A 20-litre bottle of drinking water for Rs.3 shouldn’t be a hard sell in Delhi, a city that nearly every summer comes to the brink of a water crisis.

But a high-tech initiative that provides cheap drinking water through ATM-like kiosks in a resettlement colony here is still struggling to win over residents six months into the project. A filtration plant and 15 water ATMs run by Sarvajal spread across in North-West Delhi’s JJ colony -- Sawda Ghevra -- provide locals reverse osmosis-filtered water for 15 paisa per litre at the plant and 30 paisa per litre the kiosks.

Set up on the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board land in October last year, the pilot project was facilitated by the Delhi Jal Board, which sunk a bore-well for the plant. Raw water goes through a carbon cartridge filter, a micro filter, an RO unit and finally a disinfection process using UV rays.

The water is then taken to the 500-litre capacity ‘ATMs’ through a tanker. If the water level drops to 100 litres in the ATMs, an SMS is sent to the refill tanker driver. The plant and the ATMs are all connected by cloud computing, so the quality is monitored in real-time. The plant is a zero-wastage facility, with the waste water being directed to a recharge pit.

The cashless vending machines dispense drinking water when swiped with cards that can be recharged at the plant through a mobile phone. As of Wednesday, 925 cards had been distributed among the 8,500 families. “We have only been able to reach about 20 per cent of the population here,” said Amit Mishra, operations manager of the project.

“We have the capacity for 20,000 litres daily, but the current demand is only 2,000 to 2,500 litres per day. We are expecting a 50 per cent increase in demand during the summer,” he said.

The reason for the slow response is the free-of-cost alternative provided by Delhi Jal Board tankers, said Sarvajal COO Anuj Sharma. The colony was established in 2005 but there is no piped water supply in the area so the DJB tankers are the residents’ lifeline. Even among those who have taken to Sarvajal, some continue to use the tankers for non-drinking purposes.

A resident who runs a grocery store, Baby, said she uses the water ATM near her house every day but still waited for the tanker to turn up. “The Sarvajal water is good to drink, but we use the tanker water for everything else.”

Another resident, Tej Singh, appeared well aware of his rights and hygiene issues as he waited for the container to fill. “This ATM has better flow than the other one, so I always come here. Also the other one has too many flies near it. Since I’m paying for it, I want proper facilities.”

Another resident, Amit, said he no longer likes the taste of the tanker water. The reason lies in the low total dissolved solids in the RO water dispensed through the ATMs.

The DJB is now working on replicating the model in 10 more locations in the city. “The tenders have been called, but the exact spots are yet to be decided,” said DJB spokesperson Sanjam Chima.

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