On May 28, less than 24 hours after an episode of stomach ache, diarrhoea and vomiting, Mallamma, a hotel worker, died in Raichur. The cause was contaminated drinking water.
The death occurred when her husband Mudukappa was busy inviting friends and relatives to their eldest daughter's wedding.
“Our daughter begged her to go to the hospital, but Mallamma said it was just a minor stomach ache. After repeated loose motions and vomiting, she was hospitalised, but she did not respond to the treatment," he explained.
The family has been living in Indiranagar, which falls under the Raichur City Municipal Council (CMC), for four decades. They had never imagined that the water supplied to their house could be poisonous.
“A tank has been built atop a hillock in Indiranagar. We used to drink water supplied from there. The water was greenish with evidence of moss during the summer. We had no choice but to drink this water,” he said.
Shivamma, a resident of the Indiranagar slum, said her daughter-in-law and two members of her family were admitted to the hospital with similar symptoms. They recovered.
Mohammed Noor (45), an auto driver and resident of Arab Mohalla in Raichur, was not so lucky. Like Mallamma, he died of gastroenteritis.
In the last two months, people living in the area say contaminated water has killed at least seven and led to the hospitalisation of several others. Officials put the death toll at three.
“The Death Audit Committee will arrive at a conclusion based on the line of treatment they received. As of now, three deaths have taken place due to gastroenteritis. A death audit of the fourth person is under way, and the report will be submitted to the deputy commissioner," District Health and Family Welfare officer Dr Surendrababu told DH.
Karnataka is among the top five states reporting a high number of diarrhoeal incidents, according to the Central Bureau of Health Intelligence. In 2020, the state recorded 7.13 lakh incidents. The health department put the death toll at four for that year.
In terms of incidence, Karnataka comes second only to West Bengal (13.57 lakh) and is followed by Andhra Pradesh (6.26 lakh), Rajasthan (6.07 lakh) and Odisha (5.17 lakh).
While Karnataka was ranked ninth in cleanliness in the latest Swachh Surveksan survey, living conditions in the northern districts show that a stricter evaluation is called for.
Decades of neglect has left crores of people vulnerable in northern Karnataka. A lack of basic amenities has led to deaths from preventable causes. Inability to access clean drinking water is a major cause of these mortalities.
Poor sanitation and hygiene cause contamination of water supply. About 70 per cent of India's drinking water supply is contaminated. Every day, 40 million litres of wastewater enters our rivers and water bodies, making it difficult for people to access clean drinking water.
Even in resource-rich regions, inequities in the distribution of clean water have wiped out many lives. G Raghu, a labourer from Odisha, died at McGann Hospital in Shivamogga on June 13, a day after he drank contaminated water. His wife Anasuya survived intense episodes of vomiting and diarrhoea.
No cleaning routine
The deaths in Raichur — where the water purification plant was not cleaned for years — are a grim reminder that the government should clean up water supply systems under its 314 urban local bodies.
Persistent problems include the lack of maintenance and testing of water sources and the proliferation of unauthorised water connections. In some places, water supply pipes pass through open drains.
Stories from the interiors are yet to come into focus. A majority of villages in Karnataka are dependent on borewells to access groundwater, the contamination of which is harder to detect. As a solution, the government has set up 18,653 reverse osmosis (RO) plants that have become a ubiquitous part of the village landscape.
From the awarding of tender to their functioning, everything about these RO plants has become a matter of political sparring. The chief minister ordered a probe after complaints of irregularities surfaced in 2020. Allegations of a scam in setting up the plants prompted the Speaker of the Assembly to set up a joint committee. The deadline for submission of the report was June 30. “The committee has sought an additional three months,” a source in the government said.
According to an expert who advises the government on rural water supply, decisions are made with no thought given to sustainability. “At the heart of it, water supply is tied to matters of sanitation and hygiene, which facilitate and complement local watershed development programmes. However, village officials are contented with drilling new borewells when the existing ones run out. The government needs to push for change,” he said.
The Union government has launched projects such as Swachh Bharat Abhiyan to end open defecation, Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation to provide taps and Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM) to ensure drinking water supply. However, gaps in the implementation have reduced their impact. This, in turn, has compromised efforts to improve hygiene in marginalised urban and rural communities.
Officials in the Rural Development and Panchayat Raj (RDPR) Department said the department was working on identifying sustainable sources of water under the JJM, but acknowledged the challenges in ensuring sanitation. “Independent assessment shows that 78 per cent to 79 per cent of the toilets in rural areas are in use. However, despite our best efforts, we have noticed that a large section of the rural population continues to opt for open defecation. This requires a behavioural change which takes time. We will conduct more information, education and communication campaigns,” said L K Atheeq, Additional Chief Secretary, RDPR.
He said the department had already started working on the next phase of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan. After developing private and community toilets, the government will focus on fecal sludge, grey water and solid waste management.
Checks and balances
“Water has to be tested before supply. As many as 31 district laboratories have been established, of which 18 are accredited by the National Accreditation Board for Testing and Calibration Laboratories (NABL). The remaining will be accredited soon. At the taluk level, we have set up 42 water testing labs to check quality,” he said.
An official in the health department said sustained supervision is required to ensure the programme gets implemented. “The surveillance officers have a big role to play. Coordinated efforts are necessary to ensure the success of the programmes,” he says.
Line of failures
Activists and residents say lack of surveillance and coordination was evident in Raichur, where the river water stored in Rampur lake was not checked for contamination. The lake supplied water to the treatment plant, which was dysfunctional.
Even though a new 12.50 MLD purification plant was built two years ago, it was not commissioned because of a tussle between the Karnataka Urban Water Supply and Drainage Board and Raichur City Municipal Council. Hence, water was being purified at the old plant. After the deaths, the new plant started functioning.
After this incident, Raichur CMC Commissioner Gurulingappa said the water supply board, while handing over the plant, should give the clearance certificates. “Neither the CMC asked for this certificate, nor did the board hand it over. However, Deputy Commissioner L Chandrashekhar Nayak has resolved all hurdles and the new plant was commissioned last month,” he said.
Waking up after the incident, the district health department has deployed its staff to collect water samples from houses and overhead tanks in Raichur. Dr Surendrababu said, “About 30 employees, along with watermen, have been deployed to collect water samples at random. We are mainly testing for bacteria in the water,” he said.
An expert, however, noted that administration at the gram panchayat, taluk panchayat and even zilla panchayat level was ineffective.
“These officials go back to sleep after the initial run. If they were really smart, the spate of deaths and the inquiry should have been sufficient to change the system,” he said, referring to seven deaths in Vijayanagar district and two deaths in Kalaburagi in 2021, which prompted the then chief secretary to order an inquiry by senior IAS officer Munish Moudgil.