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Delhi's water woes: The political turf war ahead of elections is denying citizens their 'right to life'

Clean water cannot be allowed to be the responsibility of one body alone. It has to be the collective responsibility of all government machinery.

It seems that there is a complete failure of governance when it comes to the issue of clean water provisions in our national capital. On December 5, 2019, I wrote an article in this column, drawing on the political war over Delhi’s water quality after the Union Minister of Consumer Affairs shared the findings of a study conducted by BIS, pointing at Delhi’s tap water being the worst in quality parameters among major Indian cities.

In his rebuttal, the Delhi CM slammed the report and accused the Centre of playing “dirty politics”. A Delhi Jal Board report refuted the BIS findings, stating that water samples from eight out of nine places tested earlier are fit for drinking.

The experiment

However, I came across a news item in India Today dated January 17, that seems to add another dimension to Pandora’s Box. India Today moved with a team of independent experts to test water quality across the city and its neighbourhoods, namely, Delhi’s seven Lok Sabha constituencies plus Noida and Gurugram in the suburbs. They carried out a “door-to-door sampling” over three days and found that five out of nine areas passed the water-quality test and four failed it. 

Nobody can shirk away from the responsibility of having a failed system that is supplying water that is not potable. (Representational photo: Reuters)

Laboratory reports from East, West, North-East Delhi and Gurugram rated the supplies unfit for drinking primarily because of bacterial contamination. The test reports of Mayur Vihar, Dwarka, Burari and Gurugram read “with respect to bacteriological tests, water does not conform to IS: 10500-2012, and cannot be considered fit for drinking purpose”. However, the values were within permissible limits for South Delhi, Chandni Chowk, NorthWest and Noida constituencies, indicating that the water in these regions is safe for drinking.

I am yet to come across a case where a media house has moved on its own to investigate citizen’s concerns, irrespective of what the government states in terms of quality. This also shows the important role that the press can play in a democracy. This report is an important instrument for litigation for citizens’ groups asking for something that should be treated as a fundamental right.

In my December 5 column, I spoke of clean water to be recognised as a fundamental right. As such, Article 21 of the Constitution speaks of the right to life and has been left for interpretation. Clean water needs to be the fundamental component of that.

The Supreme Court recently acknowledged the responsibilities of the government, and has come up with significant observations:

  1. a) “right to life of a human is being endangered” by the bad air quality and water pollution
  2. b) the state governments need to explain on “… why they should not be asked to compensate persons who are affected by bad air quality”
  3. c) “… the problem of governance should not come in the way in such matters”.

On accountability

Given this situation, the DJB claim seems to have been refuted by the survey. At the outset, there is a possibility that the samples tested by DJB and India Today are different, and hence due to statistical sampling differentials, there remains the possibility of differential results. There are zones in the sample where DJB is not responsible for providing clean water, but it belongs to another body.

On the other hand, recently, another “blame-game” has begun with the DJB alleging the BJP-ruled Haryana government for supplying contaminated water to Delhi as part of a “political conspiracy” ahead of the assembly polls. This again raises another dimension to the upstream-downstream water conflict debate. The Haryana government and the BJP have both refuted this claim.

Beyond blame game

Hence, the question is: who is to be blamed? One needs to reiterate the Supreme Court observations given above. No government has the right to play with “right to life”! It does not matter in our federal structure whether the upstream is responsible for downstream pollution.

In a different context, I stated that one of the reasons for water conflicts is the federal structure. However, in this context, I will propose that clean water cannot be allowed to be the responsibility of one body only. It has to be the collective responsibility of all government machinery. This can only happen when clean water becomes a fundamental right explicitly stated in the constitution.

Now comes the question of whether “user cost” should be charged or not. Pricing water in terms of “user cost” might deviate from the very basic principle of “fundamental right”. As an example, in the city of Kolkata, urban household water is unpriced. However, block-pricing of the clean water is possible, as DJB is already doing. Beyond a certain point, the user charge on the basis of marginal or average-cost pricing may be advocated.

Yet, there is no doubt that the water testing moves are real eye-openers. Nobody can shirk away from the responsibility of having a failed system that is supplying water that is not potable. The political turf war prior to elections is of no relevance here! What matters most is the common man’s face. In these critical times, the common man’s face gets lost in the quagmire of political battles and turf wars. These independent water quality survey results have, yet again, brought that to surface.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Also read: Why right to clean air and water should be made a fundamental right

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