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Water Quality and state of water in India-I

In this first of a series of article, the authors presents an overview of the underlying causes for water pollution in the country as also suggests remedial actions (in terms of best practices as also legal mandates) required for addressing the state of this extremely critical resource. “Aqua currit, et debet currere ut solebat”, the maxim in practical application means that water is the common and equal property of everyone through whose domain it flows, and right of each over its use and consumption is the same provided no one destroys or unreasonably impairs the rights of others. Besides being the life giver and most essential for life after oxygen, water has been since times immemorial used to measure time - emphasizing the connection of water with the larger universe!

Stages of evolution of societies and water pollution     

If water in any place has biological contaminants, it can be presumed that society is still traditional and poor, for it does not have the ability to treat its human sewage and other organic wastes. If the water is full of chemical toxins, the society is progressing on to the next phase of water use: industrial use. But it is still poor, for it cannot clean the water before discharge. If the water has cocktails of trace toxic pollutants – arsenic and mercury, hormones and pesticides, to more deadly dioxins and furans – that society is truly industrialized and rich. It uses huge amounts of products, which contain these chemicals; it also spends huge amounts to treat its effluents. Despite these efforts, these traces are found as  some of the deadly and toxic materials escape its best efforts. Thus continuous upgrades of treatment plants and effluent standards is undertaken to track and treat these new characteristics in its waste.

India has a double burden of pollution to treat: traditional-bacterial and heavy-metal modern. It, therefore, also has a double burden of diseases to treat: the traditional waterborne diseases, which still result in unacceptable human morbidity and mortality, and a load of modern chemical-induced expensive diseases like cancers and other genetic disorders.

Why is pollution control strategy not working in the country? 

Simple: not a single city or a river treatment system has been designed to work to clean. The reasons are many but all contribute to the river’s downfall.

City or River System – Designed not to work to clean

  • Pollution-Drainage disconnect: city unable to collect and convey substantial sewage, resulting in treated waste mixing with untreated waste. Resulting in pollution.
  • Location of Sewage Treatment Plant not designed to dispose of treated effluent so as to clean the water body.
  • Cities rarely plan what to do with their treated sewage, therefore treated sewage is thrown away instead of reusing it by recycling the treated water.
  • Cities do not have drainage system to convey excreta to the Sewage Treatment Plants. 

Poor Quality Water due to:

  • Poor state of Pipes
  • Corrosion due to heavy dosing of water by chlorine leads to formation of weak hydrochloric and hypochlorous acid
  • Generation of biofilm – bacteria entering the pipe and coating the pipe (mostly Pseudomonas)
  • Bacteria get protection from biofilm and end up re-contaminating the water by breaking out into the water
  • Water and Sewage Pipe networks running next to each other, therefore leading to contamination of water from sewage pipe network through leaks in the pipe network

Water, Legal & regulatory framework (or absence of these) 

  • Indians do not have a legal right to clean water
  • Water quality standards do not exist
  • Municipalities and water agencies have no control over quality of water at source
  • Cost of contaminated water heavily paid for – either in form of poor health or by households spending money from their pockets to buy devices and technology to clean the water


Municipality need to legislate water treatment at building point to safeguard and protect residents from consuming contaminated water - U.S. has legislated water quality at Point of Entry and Point of Use as water can get contaminated during conveyance to the buildings at the end point where the taps are located. Quality of water can be maintained at the Point of Use in the building through TruBlu D treatment. A suitable legislation needs to be passed to mandate this. 

Recycling and Reuse: What will it cost and how is it to be done?

Cities have no option but to recycle and reuse every drop of water. The starting point has to be finding an end use. Once this is achieved the city will need to pass legislation and force a segment of buyers to use the treated wastewater. Water tariffs will have to be adjusted so that a segment of buyers find it cheaper to use treated wastewater over potable water. 

Who has the ownership and responsibility for defining comprehensive water policy in the country? 

Simply put, the answer is complex. Under the Indian constitution, a state government has the power to make laws in respect to water resources of that state. The Parliament has the power to legislate the regulation and development of inter-state rivers. Thus a State Government can exercise authority over water  subject to certain limitations that may be imposed by the Parliament.

The legislative framework of the constitution related to water is based on Entry 17 of the State List, Entry 56 in the Union List, and Article 262 of the Constitution.  As Water is a concurrent subject (i.e. amongst the list of areas where both the central government and state governments have ability to draft laws), Article 254 also plays an important role in helping set define the resolution in cases of inconsistency between laws made by Parliament and laws made by the Legislatures of States.

“If any provision of a law made by the Legislature of a State is repugnant to any provision of a law-made by Parliament, which Parliament is competent to enact, or to any provision of any existing law with respect to one of the matters enumerated in the Concurrent List, then, subject to the provisions of clause (2), the law made by Parliament, whether passed before or after the law made by the Legislature of such State, or, as the case may be, the existing law, shall prevail and the law made by the Legislature of the state shall, to the extent of the repugnancy, be void.”

So far the Parliament has not made much use of the powers vested in it through the Entry 56 of the Union List. In view of the supremacy of the Parliament, it is not totally right to say that water is a state subject. Moreover, most of India’s important rivers are inter-state. Hence, water is potentially as much a union subject as a state subject. Further, the legislative power of a state under Entry 17 has to be exercised in such a manner that the interests of other states do not suffer adversely and a dispute is created.

The power and role given to the Union Government with regard to the management of inter-state rivers is very important and necessary. In this context, the provisions of Entry 20 in the Concurrent List, namely, economic and social planning, are also quite relevant. By virtue of this provision, the major and medium irrigation, hydropower, flood control and multi-purpose projects are required to seek clearance of the central government for inclusion in the national plan.

Rationalizing the legislative ambit is the need of the hour

  • Right to clean water is enshrined in Article 21 of the Indian Constitution as part of the guarantee of Right to Life. States with their own narrow interests would continue to fight over interstate rivers and water bodies hence the Parliament of India has to come out with unambiguous legislations on water, as water is fundamental to life. 

This article has been jointly coauthored by Chetan Shukla (Chief Sustainability Officer, Vasudhaecofriends Projects (P) ltd.) and Pranay Kumar (Chief Environment Officer, Vasudhaecofriends Projects (P) Ltd.)

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