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Not a pipe dream

india Updated: Mar 06, 2011 12:23 IST

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For a man who’s been in the pharmaceutical business all his working life, advocating clean drinking water across the country might seem like a bad business idea. In fact, its health fallout could put me out of business. But there are times when one has to think beyond the balance sheets. Water is one issue that excites passion, yet we give very little thought to it. Those who have seen long queues at community pumps in villages and towns and travelled around this thirsty land will have no doubt that India is on the brink of water scarcity, not water stress, mind you.

Not too many seem to have understood the connection between clean drinking water and productivity, mortality and, eventually economic growth. But there is no getting away from this. As Hindustan Times reported recently, Indian towns are going to face such a severe water scarcity that they will become virtually unlivable.

Neither the State itself, nor in partnership with private players has made it a priority to deliver safe drinking water to the country’s 700 million rural population.

If waterborne diseases are eliminated, the sale of antibiotics will come down and pharmaceutical companies will lose revenue. But the flipside, to be ruthlessly businesslike, is that in the long run, a healthier population will fuel economic growth and with it their purchasing power.

Is it very difficult to provide safe drinking water to all Indians? No. Today, 37.7 million Indians are affected by waterborne diseases annually, 1.5 million children are estimated to die of diarrhoea alone. Until the 10th Five Year Plan,
Rs 1,105 billion was spent on providing safe drinking water. But even today, most Indian villages suffer from one of two problems — no access to water or access to water that is contaminated with harmful pathogens (caused due to open defecation and poor and non-existent sewerage systems) and chemical contaminants (fluoride, arsenic and iron). In urban areas, we hear horror stories of worm-infested brackish water coming out of the taps.

I will give the example of a private-public-panchayat (PPP) partnership that I have been involved with over the last couple of years. Naandi Foundation, an NGO of which I am the chairman, has successfully worked on a model that makes use of existing technologies. In conjunction with the government and panchayats, we have perfected an innovative water service delivery model that is sustainable, affordable and replicable.

Started in 2005 at Bomminampadu village in Krishna district of Andhra Pradesh, infamous for the high pathogen content in drinking water sources due to open defecation, the experiment has passed the tests of time and scale. The new approach has now been implemented across 404 villages in Andhra Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan and is providing safe drinking water to 3 million people every day.

This is how it works: raw water sourced either from the community’s underground or surface water resources (through an MoU with the panchayat) is treated at a community water treatment plant (using a reverse osmosis or ultraviolet technology) installed by the NGO. The treated water is of prescribed potable standards of the World Health Organisation (WHO). Residents of the village access this water at a nominal treatment-user fee of 10-20 paisa per litre. The newly-created village asset is managed by two unemployed youths from the local community. One operates and maintains the plant while the other conducts door-to-door awareness campaigns to promote the consumption of safe drinking water.

People don’t want promises of free water — they want safe water and are quite willing to pay nominal amounts for it. The state governments pitch in with the installation costs of the water-treatment plant — in keeping with Article 47 of the Constitution, which confers on the State the duty of providing clean drinking water and improving public health standards in the country. Our organisation sources the technology and brings professional management to the village facility. The small fee contributed by water users meets the other costs.

This model has yielded two social dividends: one, the task of fetching water for the family has now become a man’s prerogative (thanks to the shape of the water can that makes it easy for it to be ferried on the carrier of a bicycle or motorcycle) and two, the poorest Dalit family in the village as well as the rich landowner are all using the same drinking water. This model ensures the capacity to provide 40 litres of treated water to every individual and for cooking needs in the village, for all 12 months in a year, as stipulated by the government’s Accelerated Rural Water Supply Programme.

K. Anji Reddy is Founder Chairman of Dr Reddy’s Laboratories and Member, PM’s Council on Trade and Industry

The views expressed by the author are personal