Normally government advertisements are drab, but the one issued by the Odisha Chief Minister on July 26 was surreal. It claimed that all the 2.5 lakh residents of temple town Puri could drink water straight out of a tap!
If the claims made in the full page advertisements carried by all major newspapers were indeed true, it is a remarkable achievement. A state government official clarified that if Puri is supplying clean water, it doesn’t mean that authorities in other cities were supplying impure water. Water from Puri’s taps, the official claimed, would be “doubly safe.”
In other words, if clean drinking water is available on tap, it need not be stored, boiled or filtered. Also, water would be available 24×7 and not intermittently or for fixed hours as is the practice in several cities around the country.
So, imagine a scenario where tourists in Puri need not carry around a water bottle or look for stores that keep “mineral water” in chillers. Then there were regular jargons. A government note claimed that Puri could supply clean water using “state-of-the-art” technology and “management tools” available in London, Singapore, New York, etc.
This assertion took my memories back to the summer of 1994 when I was in London on an official assignment. I looked around my hotel room for some water and all I could find were neatly arranged sachets of coffee, teabags, two glasses, and an electric jug. I rung up the help desk for some water and the voice encouraged me to make use of the washroom tap!
Those days, Indian Economic Reforms of 1991 were still fresh in everyone’s mind and though Margret Thatcher had retired, Thatcherism hadn’t. There were furious debates over the concept of user charges where local bodies would directly charge consumers for services — such as roads, water and electricity — circumventing legislature. I got a firsthand experience of its fallout when I discovered that my friends gallivanting on Oxford Street preferred a glass of beer over water as the former was cheaper than the latter.
Back home, we never lugged water bottles to school. There was free flowing sweet water available on taps and all that students would do to quench their thirst was to cup their hands to gulp down some liquid. We didn’t have gravity-based or candle-fitted filters at home. The concept of water filters using reverse osmosis or ultra violet ray technology were alien. There was no mass supply of packaged water in bottles or cans, either.
The value of the branded bottled water market in India is estimated at $20 billion. There are a number of other unbranded companies that sell water. During the summer months water tankers are in vogue in cities. In Chennai, companies that sell “canned water” make a killing though its purity is often questionable. In rural India, the situation is worse. According to a 2018 report of NITI Aayog, nearly 600 million or half of India’s population faces extreme water stress. Many of them have simply no access to drinking water. Shockingly nearly one lakh people die annually in India due to waterborne diseases. In 2016, Bengaluru’s water crisis became so acute that an academic pointed out that by 2020 the city would be “unliveable.”
Then there is a huge plastic bottle industry that operates in parallel. According to an estimate, each Indian consume 11 kg of plastic annually. Yet another study says 90 per cent of plastic produced in Asia finally finds its way to the sea. The CM has estimated that in Puri his move would eliminate the usage of 3 crore plastic water bottles. This would mean the city will now be free from nearly 400 metric tonnes of plastic waste generated in a year.
The Orissa plan has three objectives. One, to provide round-the-clock quality water to every urban household in the state. Second, individual connections would be treated as public work and maintained by trained plumbers. The residents would therefore be encouraged to do away with the present system of setting up overhead water tanks, sumps, drums, large plastic containers, etc. Thirdly, there would be 100 per cent metering of households to ensure that after a certain basic threshold of free water, any excess usage must be paid for.
Besides the consumer is expected to save costs on constructing reservoirs, buying motor pumps and RO/UV based water filters.
The implementation of the project, largely meant for urban areas, is not going to be easy because this requires a change in mindset. Water scarcity is so widespread that people would loathe to doing away with the practice of storing water. The government would have to build confidence and reassure the people that it would keep its word and provide non-stop potable water.
The task is complex in India where there are complaints of drinking water getting mixed with sewage water. Water pollution is so rampant that the government would have to really work hard to convince the consumers. The crisis could deepen due to water logging caused by natural calamities such as floods or cyclones. Also non-availability of water or reduced water supply during summer or extreme heat conditions is going to be another challenge. The impact of climate change and unpredictable weather patterns could pose their own set of problems.
Nonetheless the idea of delivery of clean water through taps is an exciting proposition. Use of packaged water and water filters in homes are normalised to such an extent that most people can’t even imagine a life without them. For instance, in Chennai “metro water” is provided to households on a tap, but people still prefer to use either a water filter or opt for canned water. Alternatively they boil and drink water.
Despite the challenges the idea is implementable. This would not only improve the overall heath and convenience of citizens, but force the state to fulfil its basic duty of providing clean water. The concept of payment over free basic would encourage water conservation and protect the poor as they are the one who pay heavy price for contaminated water. Other states too should emulate Odisha with a reminder that we shouldn’t take nature’s generosity for granted.