After Prime Minister Narendra Modi set an ambitious target of supplying piped water to every household by 2024, his ministerial colleague Ram Vilas Paswan recently sought to raise the bar by talking about benchmarking the quality of tap water.
Paswan wants to make it mandatory to provide the Bureau of India Standards (BIS) quality tap water to households in all state capitals and 100 smart cities.
Whether or not it is political jumla is not yet clear as water is not part of Paswan’s portfolio. He actually spoke in his capacity as the consumer affairs minister.
Also, Paswan’s comments came as an offshoot of his squabble with Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who claimed the Delhi Jal Board supplied pure water, while a BIS probe found ample evidence to the contrary. On paper, nearly 90% of urban households currently have access to piped water, but over 80% of rural households are not yet on the map. But is uniform mandatory quality benchmarking across the country feasible or even desirable?
Rajendra Singh, a Magsaysay award winner known as the ‘Waterman of India’, questioned the logic of uniform BIS specifications in a country that has many agro-ecological zones with differing water qualities. As per BIS standards, the pH value of the water needs to be between 6.5 and 8.5, while calcium carbonate must not exceed the maximum permissible limit of 600 mg per litre, among many other specifications.
The pH value, a measure of acidity, for instance, would vary across states, Rajendra said, and added, “People of Vizag cannot consume high pH water available in Rajasthan.”
In a withering comment, the ‘Waterman’, who recently visited Visakhapatnam and suggested measures to the local municipal corporation for protection and rejuvenation of water bodies, said the Union minister does not understand the dynamics of water, adding any attempt to impose uniformity would be an exercise in futility and only help the corporates in the water business.
NO BIS CERTIFICATION FOR MOST STATE-RUN LABS
However, officials in cities like Chennai and Hyderabad and states such as Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Rajasthan say that the water supplied by them already conforms to national standards.
Those from the Chennai Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board, which is the nodal authority responsible for supplying drinking water to the city, said that they are already treating water to match the IS 10500: 2012 standard.
“Tap water in most households supplied by us will pass through parameters set by BIS unlike New Delhi,” said a confident official in Chennai.
Their counterparts in Hyderabad echo the claim saying the drinking water supplied to the over 1 crore population in Greater Hyderabad and the city outskirts is potable and safe.
The Hyderabad Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board also points to the certification it received in June this year from a private firm for ensuring their water management system is in line with the norms.
Every day, about 2,000-2,200 water samples are lifted from parts of the city for quality checks, officials said.
Plus, for internal monitoring, the water board is also utilising the services of the Institute of Preventive Medicine (IPM) and Institute of Health Systems (IHS) to study the water quality in coordination with the Quality Analysis and Testing (QAT) wing.
Dr MVSS Giridhar, professor at the Centre for Water Resources, JNTU Hyderabad, concurred. “The drinking water supplied in Hyderabad meets national standards. One of our M Tech students had conducted tests on samples of drinking water supplied by the water board. He collected it from residential areas. All parameters for water quality were within the limits,” he said.
Tough to maintain quality
But if the quality of tap water was so good, how does one explain the proliferation of bottled water in cities like Chennai? Also, the quality of water sold in bubble-top cans is dicey. Experts point out that regular cleaning and maintenance of water pipes and overhead storage tanks are the key to providing good quality drinking tap water.
Professor Giridhar said, “It is only when there are repair works on water supply pipelines or intrusion from nearby sewage water lines that the drinking water gets contaminated and becomes unfit for consumption.”
Prof K Sivasubramaniyan, specialising in water management at the Madras Institute of Development Studies, pointed out: “Even if authorities provide water as per standards, routine maintenance of their pipes that transport it across the city is not done. This is the reason why water from hand pumps on the street is usually coloured and gives a foul smell. Residents must clean their storage tanks too.”
All these points are valid. Officials of the Public Health Engineering Organisation (PHEO) in Bhubaneswar, a state capital that is also on the smart city list, said they are complying with the standards at source point of supply, but were unsure if the water maintains its quality till it reaches the households.
“Even if the water supplied from the filtration point is pure and meets BIS specifications, it sometimes gets contaminated due to leakage of old pipelines in certain areas. Addressing this issue remains a challenge,” said Chittaranjan Jena, superintending engineer of PHEO’s Bhubaneswar circle.
But mandatory compliance of BIS quality standard for tap water would not be a tough task for Kerala, Water Resources Minister K Krishnankutty said.
Jessy Jose, director, State Referral Institute For Water Quality, said the Kerala Water Authority (KWA), can assure consumers of 100% quality in the case of water stored in the tanks and also in the main transmission pipelines.
“Since quality tests are conducted at every stage and major junctions, chances of contamination, both physiological and bacterial, are zero,” she said. “However, the chance of contamination becomes very high near the outlets.”
Dr Kamalakshan Kokkal, chief scientist and coordinator of Envis, a research agency under the Kerala State Council for Science, Technology and Environment, said the Centre’s proposal would help in devising a more scientific protocol to ensure the quality of piped water is good.
“Random checks have shown the presence of coliform bacteria in the piped water supplied in Thiruvananthapuram. Besides ensuring proper treatment at the plants, a foolproof system should be in place to make sure that the water remains safe until it reaches the public. Contamination in piped water is often due to pipe bursts,” he said.
According to Dr Kamalakshan, coliform bacteria is the single largest threat to the water quality in the state.
“It doesn’t result in water-borne diseases since the people are literate enough to consume boiled water,” he said.
Take it from the river
Cities with major rivers flowing near them seem to be at an advantage. Assam’s Public Health Engineering supplies Brahmaputra water to all households in the city. Manin Kumar Das, a deputy secretary there, said the river water was less polluted than groundwater that is contaminated with arsenic-fluoride.
“The level of pollution in the river’s surface water is very less because there are no industries near the river,” said Das.
Municipal authorities in Vijayawada too said that a water source like the Krishna is an added advantage to the city and since it is surface water, the number of checks needed to be done is comparatively less than with other sources like groundwater.
At present, the ‘IS 10500: 2012 Drinking Water Specification’ is a voluntary standard. It has to be notified to make it mandatory after consultations with state governments, a BIS official said.
The drinking standard for the first time was published in 1983 and revised twice in 1991 and last in 2012.
According to water experts in Karnataka, the current standards are not legally binding and municipal authorities cannot get sued.
However, those selling packaged drinking water have to meet the BIS norms and can be taken to court if they fail to do so. Once the Centre makes the BIS mandatory, it would be wary of litigation.
Not enough labs
Even if the government makes the norms mandatory, there are only 250 BIS-certified labs in the country to test water samples. Also, most of the labs run by state-run water boards/authorities are not BIS-certified.
“We have 250 BIS certified labs across the country, each of which can test 10-12 samples per day,” said a senior BIS official, who is part of the consultations on water standards.
Most of the water-testing laboratories in states where samples are being tested are not BIS certified.
“Even Delhi Jal Board labs don’t have BIS certification. They all need to apply for certificates to ensure that potable water meets standards,” he added.
The BIS will also have to devise schemes for the periodicity of sample collection, product standard for treatment of water and the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point (HACCP), an internationally accepted process control system.
The HACCP determines hazards in each step of the under-process product and water suppliers in many countries have ensured drinking water safety through this system.
Scientists at the BIS feel that mandatory water standards implementation is challenging keeping in mind poor water infrastructure that is shabbily maintained and huge water pilferage in India.
“There is a need to build a massive network of infrastructure to ensure water standards are maintained when it reaches every household,” said a scientist at the Food and Agriculture Department (FAD) in BIS that develops standards.
“Key upgradation ranging from certified labs to test water samples, training manpower for lab analysis, use of BIS certified water pipelines, proper maintenance of pipelines both at the consumer and the municipality level and checking cross-connection between sewer and water pipelines are important,” he added.
The scientist pointed out that the staff employed at many non-BIS certified water testing laboratories don’t follow even basic procedures for testing the collection of a water sample in a sterilised container.
“A lot of training and awareness needs to happen before standards are actually met. All of this will have monetary cost that has to be borne by both the Centre and the state,” the BIS official added.
In sum, don’t dream of directly consuming tap water in the near term, though the facility is available in many developed countries. And for now, be prudent enough to boil the water before you drink it.
Water quality is a national worry, but its benchmarking is a big secret in Kolkata if one were to go by the bizarre claim of Khalil Ahmed, the civic body commissioner.
“We have an experts’ body in the water supply dept. They decide the desirable limits of various parameters in drinking water, which we don’t share due to security reasons,’’ he said.