The temple town of Puri in Odisha is now the first town in India where all the residents (2.5 lakh) can have 24-hour quality drinking water from the tap, Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik declared on July 26.
Does this mean that drinking water from taps in other cities of Odisha or, for that matter, the rest of the country is unsafe?
“That is not the case,” says a top official in Odisha. “The water we provide in Puri is doubly safe as there is no fear of contamination from the reservoir to the households through pipelines or in the storage tanks on the roofs of the houses.
“In Puri, you open the taps anytime and you will get safe drinking water straight away. There is no need to store the water, which, in other places, comes intermittently in fixed hours. There is no need for extra filtering that we usually do,” he said.
Mission Drink from Tap
Going through the Odisha government’s publications, the scheme at Puri is part of the ambitious Mission Drink from Tap under the Sujala (pure water) scheme launched in August 2019 through WATCO (Water Corporation of Odisha). Pilot projects were launched in the capital Bhubaneswar and Puri.
The scheme seems to have been implemented first in Puri, keeping in mind its great publicity value and potential to draw more tourists. On average, Puri attracts about 2 crore tourists every year to the world-famous Jagannath Temple and its magnificent beach.
Reduction of plastic waste
As Patnaik says “tourists need not have to carry water bottles everywhere. This initiative will minimise plastic waste in the city every day”.
Mission Drink from Tap aims at providing water supply 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, each day of the year. The mission is also aimed at addressing the protection of water sources, water treatment, and the prevention of recontamination in the transmission and distribution system that is continuously full and under positive pressure throughout pipelines and networks.
The Odisha government talks of three “equitable, sustainable and people-centric” features of the scheme that have adopted “the best innovative, state-of-the-art technology and management techniques/tools” as in London, New York and Singapore.
The three highlights
The first is to provide 24X7 quality tap water to every household in urban Odisha, so that water from household taps can be directly used for drinking, without filtration or boiling, thus reducing the health risks caused by contamination from the intermittent supply.
To ensure this, water testing laboratories have been established for regular quality monitoring and surveillance on PPP mode to ensure third-party monitoring. There are centralised monitoring and tracking of preventive maintenance and complaint redressals. Consumers can log in their complaints in three languages – Odia, English and Hindi by dialling 155359.
The second is to eliminate household investments on overhead water tank/ underground reservoirs, motor pumps and RO-based water filters. The household connection is to be treated as public work and installed/maintained by plumbers who are trained, certified and empanelled (including returning migrant workers).
The challenge here is in convincing consumers that they should do away with the system of their present storage in the form of containers/drums or overhead tanks or sumps that pump water to the overhead tank. All these have contamination risks. Instead, the consumers should have faith and confidence in the reliability of the tap water that is assured all the time. They need to change their mindsets.
The third is to have 100 per cent metering of household water connections to reduce non-revenue water (NRW).
In fact, this third aspect is not publicised the way the first two are. The basic point here is that the 24X7 water supply is not free. All water connections under Mission Drink From Tap will be 100 percent metered.
Rs 250-crore revenue target
When this scheme under Sujala expands to other cities of the state, to at least 12 lakh urban dwellers, the Odisha government is targeting a revenue collection of Rs 250 crore per annum (approximately).
The collection through meter readings will be done by the Jal Sathis (water volunteers, all women, as part of women’s empowerment), who, in turn, are supposed to incentives of an estimated Rs 8 crore per annum.
The rationale behind the paid water through metered pipes is “to ensure the accessibility of safe water as and when needed and bill those beyond a certain amount of usage”. Through this mechanism, the service provider intends to also curb wastage of water.
It is precisely here that the state government will face a real challenge, particularly in a political environment in the country which dictates governments, whether at the Centre or states, to supply free or highly subsidised public services.
Even Mission Drink from Tap lays special emphasis on the supply to the urban poor. How much subsidy or totally free supply will be given to how many units in meter reading is not known. But it could prove to be politically explosive in the days to come.
As it is, the Patnaik government has already been criticised by the opposition that the scheme has not stuck to the timeline as promised in 2019. Even the entire Puri town will take another 9 months for full coverage.
After all, the mission is supposed to cover 10 other cities and is mandated to be upscaled, covering each household in all 114 urban local bodies (ULBs) by March 2022.
Some critics will also liken the nature of technical collaborations to the scheme by the Hague-based IRC (a non-profit organisation that drives resilient WASH systems from the ground) and UNICEF.
As regards the finances of the scheme, the exact sum has not been disclosed, though it is understandable that it is being met from the increased allocation for drinking water in the state budget, which has gone up from Rs 200 crore four years ago to Rs 4,000 crore today.
In addition, the state gets help from centrally sponsored schemes that support water supply in urban areas, like the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) 2, which was launched in 2005, and, more recently, the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT), launched in 2015.
How Sujal meets Swajal
It seems that Patnaik’s Sujal programme from which Mission Drink from Tap flows is broadly patterned on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Swajal scheme that was launched in 2018 as a pilot project in 28 states.
Swajal is a project that is designed as a demand-driven programme involving the community to provide sustainable access to safe drinking water to people in rural areas.
It is understood to be “empowering communities to plan, design, implement and monitor single village drinking water supply schemes, and organise community ownership for operation and maintenance,” mostly by women.While Modi’s Swajal claims to provide sustainable access to safe drinking water to people in rural areas, Patnaik’s innovation of Sujal caters to the urban areas. The Odisha chief minister, who has a wonderful equation with the Prime Minister, realises, perhaps, that his rural areas can be taken care of by the central schemes.