The Hepatitis E outbreak in Sambalpur which has claimed 20 lives and afflicted more than 2,500, not only lays bare a grossly ineffectual public health monitoring and management system in the state but also the utter failure of the government in ensuring access to clean and safe drinking water to its people. The Western Odisha city was let to grapple with the outbreak caused mainly by contaminated drinking water supplied through dilapidated and leaking pipelines for over six months. With death count rising and realisation of its gravity finally dawning, chief minister Naveen Patnaik in December announced a `100-crore project to revamp drinking water supply system in the city.
While the situation in Sambalpur shows signs of abating – more due to the self-limiting tendency of the Hepatitis virus than belated interventions – virtually every city and town of the state epitomises the same malaise, lying exposed to waterborne disease outbreaks, thanks to years of neglect and disrepair. Even though ever increasing population pressure along with demand has led to fast-paced development of urban infrastructure, attuning drinking water supply systems to the changes has been forgone. As a consequence, supply pipelines, aged and derelict as they are, now lay crushed under roads and entangled in drainage systems as sitting ducks for leakages and contamination.
The millennium city of Cuttack, in fact, is the most vulnerable of all urban centres of the state with almost the bulk of its 550 km-long pipeline network dating back to more than half a century. The state needs to comprehensively re-examine the water supply systems and draw-up a strategy for complete overhaul of the aged ones. The task at hand, no doubt, is onerous but access to clean and safe drinking water is a human right of the people that the government cannot afford to absolve itself of.