Author : Dhaval Desai

Expert Speak India Matters
Published on Dec 03, 2019
Governments at centre, state and city levels must give up gimmicks and urgently act to improve the quality of water in urban India
Quality of water in India’s state capitals

In mid-November, media went abuzz with stories proclaiming Mumbai, the country’s commercial capital, to have achieved 100 percent safe quality of its municipal water supply. Samples of tap water from across the city were said to meet – rather outperform – each of the 11 individual parameters of tests conducted by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) in 15 major state capitals. On the other hand, water samples collected in Delhi, including the office and residence of the Union Consumer Affairs Minister, failed all the individual parameters, meaning that the quality of water supplied to the national capital is the poorest in the country.

The 11 parameters included organoleptic, physical, chemical and bacteriological tests and tests to ascertain presence of toxic substances, among.

City rankings as per water quality tests conducted by Bureau of Indian Standards

Catagorisation/Rank Capital Number of samples failing No of individual parameters of samples failing
1 Mumbai 0/10 0
2 Hyderabad 1/10 1
Bhubaneshwar 1/10 1
3 Ranchi 1/10 4
4 Raipur 5/10 3
5 Amravati 6/10 7
6 Shimla 9/10 1
7 Chandigarh 10/10 2
8 Thiruvananthapuram 10/10 3
9 Patna 10/10 4
Bhopal 10/10 4
10 Guwahati 10/10 5
Bengaluru 10/10 5
Gandhinagar 10/10 5
11 Lucknow 10/10 6
Jammu 10/10 6
12 Jaipur 10/10 7
Dehradun 10/10 7
13 Chennai 10/10 9
14 Kolkata 9/9 10
15 Delhi 11/11 19

Source: Press Information Bureau, Government of India, 16 November 2019,

The announcement spread cheer and anger among the water agencies in Mumbai and Delhi respectively. In Mumbai, the municipal commissioner praised his hydraulic engineering staff for working “round-the-clock” to ensure the high quality and safety of its water supply. However, as expected, media did not have any kind words to offer to Delhi Jal Board (DJB). With less than three months to go for Delhi legislative assembly elections, the opposition was quick to seize the opportunity to condemn the AAP government in Delhi. As if on cue, posters appeared in all major areas in the capital accusing the state government for making people drink “poisonous water”.

Irrespective of the veracity of these rankings, the existing state of city water supply systems show that such exercises add up to zero-sum.

  • The quality of water produced at filtration plants may be top-class, but its quality worsens as the water travels through the trunk mains to service reservoirs. The gradual deterioration in the quality of water is because most of the last-mile pipeline networks are poorly maintained. In many cases, especially in the slums, they are laid through open stormwater drains or in close proximity of municipal sewers. With intermittent water supply, pipes are fully pressurised for only a couple of hours daily. During the long no-supply periods, contaminated surrounding groundwater seeps in as the pressure in the pipes drops to zero. This contaminated water eventually flows out of the taps whenever the municipal water supply service is resumed. One can only imagine the situation in several cities that get water every alternate day.
  • Neighbourhoods from where the samples were collected can also impact the results. For example, in some of the newly-developed areas where the water infrastructure is newly laid, tap water samples would give better results than the samples collected from places where the infrastructure is old and crumbling. News reports have indicated that in Delhi, samples for the BIS tests were taken from low-income areas. Likewise, samples drawn from slums – especially in areas like Kurla and Govandi in Mumbai which are the epicentres of water borne diseases – too can fail on some key individual parameters. Megacities such as Mumbai have water distribution networks that span across several thousands of kilometres and therefore results are likely to vary across supply areas.
  • Just before the onset of delayed monsoon this year, Mumbai had witnessed a spike in water borne diseases as the municipal corporation resorted to using the “dead stock” from its fast-drying reservoirs. The civic health department, as a result, had appealed to the citizens to “boil water before drinking”. Surely, quality of treated piped water couldn’t have been affected by seasonal changes.
  • Around the same time, Hyderabad – ranked joint second with Bhubaneswar – was also in a grip of water borne diseases, creating large-scale drinking water contamination scare. Same was the case with Ranchi, Raipur and Amravati, the cities ranked third, fourth and fifth.
  • Within a week of the announcement of the BIS results, quality tests conducted by three neighbouring municipal bodies in DJB supply areas gave contradictory results. The tests conducted by the health departments of the BJP-run East, North and South Delhi Municipal Corporations revealed that only 130 random tap water samples i.e. less than three percent of the 4,523 samples, were found to be contaminated. This failure rate is well under the WHO threshold of five percent.
  • Incidentally, in September 2019, the Union Water Resources Minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat too had praised the quality of DJB water. Water samples from 20 locations across Delhi, he said, were found to be “better than European standards.” It would, therefore, be interesting to study what made the DJB water go from “better than European standards” to being unfit for consumption in a matter of just two months.

Many cities, especially Mumbai, have indeed improved water quality by taking significant steps over the past few years. For example, since 2012-13, the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) has stopped using steel water pipes for surface distribution. The supply is now being channelled through 14 underground concrete water tunnels. In several slums, the criss-crossing network of pipes (spaghetti networks) has been replaced with single six-inch pipes. Water testing labs have been upgraded with the help of the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) and water sampling procedures have also been streamlined to ensure accuracy of results. However, despite these measures, Mumbai continues to have a high rate of non-revenue water (NRW). NRW is the difference of the total amount of treated water fed into the distribution system and the total quantum of water that is billed. The quantum of water that remains unbilled thus indicates the total systemic distribution loss – which can either be through leaks or through theft and pilferage or unbilled consumption. As per MCGM’s own admission, despite intermittent water supply only for up to four hours, NRW is as high as 27 percent. As a result, of the total water supply of 4700 million litres/day, over 1,000 million litres just disappears from the system.

According to the World Bank, most Indian cities have NRW to the tune of 40 percent or more. Even this NRW level cannot be considered accurate given the absence of meters in most cities. While Mumbai has taken much of its water supply underground in concrete trunk lines, they are laid beside the old and crumbling sewer network. Therefore, water contamination because of an inflow of raw sewage during non-supply hours cannot be ruled out. At the national level, the Composite Water Management Index (CWMI) of Niti Aayog has confirmed that 70 percent of India’s water supply is contaminated. Globally, India is ranked 120th among 122 countries in WaterAid’s water quality index.

Given such state of affairs, ranking cities on water quality is nothing more than a naming and shaming exercise. In the absence of accountability of civic agencies, capacity building and all-encompassing systemic improvements, it would be unrealistic to expect acceptable and uniform water quality in any city. As most cities have antiquated and malfunctioning water meters, they face a perennial drought of systemic and consumption data.

At a time when 84 percent of rural households in India still do not have piped water supply, inefficiencies of municipal supply in cities have to be resolved with utmost urgency. Municipal water supply is set to gain immense significance over the next decade considering that 21 cities – as per the CWMI – are slated to run out of groundwater by 2020. As the combination of haphazard urbanisation, climate change and weak infrastructure leads to the rapid deterioration of urban water supply, the government at the centre, state and city levels will have to do much more than simply rely on such arbitrary and inaccurate rankings.

India’s cities therefore need to start with rudimentary measures to bring about extensive and transformative changes in their water distribution management. Some of these would ensure universal metering, bringing NRW levels to around 10 percent and maintaining a high level of cleanliness and hygiene in slums with the provision of effective sewage and solid waste management to minimise water contamination. The centre and state governments will have to ensure decentralisation of power to the municipal bodies and making them accountable as mandated in the 74th Amendment to the Constitution of India. Importantly, the state government will have to devolve funds via relevant finance commissions and address the financial deprivation of the municipal bodies by bridging the gap between municipal finances and functions.

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