Quality on tap: On report of Ministry of Consumer Affairs

The report of the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution red-flagging tap water quality in major Indian cities comes as no surprise, given that many official water distribution agencies routinely advise consumers to consume only boiled water. Going by the matrix of tests carried out by the Bureau of Indian Standards for the Ministry, Delhi has abysmal water quality, Chennai and Kolkata rank very low, and Mumbai is the only city with acceptable results. City water systems are normatively required to comply with the national standard for drinking water, IS 10500:2012, but most obviously feel no compulsion to do so. Their lack of initiative could be attributed partly to the expanding footprint of packaged drinking water, especially in populous cities, coupled with the high dependence on groundwater in fast-growing urban clusters where State provision of piped water systems does not exist. On paper, the Indian standard has a plethora of quality requirements, including absence of viruses, parasites and microscopic organisms, and control over levels of toxic substances. But in practice, municipal water fails these tests due to the lack of accountability of the official agencies, and the absence of robust data in the public domain on quality testing.

The Centre’s approach to the issue relies on naming and shaming through a system of ranking, but this is unlikely to yield results, going by similar attempts to benchmark other urban services. Making it legally binding on agencies to achieve standards and empowering consumers with rights is essential, because State governments would then take an integrated view of housing, water supply, sanitation and waste management. A scientific approach to water management is vital, considering that 21 cities — including many of those found to have unclean tap water — could run out of groundwater as early as 2020, as per a NITI Aayog report. Moreover, the Central Ground Water Board estimates that nearly a fifth of the urban local bodies are already facing a water crisis due to excessive extraction, failed monsoons, and unplanned development. On the issue of regular testing, there is a case to entrust a separate agency with the task in each State, rather than relying on the same agency that provides water to also perform this function. If data on water are made public on the same lines as air quality, it would ratchet up pressure on governments to act. For too long, the response of water departments to the challenge has been to chlorinate the supply, as this removes pathogens, ignoring such aspects as appearance, smell and taste. It is time to move beyond this and make tap water genuinely desirable.

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Printable version | Nov 24, 2020 10:06:40 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/quality-on-tap-on-report-of-ministry-of-consumer-affairs/article30000474.ece

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