Are water ATMs the way forward?

Hundreds of ATMs have sprung up across the country promising safe and affordable water. But is this the way ahead? We find out

May 26, 2018 04:30 pm | Updated 04:30 pm IST

 The water ATMs are a big hit in Mumbai’s railway stations.

The water ATMs are a big hit in Mumbai’s railway stations.

On Platform Nos. 3 and 4 at Mumbai’s Khar station, a crowd of commuters forms around a small kiosk every time a train stops. Jyoti Pawar works furiously behind the counter, dispensing water from the ATM — it could be ₹2 for a cup, ₹8 for a one litre bottle, or ₹3 to fill a customer’s own 500 ml bottle.

Pawar’s stall was the first of 170 water vending machines installed across 100 stations on Mumbai’s suburban railway network by the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation (IRCTC). “The idea was to ensure clean water at all stations at affordable rates,” says Pinakin Morawala, spokesperson for IRCTC.

When it was installed in 2016, only office-goers would buy water from her stall, says Pawar. “But today everyone does, daily wage workers as well as the homeless who live around the station.”


In a country where an estimated 63 million people lack access to safe drinking water and half the groundwater is contaminated with fluoride, nitrate and heavy metals, safe and affordable water at the press of a button can sound like a fount of hope. That’s what these ATMs represent. For anything from 25 paise to ₹5 per litre, thirsty Indians can, with the swipe of a smart card or for a few coins, buy water from such 24/7 dispensing machines in several parts of the country.

Many companies have stepped in to set these up. JanaJal aims to install 100 ATMs in Mumbai’s stations by end-May; Piramal Sarvajal is already present in 16 States, WaterHealth India vows to reach 100 million consumers by 2020. Clearly, water ATMs are here to stay.

Much has been made of their affordability, the safe drinking water they provide, and the technologies they adopt. And municipal corporations everywhere are signing a rash of deals with the companies setting them up.

But is this the way ahead? Is this how the state plans to provide water, a basic right, to its citizens? At Khar, ATM operator Ashish says: “People argue with us saying we should not charge for water.” At the Mumbra ATM, Zunjar Gawli says commuters often refuse to pay, demanding water for free.

 A machine at Connaught Place.

A machine at Connaught Place.

Vishwanath S., Bengaluru-based water activist and founder of the Rainwater Club, echoes this. ATMs, he believes, are an abdication of responsibility by the state to supply free water to every home. “The Supreme Court has decreed in various judgments that water is a fundamental human right as part of the Right to Life under Article 21 of the Constitution.” The government’s basic duty demands that it supply free water to every household everyday. Going by WHO figures, that would be 50 litres per day per individual — the minimum requirement for drinking, cooking and washing.

In the absence of this, ATMs and water tankers step in. But, as Himanshu Thakur, founder of South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, says, “ATMs are essentially a way of privatising water supply.” It means, he says, that the poor pay much more than the rich for having piped water supplied to their homes.


Of the more than 1,500 million litres of water pumped from the Cauvery into taps in Bengaluru homes everyday, not a drop reaches Ramakrishna’s house in Jakkur on the dusty northern fringe of the city. When Ramakrishna, an autorickshaw driver, came here a decade ago, the hunt for water was not so frenetic. Borewells in the area still contained water. As the surrounding fields turned to concrete and asphalt and the green died, so did the borewells. “Water is released once in four days now. In summer, there is even less water available. We would pool in money, buy water from expensive private tankers, and ration it,” he says.

That was a year ago. Today, a government water ATM has been set up not far from his home, dispensing reverse osmosis or RO water at ₹5 for 20 litres. Every alternate day, Ramakrishna lugs a large can there and fills up. While this water is cheaper than that provided by some private companies, it is still far costlier than what the city’s privileged pay for Cauvery water in their taps: ₹7 for 1,000 litres — or 0.7 paise per litre.

Says Rajendra Singh, the ‘waterman of India’, “ATMs are no solution to the water crisis in the country. The real solution lies in conserving water, in protecting its sources, in using it efficiently.”

At least 10,000 ATMs have been constructed by the Karnataka government since 2013, apart from the hundreds installed through local MLA funds. Bengaluru got its very first water ATM in 2015, when the civic body Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike signed an MoU with Waterhealth India, a subsidiary of US-based WaterHealth International, which provides ‘scalable, safe and affordable water solutions to underserved populations across the world.’ In this public-private partnership, the civic body gives access to land, water sources (usually, community borewells) and electricity, while the organisation builds and operates the unit.

Today, Waterhealth operates 50 ATMs, mostly in slums. Among the frequent customers to the dispenser in Lingarajapuram is Kavitha, 28, a homemaker, who buys water every alternate day at ₹8 for 20 litres. “We use it for cooking because the water in the community tap is hard water,” she says. “The price is reasonable.” But Daniel, 65, who lives on a pension, doesn’t think so. He chooses a government ATM where it costs ₹5 for 20 litres. “It tastes different, but it’s cheaper,” he says.


The coastal town of Puducherry is entirely dependent on ground water, and there is high saline intrusion from the sea. Lakshmi lives in Muthialpet and rides pillion on a bike every day, armed with a large can, to a water ATM 2 km from her house. Lakshmi doesn’t trust the piped water at home.

For ₹7, she gets 20 litres at the ATM that is operated by Waterlife, a Hyderabad-based company that describes its work as ‘business with a soul’. The company’s website says its vision is to provide access to safe water to everyone by 2020. And, according to its contract with the government, Waterlife will operate 52 machines for 10 years. For every ₹7 collected, the company pays the PWD ₹2.40.

 Slum residents in Bhubaneshwar use their smart cards to collect water.

Slum residents in Bhubaneshwar use their smart cards to collect water.

In fact, one of India’s first water ATMs was developed in Auroville in Puducherry in 2013. A three-member team from Auroville was behind the pilot Amrutdhara scheme that set up a network of vending machines in Puducherry and Chennai. “The idea was to install water stations wherever water is tested so that people could test the quality and then drink the water,” says Minhaj Ameen, co-founder of Amrutdhara. But the project never took off. “I could not raise the capital or talent and the bottled water lobby at that time was very strong,” says Ameen.


In 2016, there was a jaundice outbreak in Bhubaneswar’s Jharana slum. That’s when the city’s Municipal Corporation (BMC) installed a water ATM, handed out smart cards to residents, and cut off the contaminated pipeline. “It leaves most of us dependant on a single machine,” says Rasmi Ranjan Panda, a street vendor who lives here. He swipes his card for 10 litres of free water, but he is charged ₹1 for every extra litre he wants. “Sometimes, 10 litres is enough, but in summers, we need double the quantity.” So Panda now shells out ₹10 a day for the extra water.

In 2015, BMC partnered with Piramal Sarvajal, seeded by Piramal Foundation, to establish 40 ATMs, mostly in slums. The water is treated through reverse osmosis, and the machines are solar powered. According to the PPP contract, Sarvajal will operate the machines for five years, and then hand it over to the corporation.

The government’s response has been criticised on two counts. Bikash Patil, programme officer at international NGO WaterAid, says the civic body should have first focused on the leakage and contamination in the water pipes. “The water distribution network in Bhubaneswar was laid in the 1970s. There are ruptures in the pipelines; they must be fixed.” Second, Patil asks why the government picked reverse osmosis. “RO is expensive and wasteful, and could well be replaced by cheaper technology such as UV purification.”


Meanwhile, in Mumbai’s railway stations, the ATMs are a big hit, with commuters preferring to pay for water even though the Railways provides free water. Santosh Bhoir, who commutes from Diva to Kurla each day, says he has more faith in the ATMs. The machine on the Diva platform is operated by Fontus Water, which has 38 machines across stations.

Fontus COO Hariharan Subramaniam says the company has a ‘passion for water’ and wants to “provide clean potable water at affordable rates”. In New Delhi, Parag Agarwal, the CMD of Janajal, envisions building India’s first “water-sharing economy”, and his company is building clusters of ATMs in Mumbai, Delhi, Surat and Ghaziabad. Companies like Maruti Suzuki, Honeywell India, Eureka Forbes, Tata Power and Voltas are all entering the water business.

And business is what it has become. As Rajendra Singh says, “There’s a culture of making a business out of water. ATMs are part of that culture. It’s a betrayal of the citizen when the government claims to provide drinking water to the poor, but instead benefits private companies.”

So, should water be free? Janajal’s Agarwal says no. “I believe water is a right, but it must have a nominal cost so that people don’t waste it.”

The question to ask then might be why the poor are having to pay more for a basic right than the rich. The answer, as usual, lies with the state, which has failed to meet this most basic need of its citizens.


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