Prevailing quality standards are recommendatory and not enforceable
In India you have quality standards specifications for soft drinks, but none for potable water. The Department of Drinking Water and Sanitation, under the Ministry of Rural Development, is now seeking to correct the record, and, thankfully, the exercise will cover urban habitations too.
The department has found the current legal environment for enforcing and regulating drinking water standards very weak in the country as they focus on issues related to large water bodies and their pollution.
Moreover, the prevailing drinking water quality standards are recommendatory in nature and not enforceable. Institutionally too, there is a lack of clarity between the service provider and the regulating authority. In most cases the service provider doubled up as the regulating body.
After studying the prevailing standards in countries like Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, the Ministry has decided to put in place an appropriate legal and institutional mechanism to define quality standards, build operator capacity, provide financial support and ensure compliance to ensure safety of potable water.
Water being a State subject, the way forwards is to develop either a national legislation on the lines of the U.S. or encourage States to have a legislation, as in in Australia, to ensure safety of drinking water.
The Union government is likely to lay the requirements through appropriate legislations, which the States would adopt and improvise.
While developing water quality standards, the Centre proposes to impose the list in a phased manner, starting with bacteriological contamination and essential chemicals contamination and include other contaminants like pesticides over a five-year period. This will require capacity labs to test the contaminants to the required standards.
As regards regulation, it is likely to begin with larger systems and piped water systems and include other smaller systems over a period of time. The Ministry is considering bringing both the private sources and the public water systems that provide water to a minimum defined population.
While a decision is still pending on whether to have a national regulatory agency or a state level one, the draft, however, has made it clear that in principle the provider could not be a regulator. It has also ruled out the option of self- regulation.
The Centre and the States will bear the burden of financing investment in part or full, but the paper lays greater stress on the need for a clear policy direction on paying for the operation and maintenance of the system.