OPINIONMAKERS@The Hush Post: The Supreme Court in its recent order has allowed the Hotels and Restaurants to sell bottled water above the maximum retail price (MRP). The court said they (hotels and restaurants) render a service and hence can charge more than the MRP. According to the order it cannot be governed by the Legal Metrology act. The government, however, has claimed to file a review petition to challenge this order so that the consumers are not charged above the MRP.
The issue of contention here lies, why at all there should be bottled water in hotels, restaurants or Reverse Osmosis (RO), filtered water in homes? Should not this job of providing clean potable water be the bounden duty of the main service provider? In India this work is done either by the civic bodies or parastatals under the state governments. It is their duty to provide clean potable water to the citizens. The Supreme Court order throws open an opportunity for the citizens to engage with the state and its institutions to ensure that the government provides ample water which is 135 litres LPCD (litres per capita daily) and that does not require any treatment. It should be worth drinking.
Quite interestingly, if one goes through the municipal acts especially those which have the mandate of water distribution, it is quite explicitly mentioned that the local body is supposed to provide potable water. For example, the Shimla Municipal Corporation which is one of the oldest municipality of the country (1851) has a clause of providing wholesome water. Para 169 states,“it shall be the duty of the Corporation to take steps from time to time: – a. for ascertaining the sufficiency and wholesomeness of water supplies within the municipal area”. Similarly, the Delhi Jab Board (DJB) has the obvious task of providing potable water to the residents of Delhi including the NDMC and military areas. The DJB act of 1998 categorically states its function of, “ Treat, supply and distribute water for household consumption or other purposes to those parts of Delhi where there are houses……..” Invariably, all these institutions have been built up for providing quality water which is worth drinking from the tap. Then why should the people in our country especially in the cities are forced to buy filters, ROs and all sorts of technologies which has a heavy cost on water treatment. It is failure of the state and its agencies and thus forcing the people to fall back on big companies manufacturing water purifying equipments. The treatment is supposed to be done by the service providers and potable water should be a right of the people living in our country. This does not happen.
It does not happen because of many reasons. Some of these include poor infrastructure; because of which water gets contaminated, low monitoring, testing, and hardly any transparency in the functioning of these bodies. One of the foremost, is the lack of responsibility shared by these institutions and hardly existing SOPs (standard operating procedures). The people’s participation is completely missing.Actually, this amounts to criminal negligence thus leading to deaths of many people because of drinking contaminated water in the country. In India in the year 2017 there were 0.5 million deaths just because of drinking contaminated water.
However, there have been cases where proactive intervention has brought in results which have proven to be the landmark in achieving success on the water front. One such case happens to be from the city of Shimla. This intervention was done at the behest of the SMC under the leadership of the CPIM (both the Mayor and deputy Mayor were from CPIM in 2012-2017). This intervention has become a show case not just for the local bodies but even for the World Bank on integrated management.
In Shimla, frequent episodes of Jaundice epidemic occurred every alternate year since 2005. In the year 2015-16, twenty people died and over 2000 got infected. One of the major reason was in the administrative set up as there was duality in the working of water supply and distribution. The water was supplied by the IPH (a government run parastatal) and distributed by the Shimla municipality. The blame game was obvious. The IPH maintaining its position that they provide potable water, it is in the distribution that it gets contaminated and the SMC saying that the IPH was providing dirty water and they had no role in contamination.Actually, the contamination according the National institute of Virology (NIV) Pune, happened to be from a Sewerage treatment (STP) plant constructed just 7 km upstream from a major water source called Ashwini Khad. The Shimla MC took a pro active role registered police cases against the officials of IPH. They were arrested. But this was not all and the only corrective way. The entire system was then transferred to the Shimla MC which started building the blocks for improvement. The SMC abandoned the source and augmented other sources for the supply. The results have proven that the decision was in right direction. Since 2015 not a single case of Hepatitis was reported. Now the residents of the city drink potable water through the taps.
Some other interventions were on integration of various institutions, onus on the individuals, transparency, building a protocol on water, transparency and quality testing. This has resulted into a situation where the tap water potability is counter guaranteed by the local body. A complete protocol was established from water at source to water in the tap and the testing is done by a third party (in Shimla it’s the microbiology department of the Indira Gandhi Medical College), which is made online for the people to view it. This should for sure reduce the dependence on ROs, water filters and on the products of big companies that sell in the market.
The Supreme Court order must be seen in this light of an opportunity for the citizens to engage with the system and force them to ensure that quality potable water is provided to them. After all, water must be considered as a right and not a need. The need maybe addressed by various agencies including private companies. Right has a natural fall out of the role of the state to provide it. (The writer is a former Deputy Mayor of Shimla and a keen watcher of socio-political issues of the state)