholders (beneficiaries, relevant departments, and staff, etc) on drinking water supply systems, health, and hygiene. This is something that Odisha has done.

Water-borne diseases due to water contamination were a never-ending issue in the state but authorities have now ensured 24×7 supply of regular network, quality control at tap connection and stressed on quality checking of surface and groundwater. “Because water is not a commodity, it’s a public good, so, quality drinking water is closely linked with human health, human development index and economy,” says G Mathi Vathanan, principal secretary, housing and urban development department, Odisha, who spoke with Sunday FE and explained how the step-by-step process of the ‘drink-from-tap’ project started in 2017 when Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik launched a mission called ‘SUJAL’ for universal coverage of tap water in every household.

“By 2019, our pipeline network had crossed 80% of the target in many urban local bodies. With 10% area left to be covered, the government then came up with the ‘5T’ governance mantra in 2019 [5T stands for transparency, technology, teamwork, time, and transformation]. We zeroed in on ISO-10500 quality water, an ‘assured quality water’ standard, besides 30 other parameters, which include chemical and metal content, water treatment and storage reservoir, IoT-based real-time monitoring of water supply quantity and quality, etc,” says Vathanan. By October 2023, the state plans to cover 17 cities including Bhubaneswar, Cuttack, Rourkela and Baripada.

While international cities like London, New York and Singapore have long ago been supplying quality piped drinking water from tap, India has improved considerably in the past few decades in access and provision of safe drinking water to urban and rural populations.

As per the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5, 2019-20), in the last five years, access to improved drinking water sources for the household population increased across all the 22 surveyed states and Union territories (except Sikkim, which registered a 5% decline), informs Anshuman of TERI.

“Except Manipur, Meghalaya, Assam, Tripura and Ladakh, all other 17 states and UTs recorded above 90% population having access to improved sources of drinking water,” he says.

Furthermore, the Central government’s mission to supply drinking water and connections is an ongoing mission pursued since 2019, when the Jal Shakti Ministry was formed. Announced as one of the most aspirational programmes on August 15, 2019 by PM Narendra Modi, the Rs 3.5 lakh-crore Jal Jeevan Mission aims to provide a functional household tap connection (FHTC) to 157 million rural households by 2024. The mission is under implementation in partnership with states/ UTs to provide tap water connection to every rural household with Rs 50,011 crore as budget in 2021-22. With states’ own resources and Rs 26,940 crore as 15th Finance Commission tied grant for water and sanitation to rural local bodies or Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRI) this year, more than Rs 1 lakh crore is being invested in providing rural drinking water supply.

Under Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM), Karnataka was allocated Rs 5,009 crore by the Centre in July for 2021-22. Similarly, Kerala was allocated Rs 1,804.59 crore in June this year, Tamil Nadu was allocated Rs 3,691.21 crore, and Andhra Pradesh got Rs 3,182.88 crore this year.

Gujarat plans to provide tap connections in 11.15 lakh households during 2020-21. In 2020-21, Rs 883.08 crore was allocated. Including state share, there is assured availability of Rs 1,777.56 crore. Gujarat has been allocated Rs 3,195 crore under 15th Finance Commission Grants to PRIs and 50% of it is to be used mandatorily for water supply and sanitation.

In Odisha, Rs 364.74 crore in 2019-20, Rs 812.15 crore in 2020-21 and Rs 3,323.42 crore in 2021-22 have been allocated as Central grant under JJM to make provision of tap water supply, as stated by MoS for Jal Shakti Prahlad Singh Patel in Lok Sabha on July 29 this year.

Two years on, the states and Uts showing progress under the JJM and covering 100% of households with a functional tap water connection are Goa, Telangana, Puducherry, and Andaman & Nicobar Islands, Daman and Diu, Daman and Nagar Haveli, as per official data. Haryana and Bihar are expected to join by the end of this year. UTs may be able to accomplish the same in 2022, and by 2024, most states can be estimated to reach 100% water access. “This will encourage other states to pace up and achieve the mission targets well in time. The urban and rural drinking water supply coverage has to be looked at holistically by the states, though,” says Anshuman of TERI.

As per the Jal Jeevan Mission’s official data released, over 78 districts, 933 blocks, 57,179 gram panchayats and 1,14102 villages across the country have assured tap water connections along with 75% government schools and 66% anganwadis centres.

Problem areas
The basic challenge in coping with the provision of safe drinking water would be to sustainably ensure efficient service delivery with adequate quantity. This means ensuring 24×7 access to safe drinking water of adequate quantity (for instance, 135 litres per capita per day (lpcd) to urban population and minimum 55 lpcd to rural population) and adequate quality conforming to norms (BIS: 10500, 2012).

For instance, the Delhi government has set a target of providing 24×7 water supply to every household by 2024, but supply is an issue. On an average, a household in Delhi gets around four hours of water supply per day and the Delhi Jal Board, as the government agency responsible for supply of potable water to the National Capital Territory of Delhi, supplies around 935 million gallons of water per day (MGD) against the demand of 1,140 MGD.

DJB now plans to discharge treated effluent of high quality at Palla along the Delhi-Haryana border and lift it at Wazirabad for further treatment. This will give an additional 95 MGD of water by December 2024, besides 50 MGD of water from Himachal Pradesh by December 2022. By October next year, the board will draw 25 MGD from the reservoirs created in the Yamuna floodplains to retain excess water in the monsoon season and around 200 MGD of groundwater will be extracted from areas with high water tables. Overall, Delhi will have 1,305 MGD of water available to meet the demand of its residents by March 2025, as per news reports.

Besides the historically known challenges in water supply and distribution such as high leakages/losses, high non-revenue water (NRW), inequity in distribution, poor operation and maintenance, among others, there is a need to engage with local communities.

Another challenge is to convince people to drink from taps, which in turn will let go of the system of water storage in vessels, drums, overhead tanks, since these have a high risk of contamination. “While one city in each state (or maybe a part of it) could actually move towards this possible goal, for the system at large to go towards it is really difficult at present. If the water is indeed pure to drink, after that it is a matter of developing trust in people,” says Krishnan of INREM Foundation.

Water conservation measures like rainwater harvesting, aquifer recharge, repair of traditional water bodies, desilting of ponds and lakes, watershed development, afforestation, etc, are vital for increasing the groundwater availability, which will help in achieving water security in villages.

Anshuman of TERI feels a majority of the Indian population has continually faced challenges in accessing drinking water of adequate quantity and quality, historically. Inequitable access, inadequate supply, unreliable supply timings compounded with water quality issues from time to time have rendered people to rely less on the traditional water supply. “A majority of the population, especially in urban setup, relies on individual household drinking water treatment units. The situation is less of a choice in rural setups where communities have to depend on public handpumps, stand-posts, borewells, etc, for their drinking water needs. This situation must change, and India should head towards achieving a reliable and safe source of drinking water through taps within the households,” adds Anshuman.

Many solutions to the existing challenges are taken state-wise. Problems like land acquisition in states can take time to start a project. Rural areas that have an existing water supply can require time-to-time analysis of tube wells, handpumps, or tap water for water quality and availability. “We ensure water treatment plants in such areas or surface water-based sources to treat water. If needed, we can install a capital-intensive sedimentation tank. But the idea is to push states on groundwater availability,” says a government official associated with Jal Jeevan Mission.

For water scarcity areas in states like Maharashtra, Karnataka, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu coastal belt, there is provision of bulk water transportation. “We have a solar-based water pumping system installed in Odisha, Jharkhand and Majuli in Assam. So, not all states have the same model. We take a broader approach,” the official says.

While treatment is not a problem, standardising the practise as a process is important. Vathanan, the principal secretary of housing and urban development department in Odisha, says, “The quality of water is compromised not at the end route but from treatment plant to supply to the distribution plant. The network has to be fixed, keeping in mind the ferrule point, which mostly gets contaminated due to breakage or due to poor connection or supply. For this purpose, we have changed all leaky pipelines throughout the state.”

Testing and analysis
Water pipeline is continuous and a considerable process. And in this process, the JJM has begun to empower citizens to monitor water quality. While groundwater contamination is a huge problem and has been the cause of severe public health risks, drinking water contamination due to geogenic (natural causes) and anthropogenic (human-made) activities has led to severe water-borne diseases in the past.

To combat the issue of poor water quality, the Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation under the Jal Shakti Ministry has introduced Water Quality Management Information System (WQMIS), a dedicated one-stop information portal which allows people to register, book and get their household water tested at the nearest government-affiliated laboratory by paying a nominal fee. The portal has received 4.9 lakh samples for water quality testing as of July this year.

The system has been trying its best to make water quality management not just for public health engineers but empower communities and women to monitor water quality at the community level using Field Test Kits (FTKs). “In rural areas, we are building the capacity of public health engineers by providing certain standards to the supply of water,” says a senior government official.

Puri has launched ‘Jalsathis’, an all-women crew to facilitate new connections, field water quality testing, reading water meters, distributing water bills, collecting user charges and sensitising people on water conservation. Also, a chlorine dosing system with automated programmable logic controllers (PLCs) is installed to ensure appropriate water quality at the consumer end. “We have liberalised the connection process and exempted the documentation process which is a major hurdle in getting a connection,” says Vathanan.

To tap polluted water and prevent its flow in the rivers and other freshwater bodies, Indore in Madhya Pradesh has worked in more than 7,000 outfalls of grey water. The city has claimed ‘Water Plus’ tag which is accorded to cities under the Swachh Survekshan survey on the basis of their performance. The administration has constructed seven sewerage water treatment plants and the city reuses about 110 million litres of treated water every day.

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