Safe drinking water a pipedream for millions of Indians

Constitutional provisions and government programmes notwithstanding, India lags behind in one of the most important concerns for the well being of any community: access to clean drinking water and sanitation. Millions of Indians are denied access to safe water.

Over 1.5 million children die every year from water-related diseases, about five lakh from diarrhoea. The number of man-days lost on account of these same diseases is staggering — a crippling element to the economy of the nation and the families affected. A large number of school drop-outs, particularly of girls, can be attributed to the low access to safe drinking water close to the house as well as the absence of basic sanitation facilities at home and at school.

In developing countries, over half of the nearly 40 diseases identified as major causes of mortality are related to water and sanitation. Over the decades the right to water has been declared or implied as an essential component of the right to life in a number of international declarations. Several of the explicit rights guaranteeing food, health and development cannot be attained without access to clean water.

The rise in industrialisation and urbanisation has seen a proportionate rise in the pollution of water sources by indiscriminate discharge of wastes from industrial plants and sewerage effluents. Diseases as a result of these constitute a substantial part of the health problems in the adjacent regions.

Growth of slums

The percentage of urban households using piped water has decreased thanks to the growth of urban slums. Only about 30 per cent of rural and 60 per cent of urban households have piped water inside their houses, and an equal number have to travel less than 0.25 km. For the rest procuring water is a cumbersome exercise that interferes with other critical activities such as income generation, education or other domestic chores. Increasing migration and population, urbanisation and industrialisation continue to further deprive citizens of this precious commodity.

The Dublin Conference on Water and Environment in 1992 suggested a new approach to water resources management — privatisation of water sector in developing countries. Recognising the economic value of water and treating it as an economic asset is an effective strategy in minimising wastage and stretching it as a resource and managing its distribution efficiently.

The National Water Policy (2002) reflects this changing paradigm and includes encouragement of private sector participation in the planning, development and management of water resources. Yet, about 40 million urban poor do not have access to safe water. Without effective regulation, privatisation of water is likely to benefit only those who can afford the facility, and the urban poor will continue to be excluded from this.

This urban crisis has spawned the bottled water industry — one of the fastest growing sectors in India, with huge multinationals playing the field. The growth of this industry, which is rapidly spreading its tentacles even to the interiors, is reflective of the state’s failure to provide clean drinking water to its citizens.

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