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The painful necessity

By GovernanceToday
In Cover Story
May 4, 2016
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Thanks to the unique concept of Water ATMs that even the poor now realise that paying for clean water can save much more in healthcare costs later

water ATMsAlthough the drinking water has always been an issue in different parts of the country, it had never caught the national attention until the government’s recent move to rush water trains to the drought-hit Latur district of Maharashtra. While it exposed the reckless attitude of consecutive governments in the state, the development has brought to the fore the grave issue of water crisis that looms all over India like never before. Fresh water has indeed become such a scarce commodity these days that if at all there is a fear for a third world war, it could be over the drinking water. It’s not an unusual scene in India’s urban slums or neighbourhoods to see women and children line up with empty buckets waiting for the tanker truck to arrive. Even in rural areas women would walk a few kilometres to draw fresh water from wells. Often shortage of water leads to minor scuffles and the day’s schedule of many homes are wasted in waiting for arrival of tanker trucks.

While most of the countries have met the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target of safe drinking water, India is among the ten nations without access to safe drinking water. The country has 97 million people without access to improved water supplies, according to World Health Organization (WHO) and unavailability of clean water has affected the health of many Indians. Water supply in rural areas is routinely contaminated with toxic bacteria and many children die every year because of toxic water. High fluoride content in water has resulted in several cases of joint pain. Nearly three-fourths of all diseases caused in India are due to water contaminants. While the middle class and upper class generally install water purifiers and RO systems at home to access drinking water, this is not possible in the rural sector or urban people who might not be in a position to afford these devices.

In this context, it is easy to understand the relevance of water ATMs, which are basically water dispensers supplying safe drinking water at extremely reasonable prices. What makes Water ATMs a winning proposition is that it supplies clean drinking water for just Rs 1 per litre, thus making it affordable for the general public. On the other hand, a bottled water in the market is available for Rs 15 per litre. Piramal Foundation has introduced the idea of water ATMs in India quite recently with the help of its daughter company Sarvajal Private Limited. Thanks to this initiative, even the poor now realise that paying for clean water can save much more in healthcare costs later. It is a corporate social responsibility (CSR) division of business conglomerate Piramal group. Hundreds of water ATMs are now successfully working in many areas of India including even the national capital where sweet drinking water is not easily available.

Founded in 2008, Sarvajal—which in Sanskrit means “water for all”—currently serves three lakh people daily across 12 states, including Rajasthan, Gujarat, Haryana, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. In bigger villages, it employs local people to man filtration plants and sell water. In small villages, it installs solar-powered water dispensing machines that use prepaid (or pay-as-you-go) smart cards that can be topped up just like a mobile phone. The machines send data to a central server via SMS, which helps Sarvajal ensure regular supply of clean water.

Likewise, Vandana Foundation, Naandi Foundation, Water Health International, Aquakraft Projects and Cairn India’s Jeevan Amrit Project are among other organisations working on charity with various states to set up water ATMs at different locations in the country. The water is usually sourced from the municipal corporations, which is actually not safe for drinking. It is then treated with various chemicals and other scientific procedures to make it fit for drinking. “The treatment is customized according to the location and the quality of water. A number of factors, like demographics and quality of water, are taken into considerations before we decide the treatment,” as per Subramanya Kusnur, chairman and CEO of Aquakraft Projects Pvt. Limited. The treatment is modified according to the weather as well. For instance, bacteria are particularly high during rainy season so the treatment is changed accordingly. The groundwater is harder during summers so again the treatment changes to make the water drinkable.

Since the unique concept of water ATMs has been launched, water-borne diseases have come down and change has been observed in the social behaviours of the villagers – where women usually carry the task of fetching water, men are now happily involved. It has improved the lives of villagers and also functions as a form of self-governance. It is also emerging as a solution to providing clean drinking water in resettlement colonies which do not get piped water. Water to these colonies is generally supplied by the tankers of municipal corporations.

Judging by the success and prospect of these water ATMs, the government should consider taking up more water projects on similar models so as to provide citizens with access to safe drinking water. Talking of India’s water security, a report by Asian Development Bank has concluded that water prospects of the country are hazardous. Experts say that increased population of cities has resulted in increased demand for water. Even the government’s own data reveals that residents of major cities have to deal with daily shortages. There is fast depletion of groundwater as well. According to the World Bank, India is the largest user of ground water in the world, after China.

Most importantly, water management is the need of the hour. India gets fresh water every year through monsoons and glacier melts. But there is lack of infrastructure for rain water harvesting and for distribution, or even leakage in distribution. Many cities get adequate water, but due to faulty engineering and poor maintenance, little is harvested. It is time to discuss whether nationalization of waters would be more advantageous for the country. States cannot think only for their own self. Access to water should be considered as a basic human right and water should be treated as a shared commodity. This is necessary to safeguard the country from droughts and floods. Besides, water pollution should be made a serious offence. Pollution of rivers and waste water management are areas where government should start working immediately, in addition to thinking of long term solutions. Short term solutions are rain water harvesting and increasing the capacity of lakes and reservoirs.