Vimalamma’s only son Raghu left Kavadigara Hatti in Chitradurga district in central Karnataka on July 31 after having lunch with the family. He worked in a private firm in Bengaluru, where he looked after the delivery of home appliances. Within hours of reaching Bengaluru, the 26-year-old developed diarrhoea and vomiting.
Distant relatives, who stay in the same locality, took him to a clinic, but his condition did not improve. His worried mother called up the relatives and asked them to bring him back to Chitradurga so that she could admit him to a hospital there. A day later, it was his body that reached her.
“He gave up studies after class VII and started earning for the family,” says an inconsolable Vimalamma, who lost her husband Thippeswamy in an accident a year ago.
Days after Raghu’s death, her daughter Ashwini, who was nine months pregnant, had a stillbirth. Ashwini and her brother are among the residents of Dalit Colony who fell ill after consuming contaminated water in Kavadigara Hatti, in ward 17 of Chitradurga City Municipal Council. The incident claimed five lives. Up to 232 reported sick until August 7.
Water-related deaths in Karnataka
From the beginning of 2023, contamination of drinking water has led to at least 12 deaths and left scores ill in districts across Karnataka. Coming at a time when the ambitious Jal Jeevan Mission (JJM) is being implemented with the aim of providing safe drinking water in rural areas to every household that lacks a tap connection, the contamination in a municipal area covered under the water supply already raises concerns about the safety of the drinking water supplied.
The fatalities led Chief Minister Siddaramaiah to warn officials of stringent action, and in several instances, cases have been booked against officials. In a majority of these cases, officials have been accused of being negligent in their approach.
Incidents of contaminated water supply have been reported in areas not covered under JJM, those already covered under JJM, and in municipal areas where water supply is supposed to be regulated, exposing the fault lines in safe drinking water schemes across all categories in Karnataka.
Though more than 20,000 reverse osmosis (RO) plants have been installed across Karnataka, mostly in places where water is found not potable, the infrastructure is grossly inadequate to meet the demands of the population, officials say.
After the death of seven people in the municipal area of Raichur city in June 2022, owing to the consumption of contaminated water, another three died, and 30 people fell sick after consuming contaminated water at Anpur village in Gurmitkal taluk of Yadgir district on February 15 this year. The work under JJM for supplying drinking water to households through taps was yet to be completed when the incident took place.
On May 25, a three-year-old boy died, and another 30 people fell ill after drinking contaminated water at Rekalmaradi village in Devadurga taluk of Raichur district. The JJM covered the entire village, with tap water connections to all 82 households. Within a few days, more than 25 people fell sick at Gorebal village in Lingasugur taluk in Raichur on May 29.
These incidents were followed by three deaths in Koppal district. On June 5, two people, including a nine-month-old, died at Basarihal village in Kanakagiri taluk. All the 423 households in the villages get tap water under JJM. On June 8, a 10-year-old girl died of the same cause at Bijakal village in Kushtagi taluk.
In the first week of July, two monkeys were found dead in an overhead tank at Khanapur village in Devadurga taluk of Raichur district, and people who consumed water from the tank fell ill.
At Nagasamudra in Molakalamur taluk in Chitradurga district, 60 fell ill on July 13. The JJM, launched with the intention of providing 55 litres of potable water for every individual, still has pipelines to be laid in Nagasamudra. “There was leakage in pipelines, which could be the reason for contamination,” said a RDPR official.
In the case of Baridabad in Bidar district, where as many as 21 people fell sick after drinking polluted water in the last week of July, the pipelines had been damaged during drain repair work, and the drain water had entered the drinking water pipes.
The biggest tragedy this year has been the one at Kavadigara Hatti. While the biological analysis of water that was supplied from an overhead tank confirmed that it was unfit for consumption, the laboratory tests on stool samples collected from the patients suggested cholera. However, the source of contamination is yet to be identified.
The true tragedy is that beyond the deaths, the government issues notices to the officials concerned and suspends lower-level staff for negligence, with no consequences for department heads. Kalyana Karnataka region, comprising seven northeastern districts of the State, is one of the most backward areas. However, repeated occurrences of similar incidents demonstrate poor action on the ground to arrest preventable tragedies.
All the categories of contamination could lead to punishment if officials are tried under provisions of the Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974, a senior government functionary pointed out.
What the numbers claim
A status report on the Jal Jeevan Mission issued by the Centre claims that the number of household tap connections that was at 24.51 lakh, or 24.23% of the total households in Karnataka on August 15, 2019, rose to 69.76 lakh, or 68.96% of the total households as on August 15. A total of 1.01 crore households have been identified for providing household tap connection.
Since the launch of the scheme on August 15, 2019, 45.25 lakh connections have been provided in Karnataka, as per the report. Of the total 28,333 villages in the State, tap connections to 100 % households have been provided in 7,301 villages. JJM is currently being implemented in 20,144 villages. Work on providing tap connections is yet to start in 888 villages.
Under the scheme, tap water connections have been provided to 97.76% of schools, 97% of anganwadis, and 94% of gram panchayats and community health centres.
As the number of households with tap connections increased over the last four years, 81 laboratories were set up to test the quality of water at regular intervals. However, one of the important challenges in water testing is the shortage of technicians. The functionality assessment of household tap connections under JJM done in 2022 found that labs have the capacity to test a maximum of 40 samples within 24 hours due to a shortage of technicians and the availability of necessary reagents in the required quantity.
The survey involved 11,770 households in 389 villages in Karnataka. The turnaround time for testing water samples was more than 48 hours in most cases. The labs that tested water on nine parameters had limited scope to take up samples from the public at large on a regular basis, the report noted. It also reported that in 18% of the villages, water was directly supplied to households, and the remaining villages received water through an overhead tank, or sump, or both.
While Gadag, with a 99.16% household tap connection, tops the State, Bengaluru Urban district has a poor coverage of 27.31%. The bottom three districts with poor household tap connections are in the relatively better-off south Karnataka region: Bengaluru Urban, Kolar, and Chikkaballapur.
Why the continued deaths
There are a host of operational and maintenance reasons for sickness and death by water contamination, including the pumping of raw water without purification to households, unclean water storage facilities, and the delayed repair of damaged pipelines at the ground level.
According to a senior official in Koppal district, “There are two types of contaminations. One is chemical contamination, when the groundwater table goes down in summer, and the water gets contaminated by harmful chemicals like arsenic. Frequent examination of water before supplying it for drinking is the way to address the issue. The other is biological contamination. Open defecation around human habitats is very common in the Kalyana Karnataka region. Human excrement tends to join the water sources. People dig pits at several points along water supply lines and damage the pipes in a bid to draw more water. When it rains, human excrement and other dirt flows into the pits and contaminates the water flowing in the pipes.”
In Basarihal village in Koppal district, where an infant and a 60-year-old woman died, and in Bijakal village in the same district, where a 10-year-old girl died, the water contamination was caused by damaged pipelines, and negligence on the part of people as well as the authorities at the village level.
With respect to the Raichur incident in 2022 and the more recent one at Chitradurga, the municipal administration department officials insist that directions had been given to the 314 urban local bodies to ensure cleaning the water installations twice a year and testing water monthly. While acknowledging that monitoring the action being taken had been difficult, the officials said that a dashboard to monitor adherence centrally is being planned.
About 2 crore people are covered in 314 urban local bodies for piped water supply, but the local bodies face operational and maintenance challenges in terms of inadequate funding, personnel, inadequate infrastructure and poor recovery of cost. “Just about 30% of the connections are metered. A large number of people continue to depend on public taps that attract zero tariff. The local bodies, already starved of funds, are further stretched as they have to foot the water bill too,” said an official.
Where there is no possibility of supplying water from an open water source in rural areas, an official in Chitradurga pointed out that borewells are sunk, and water is directly pumped to houses. “When water is supplied directly from borewells, the intention is that residents use the water for non-drinking purposes. However, in many places, people consume the same water without treating it, which could lead to health problems,” the officer pointed out.
Local people and activists point out that in many villages where JJM has been implemented, water has not flowed through the taps though infrastructure, including taps and pipelines, have been put in place.
“Even after a couple of years of drawing pipelines, tap water is still a mirage in a number of homes in north Karnataka, as water is not available either because borewells have failed or there is simply no water source. The data may be accurate in terms of connections, but the utilisation story is different,” said Hafiz, a social activist in Raichur. “In many arsenic-contaminated-water areas in Raichur district, people have no option but to continue to consume the same water. Many RO plants are dysfunctional due to maintenance issues.”
He also disagreed with the assessment of an official about hygiene being a cultural issue, and said though people are aware about toiletry habits, lack of toilets have contributed to the problem.
Concurring with his views, former Raichur zilla panchayat vice president Pamayya Murari said that PM Shouchalaya Scheme, which is focussed on constructing toilets for free in houses that lack toilets, had not been a complete success, resulting in the continuation of open defecation. “Even in schools where children can be taught elementary hygiene habits, toilets are not in good condition, or too few, forcing many to defecate in the open,” he pointed out, adding that, in many congested homes, building a toilet is impossible. “The government should build community toilets in such areas to prevent open defecation that often results in contamination.”
Officials insist that communication to water consumers about filtration and other safe techniques before drinking is key to reducing water-related deaths and illnesses, a point reiterated by a recent functionality assessment.
Karnataka has also ordered a third-party audit of the Jal Jeevan Mission following complaints of poor quality of work and material used, and unsustainable water sources at several places.