Not very long ago, most Delhi residents drank water directly from the tap. The government utility supplied water twice a day. Some was stored in kitchen containers for drinking and cooking. The rest went to the overhead tanks to be used for bathing and washing.
It was not that the municipal supply was very reliable. There were days in the summer when one had to go without water. The more cautious routinely boiled and filtered the water before drinking. But we did without bottled water and had not even heard of reverse osmosis systems.
Last week, when two residents of south Delhi's NCERT Colony died and over 70 ended up in hospitals, allegedly after consuming the municipal water, there was disbelief. Why the hell were they drinking water straight from the tap? Didn't they have a RO at home? Couldn't they buy bottled water? As if the tap water was not supposed to be potable.
Meanwhile, the Delhi Jal Board (DJB), city's sole water utility, blamed the Central Public Works Department (CPWD) -- a bulk buyer that was responsible for distributing water in the neighbourhood -- for not ensuring a clean supply. The CPWD, in turn, blamed DJB for its cracked water main which allowed overflowing sewage from a blocked sewer pipe to contaminate the supply.
The blame game absolved the authorities of what would have been a criminal offence in most parts of the world. Remember D'Mello, the municipal commissioner played by Satish Shah, in Jaane Bhi do Yaaron, the iconic black comedy of the 1980s? Returning from a junket to the United States, D'Mello told his colleagues how "America ki toh baat hi kuch aur hai. Wahan pe gutter ka paani alag aur peene ka pani alag; India ki tarah nahi."
In our cities, water supply lines and sewer pipes run alongside. Most of these pipes are old and cracks often lead to mixing of water and sewage. Delhi's Economic Survey 2012-13 showed that the Capital has a network of about 11,350 km of water supply mains, of which a significant portion was as old as 40-50 years and prone to leakages.
So, even if DJB's claim that it provides safe drinking water from its treatment plants is true, its ancient distribution lines can turn it toxic by the time it reaches us. While blaming consumers who don't repair ferrule that connects the mains to individual homes, DJB itself has done little to augment its water quality checking apparatus. Lack of staff and testing labs means that on an average only 400 water samples can be picked every day. An investigation by Hindustan Times last week revealed that the way DJB goes, it can test the quality of water in a household only once in 27 years.
As a result, Delhi depends on RO systems and bottled water for drinking and cooking. But these are no solution for a water-deficit and garbage-laden city. What you get as purified water from an RO unit is just 15 to 20% of what enters the system. The rest simply goes down the drain. Bottled water is a nightmare in plastic waste management. Besides, few can afford branded bottled water. The rest rely on water bottled locally which is either sourced from a municipal tap or a leaking pipe. Often, it is untreated groundwater laced with chemicals.
As estimated by the Centre for Science and Environment, the annual turnover of informal water supply business in Delhi could be anywhere between R350 and R400 crore. Add to that the business of branded bottle water and RO manufacturers. Obviously, it suits many that nobody trusts DJB for safe drinking water. What is surprising though is how we stopped even expecting DJB to deliver.