While the promise of ‘Bijli, Sadak, Pani’ has become a catchy election slogan, the availability of clean drinking water in urban as well as rural India remains a mirage. A Bihar government study on groundwater says that 12 districts have an arsenic contamination problem, thanks to the dipping water levels. The study added that the average arsenic content in groundwater in the 12 districts is 550 parts per billion (ppb). The World Health Organisation guidelines states 10 ppb of arsenic in potable water is the permissible limit while health authorities have put it at 50 ppb keeping in view the climatic conditions and resistance level of the people. Bihar is not an exception; groundwater pollution is a problem in other parts too. According to the Water Resources Ministry, out of 28 states, 19 suffer from salinity, iron, fluoride and arsenic contamination.
It is an alarming situation because 85 per cent of the rural and 60 per cent of urban India depend on groundwater to meet their potable water needs. A World Bank study says the environmental damage to India is $ 9.7 billion or 4.5 per cent of GDP. Of this 59 per cent is due to water pollution. Though the Bureau of Indian Standards fixes water quality standards, implementation and checking are lax because we have little manpower qualified to test water quality and very few laboratories. Polluted water leads to increasing medical costs and pressure on our creaking public health services.
The government’s multi-crore drinking water projects, which have been around for years, have failed to redress the situation. Safe drinking water will never be a reality unless and until we replenish our aquifers, rationalise water use, decentralise our water management systems and make users stakeholders in the process. The engineers and financers decide on water pipeline systems depending on how much money there is. Long-distance pipelines serve as an avenue for people to break in and tap water from the pipelines. This kind of top-down approach towards handling the water crisis will not work. Instead, people should be encouraged to harvest rainwater and recharge groundwater. For example, in Dwarka, Gujarat, which is a rain-deficient area, 98 per cent of houses have rainwater-harvesting systems and this has solved their drinking water problem. On the other hand, we have Cherapunjee: the highest annual rainfall in India is recorded here, yet it suffers from an acute shortage of drinking water because it let’s rainwater drain away. The choice is ours.