More than six decades after the Independence, India’s urban water quality is worse than ever before. Admittedly, the population has grown tremendously. Equally, agricultural and industrial activities and the levels of urbanization have increased significantly. However, even though population of the country is around 1.2 billion and industrial activities and urbanization have increased significantly during the post-Independent period, the country’s economic development has also accelerated substantially, as also has its knowledge, experience and technology.
There is not a single good reason as to why India’s urban population cannot have access to clean water, wastewater cannot be property treated before being discharged to the rivers, and monsoon rains cannot be promptly drained so transportation and socio-economic systems are not paralyzed. The problems have been known for long, solutions have been known for at least five decades and financial and management needs can be successfully met. Yet, the problems continue to persist. Analysis of the current situations and trends indicate that there is no realistic possibility that the problems will be solved during the next 30 years for most of urban India. Still, why it has not been possible for India to solve its urban water problems?
Why it hasn’t been possible for India to solve its urban water problems?
Let us first consider some myths, which are often used as excuses for the status quo. The first myth finds an echo in Benjamin Disraeli’s words: “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics”. This is very appropriate for the urban water sector of India. The problem is effectively hidden in the guise of statistical fog. According to the latest report (2010) of WHO and UNICEF, as well as those of the government of India, 98 per cent of urban India has access to “improved sources of water”. If one believes that “improved sources” means drinkable water without any adverse health impacts, which most of the world interprets it to mean, they could not be more mistaken. The real fact is that “improved sources” have no linkage to quality. The water quality of an urban centre may have declined very significantly, as has been the case for many of India towns and cities, but officially they are considered “improved sources”. When I proposed the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade (IDWSSD) to the Secretary General of the UN Water Conference in early 1976, our thinking was unambiguous. Access to clean water meant that everyone will have clean drinking water which is safe to drink without any health hazard. This convoluted definition of improved sources now means that as long as people have access to water, no matter what is its quality, it is an “improved source”. The main consideration should be availability of adequate quantum of water per person, of right quality, and with easy access.
The second myth is there is not enough water to ensure a 24-hour supply. Consider any large Indian city. Usually, the unaccounted for water is over 50%, which is mostly between 40–60 per cent of the supply. Even then, most inhabitants of these cities use more than two to three times the average daily consumption of any citizen of Hamburg, Munich or Rotterdam, and consumers are being continuously told that there is not enough water to assure a continuous 24×7 safe water supply. This is seemingly a good excuse, but is utter nonsense. Water is almost free in nearly all Indian cities. Ask any Indian what is h/his electricity bill, s/he would know the actual amount. Ask the same person, what is their water bill, and they invariably would not have a clue. Yet, while municipalities provide almost free water, the coping costs of making that water usable for the Indian householders are quite high and significant.