Safe drinking water, a basic amenity has become a luxury in many Indian households, especially in semi-urban and rural areas. Water supply in India has two principal sources, namely water from rivers and groundwater. However, the rivers are shrinking because of pollution and industrialization, while the population keeps growing, pushing us towards an enormous water deficit. A WaterAid report in 2016 ranked India among the worst countries in the world for the number of people without safe water. An estimated 76 million people in India have no access to a safe water supply, and the situation is only getting more serious. The revelation that tap water supplied in 15 out of 21 major cities and state capitals has failed to satisfy one or more safety standards and is unsafe to drink is not surprising. Water quality is the worst in Delhi, and it is very bad or below par in most other cities like Chennai, Kolkata, Bengaluru and Pune. Mumbai water has the best quality, with all the samples taken from the city meeting the standards prescribed by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS). The tests were conducted by the BIS at the behest of the Union Ministry of Consumer Affairs, and the testing was done on parameters relating to colour, odour and the presence of hazardous metals and minerals, toxic substances, harmful viruses and bacteria. Most people know that the water that they drink is not healthy, and the report has confirmed it.
The situation would not be different in cities where the testing has not yet been done. People have to boil water, install purifiers at home or buy packaged water to avoid water-borne infections and diseases. The last two options are difficult for poor people. Even packaged water may not always be safe. Official water distributing agencies have the responsibility to supply clean drinking water to the public. When people pay for water, they have the right to get safe water. The agencies are expected to comply with the standards for drinking water, but they do not do so. Union Consumer Affairs Minister Ram Vilas Pawan says the BIS standards are not mandatory now and so stringent action cannot be taken against those who supply contaminated water. It is not known what prevents the government from making the standards mandatory, except that it will mostly affect official agencies who will be forced to improve their standards.
A number of issues, like the overdrawing of groundwater, changing monsoon behaviour, increasing urbanisation and rising population and unplanned development of cities have all to be taken into consideration to evolve an effective drinking water management policy. Investment in treatment plants, sanitation and waste management and optimum pricing should also be elements of the policy. There is no sign of any thinking about such a comprehensive policy at the national or other levels. The government’s ambitious plan to provide piped water to all households also has to be seen in this context. The report has given rise to a political slugfest between Paswan and Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal, and that shows how politicians approach the issue.