December 08, 2019

Water Nexus and its testing

Tikender Singh Panwar

RECENT revelations made by Ram Vilas Paswan, union minister of consumer affairs that the water quality in Delhi and in other 20 cities is not fit for drinking, made everyone apprehensive of the systems that are responsible for providing water, and as normal reaction were curious to find out what is in depth.

According to the press conference held by Paswan, the samples from different locations were lifted and sent for testing as per Indian Standard 10500-2012(specification for drinking water) as set by the BIS(Bureau of Indian Standards). Tests were conducted on various parameters such as physical tests, chemical tests, tests for toxic substances and bacteriological tests. According to the report a vast majority of the samples failed.

In Delhi, there were 11samples lifted randomly in which 10 parameters were looked into. These parameters range from mineral content to contamination in water like bacteria etc. Whereas it is of upteem importance that such a transparency is made in the water distribution and the information  is made readily available to the citizens residing in the cities, however the manner in which this study was conducted raises more questions rather than just exhibiting the quality of water in these cities.


All the 10 samples drawn from Mumbai were found to comply with the requirements. In the cities of Hyderabad, Bhubaneswar, Ranchi, Amravati and Shimla one or more samples did not comply with the requirements of  the standard and none of the samples drawn from 13 of the state capitals i.e., Chandigarh, Thiruvananthapuram, Patna, Bhopal,  Guwahati, Bengaluru,  Gandhinagar, Lucknow, Jammu, Jaipur,  Dehradun,  Chennai,Kolkatta complied with the requirements of the Indian standard.

Whereas there are no two opinions that the citizens must get potable water and that should be provided by the utility’s  that are serving in the cities, but a cursory look at the findings and also the methodology builds lots of suspicion. Let us take two cases.

Firstly, it is unheard of that the BIS is responsible for testing water samples in the country. Now since they have done it, let us go into the methodology of collection and testing. A study check published by the Times of India in Delhi, dated November 22 states the murkier manner in which these samples were lifter. According to the report, two samples of tap water were taken by the BIS from the home and office of Ram Vilas Paswan.  In another case, an address in Mandoli proved to be wrong; sample from Vinayat Apartment -Buraru’s residence was never lifted; In Mukundpur, Bhagwand in does not live at the place mentioned in the address; in Bhalswa the water containers were left by the government officials and collected by them without sealing them.

In Delhi, the methodology of the tests is under question. It is not sure whether proper protocol was adopted to collect the samples or not. It has been brought to light that when the samples were drawn from a few places, like Bhalswa, containers were kept without being sterilised and then taken away without sealing them.

Another argument is regarding the acceptance and failure values. Nowhere it is mentioned what are the values of the tests conducted? Without specifying the value how can a conclusion be drawn? Besides, a distinction is to be drawn whether water samples fail before the water treatment and what is their status after treatment plant. Because in case the water samples do not comply with standards at the water treatment plant then a larger intervention is required. In case the samples fail at the distribution end, then the strategy is supposedly to be different.

Shimla: The second case to point where one of the parameters failed is Shimla town. Just to put records straight, Shimla is a town which till recently was cracking headlines for hepatitis epidemic, not just once, but several times. Several people had got infected and died. But this accident since 2016 led to a situation where Shimla unlike any other city took the responsibility of not just water distribution but also water production. It means that the city government(Shimla Municipal Corporation), which formed a utility called the GSWSSC(Greater Shimla Water Supply and Sewerage Circle, which is now called the Shimla Jal Nigam Limited) was producing water from different sources , pumping it to the city and then distributing it to the people with no other agency involved.  This enabled the city to not just get rid of the problem of contamination but also was able to fix onus on one single utility which is producing and distributing water. Unlike in other cities, the water is produced by a government parastatal and distribution is done by the city government. In Delhi, however, there are multiple agencies in water distribution and production; right from the Delhi Jal Board to the Delhi cantonment to the NDMC.

In Shimla because of the intervention and a corresponding protocol that was established form source to tap, not a single case of hepatitis is reported since then. Because of this protocol being established the water is tested from various points everyday which is then tested in the government medical college laboratory of microbiology department. So far, the results have been excellent and no failures reported. While talking to the officials of the water department they were also unaware of water samples being lifted from the town, which could not have been done without the help and intervention of the water utility. Nobody is aware of the manner in which samples were lifted from Shimla city.


If one is able to connect the dots in this entire exercise, then a strong nexus of water purification companies and the recent study done by the BIS can be connected and is not just hypothetical. Not many are aware of the fact that the BIS counts six companies(vividly covered by that manufacture water purifiers as its members. So, what was the interest of the BIS on the first hand; testing water is the mandate of the city governments and the state pollution control boards and the CPCBs.

According to the report, a trust called the Safe Water Network is counted as one of the BIS members, which is funded by RO companies. These companies include Honewell, Tata Trust and others like PepsiCo, Hilton and Kosmos Energy. Interestingly, there is also a sub committee under the BIS called the “water purification sub-committee”. Imagine who are its members; Hindustan Unilever(RO brand Pureit), Eureka Forbes(Aquaguard),Ion Exchange (Zero B water purifiers), Usha Shriram Brita(many brands of water purifiers),  Whirlpool(Purasense water purifiers) and Kent.

These brands need no introduction. Sachin Tendulkar, Hema Malini and Madhuri  Dixit have appeared in the advertisements for some of these brands.

Now it should not be a surprise as to why the BIS probably for the first time since its inception conducted such a study on tap water. Why will not such companies want to create a scare about water quality to ensure that the only solution is by buying water purifiers.

Another dot connected to it is that some of these companies are fighting a case over an NGT order that has directed the MOEF to ban ROs in areas where the tap water supply is below 500 TDS(total dissolved solids). This was done to ensure that there is minimum wastage of water as the ROs waste lots of water in purification. The RO companies had moved to the Supreme Court to stay the NGT order. The case was listed for November 22.

This dot connection explains the whole story of why the BIS, which is loaded with RO companies was so keen to prove that the water being supplied in the cities is not fit for drinking and the only way to ensure pure water is through the RO companies. It is like the same argument that only the air purifiers can purify the air and nothing is required to be done on the mobility and other fronts that contribute to air pollution.

However, the Supreme Court has continued the stay and asked the government to frame proper guidelines and discontinue the use of ROs in the cities where the TDS is less than 500. In such a scenario where the dissolved substances are less than 500 no membrane is required to filter it further. This order shall go in a long way to mitigate the loot of the common people in the cities.


The business of ROs is a kind of backdoor privatisation of water in the cities. In a city-state like Delhi where there are over 50 lakh families nearly 25 lakh ROs are used in houses and offices. Just imagine the humongous cost that these companies charge from the people, on the pretext of purifying water. Thousands of crores is the cost that the people pay in cities and every year again renew it by paying another humongous amount in operation and maintenance charges.

Just a glance at the mandate of the parastatals and the city governments providing water in the cities, unambiguously shows that providing potable water is the mandate which they cannot deny. It is this responsibility which the government and the city governments should fulfil. There must be a protocol established in the water utility, which should be extremely transparent by fixing onus and enforcement of the laws. Water is, and should be a right of every citizen. The debate that water is only a need, and that need can be fulfilled even by private players, speaks volumes of desired attempts by the central government and even some of the state governments who are keen to privatise water. This has to be checked to ensure that the massive expropriation of wealth from the people in the cities through privatisation of utilities is checked.


There are many alternative models in the country. But the focus has to be that providing potable water must be the responsibility of the state and not by a private player. The alternative models also show integration of the utilities as one of the precursors for efficient management. At the micro level within the city the public institutions have also built some of the espousing models, which should not be left out. One of the models, is the AIIMS model which should be copied by other institutions as well.  In AIIMS the entire water treatment is done within the institution and a fairly high level of monitoring with extreme integration of production, treatment, testing etc., is witnessed. Since last many years not a single case of water contamination has been reported in the intuition.

What is required is an integrated, transparent, answerable and responsible utility, which should function under the jurisdiction of either the state or the city governments.