NEW DELHI: 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 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 yet not 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 standards in a country that has many agro-ecological zones with differing water qualities.
As per BIS specification, 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 600mg per litre. 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 Paswan does not understand the dynamics of water. He added that any attempt to impose uniformity would be an exercise in futility and only help the corporates in the water business.
‘BIS standard water sometimes gets contaminated due to pipe leakage’
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 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 most parameters set by BIS unlike New Delhi,” an official in Chennai said.
Their counterparts in Hyderabad echo the claim saying the drinking water supplied is potable and safe. The Hyderabad Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board also points to the certification received by them in June this year from a private firm for ensuring their water management system is in line with the norms. Dr M V S S Giridhar, professor at the Centre for Water Resources, JNTU Hyderabad, concurred. “One of our students had conducted tests on samples of drinking water supplied by the water board, collected from residential areas. All the water quality parameters 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? Experts point out that regular cleaning of water pipes and overhead storage tanks are the key to providing good quality drinking water. Professor Giridhar said, “As per our observation, 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.”Officials of the Public Health Engineering Organisation in Bhubaneswar said that they are complying with the standards at source point of supply.
Better boil it
Dr Kamalakshan Kokkal, chief scientist and coordinator of Envis, a research agency, said the Centre’s proposal would help in devising a scientific protocol to ensure quality of piped water. “Random checks have shown the presence of coliform bacteria in piped water supplied in Thiruvananthapuram. Besides ensuring proper treatment at the plants, a foolproof system should be in place to ensure that the water remains safe until it reaches the public,” he said.
While water quality is a national worry, its benchmarking is a big secret in Kolkata, if one were to go by the bizarre claim of Khalil Ahmed, the commissioner of the civic body. “We have an experts’ body in the civic body’s water supply department. They decide the desirable limits of various parameters in drinking water, which we don’t share because of security reasons,’’ 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 city households. Manin Kumar Das, a deputy secretary, said the river water was less polluted than groundwater that is contaminated with arsenic-fluoride. Municipal authorities in Vijayawada too said that a water source in the form of River Krishna is an added advantage to the city.
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. 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.
Not enough labs
Only 250 BIS-certified laboratories in the country
State-run water labs not BIS-certified
Delhi Jal Board labs don’t have BIS certification
Devise schemes for periodicity of sample collection, product standard for treatment of water and HACCP
Staff at non-BIS certified water testing labs don’t follow basic procedures