Mad rush for RO plants in cancer-hit Malwa region

Last month the Bhatinda Municipal Corporation put stickers on all 540 handpumps in the town, warning people that the water from them is unfit for drinking. At the same time, the municipality is proud to report that it has installed 48 Reverse Osmosis (RO) water treatment plants in different localities to provide clean drinking water. They are among the 1800 odd RO plants ranging from 500 to 2000 LPH installed by the Punjab government, mostly in the State’s cancer affected Malwa belt that comprises the eight districts south of the river Sutlej.

As more and more evidence about Punjab’s contaminated underground water surfaces, there is a rush to install RO plants making it the State with the highest concentration of these plants. That a small economy of vendors, companies, operators and copy cat local ventures has sprouted around these facilities is just the beginning of the new water dynamics in present day Punjab.

A recent survey by the State’s water supply department found that 1166 out of 7000 of its schemes are contaminated with heavy metals including uranium, arsenic and mercury beyond the permissible limit and now, the government is planning to install RO plants on these schemes too. Earlier the problem was thought to be concentrated in the Malwa belt and the high incidence of cancer in this area has also been linked to its contaminated water. But the survey has found contamination in many other districts too. The problem is drawing in private companies, eager to earn a quick buck from the State’s burgeoning drinking water problem. Here’s how: The government pays Rs 10 to 15 lakhs installation cost per plant to the companies, who run them for the next seven years on the public private partnership model. They charge 10 paise per litre and sell the water in 20 litre cans for Rs 2 each, which is enough to meet the daily drinking water needs of an average household.

So between 7 to 10 am and 5 to 7 pm, when these plants open for sale, they have come to be the hub of the village not very different from the atmosphere around the village well some decades ago. The only difference being that where earlier women were tasked to fetch water from the well, now the weight of the 20 litre can is forcing the men to bring it. Households have been given monthly cards for Rs 60 each, on which they draw their water but this too is due to be hiked to Rs 90, as companies are beginning to complain of financial unviability, particularly in places where RO penetration is less due to lack of awareness.

Jaisinghwala is a large village near Bhatinda where Ram Gopal Bansal, the village grocer, runs the RO plant installed by Doshion Water Solutions for a monthly wage of Rs 2400. “I started out with 60 cards but now this had dwindled to only 18 cards because people want free water, like before. The influential people take the water but don't pay. ” In the towns like Mansa, Faridkot, Bhatinda, operators like Bansal are doing brisk business by home delivering the water cans for a small additional charge. In Bhatinda’s model town widowed Suman got a job as operator for Rs 3000 a month because her company has policy of employing only women operators at its plants. Markets in towns of the Malwa belt are full of purified drinking water bottles, by a host of local entrepreneurs cashing on the water scare in these parts. Senior officers in the government say that water purification companies are keen to take contracts to supply RO water to entire towns, because they sense a huge business potential in the emerging crisis.

Says Rakesh Kishore, incharge of Doshion Water Solutions, Punjab operations, “As of now we are not making much money because of lack of awareness in many places. RO water so far is being consumed only by about 30% of the potential consumers. But companies like ours are in the business because in the long run we think that it will catch on and give good returns.” His company has set up 200 plants since 2011.

RO was first seen as a temporary solution for Malwa’s potable water crisis in 2008 by Manpreet Badal, the then Finance Minister who installed 57 plants in his constituency of Gidderbaha. Though Manpreet left the ruling Akali Dal due to political differences, his idea has been adopted by other politicians of the area. Officials admit that they are under pressure to install the plants in constituencies of influential ruling party politicians “even where it is not required.” For instance, water sampling at Phooli near Bhucho showed a TDS count of 800 whereas the indicator for a RO plant is when the count is between 1000 to 2000.

“We rejected the proposal to set up a plant there, but the local politician got it sanctioned from the Rural Development Department,” said an engineer of the water supply department requesting anonymity.

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