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Water-borne crisis

Print edition : May 06, 2005 T+T-

The CAG blames the Orissa government's failure to provide safe potable water for the outbreak of diseases in the State.

PRAFULLA DAS in Bhubaneswar

WHILE natural disasters and starvation are known to take their toll regularly on Orissa, contaminated water seems to be emerging as the latest lethal killer, particularly in the urban pockets of the State. According to a report of the Comptroller and Auditor-General of India (CAG), which was tabled in the State Assembly recently, a total of 2,169 people died of water-borne diseases in the State between March 2001 and March 2004. While 4.96 lakh people were affected by acute diarrhoea, another 29,000 suffered from jaundice during the period. "Failure of the government to provide safe potable water led to an epidemic which caused the deaths," the report said.

Lakhs of people in the urban areas are reported to have fallen victim to diseases caused by water contamination. The capital city of Bhubaneswar is no exception to this alarming phenomenon. The main government hospital in the city admitted almost 15 diarrhoea patients a day. A total of 170 patients came for treatment of jaundice last year.

Unofficial reports indicate that cases of jaundice are increasing in the city. About 50 cases have been reported during the past month. However, a senior doctor at the Capital Hospital dispelled fears that the disease had taken the shape of an epidemic. A recent survey, the doctor said, had revealed that jaundice was limited to certain areas of Bhubaneswar. No clear detail about its incidence is available since many people prefer treatment at private clinics or at home through traditional methods.

The situation is neighbouring Cuttack city is equally bad. The government-run Shriram Chandra Bhanja Medical College there receives nearly 20 diarrhoea patients every day and about 25 jaundice patients a month. Cuttack is prone to water-borne diseases as the water lines there are exposed to the sewerage system at several locations.

"The State government has failed to ensure the supply of safe drinking water in the urban areas of the State," said Niranjan Patnaik, senior Congress leader and former Health Minister. Patnaik, who suffered from jaundice last year, said the authorities should conduct regular checks to prevent contamination of drinking water. The leakages in the distribution pipelines should be detected and necessary repair work done at frequent intervals, he suggested.

While the CAG report has criticised the quality of drinking water supplied in the urban areas, no Statewide study has been conducted on the quality of water available in the rural areas where millions of people are clamouring for water. The CAG's survey of Ganjam district found that the quality of water available in 12,446 tubewells sunk over a period of 10 years remained untested. "The water quality of 470 of the 3,403 tubewells tested in the district was not safe," it said.

The report highlighted the laxity of the Public Health Department, which supplies drinking water to the residents of 103 urban local bodies in the State. As per the rules, the quality of water supplied both at source and at the distribution point has to be analysed before supply. But none of the six public health divisions (Bolangir, Bhubaneswar-III, Cuttack-II, Rourkela, Puri and Baripada), where CAG officials conducted inspections, maintained records of analysis of the quality of water supplied. The reports compiled following a few tests and analyses revealed that substandard water was supplied in 13 towns by the public health divisions. Regular testing and analysis in these divisions could not be done owing to the lack of adequate facilities.

According to the report, an analysis of water samples from different sources in Puri conducted by the State Pollution Control Board in July 2001 revealed that the concentration of nitrate was above the limit prescribed for drinking water. The authorities admitted that some tubewells showed bacteriological contamination, apart from having a high pH value indicating pollution owing to the leakage of sewage from adjoining septic tanks and leach pits and open sewage overflows in unprotected drains. The Chief District Medical Officer (CDMO) of Puri observed in July 2002 that the water supplied was not potable owing to the presence of coliform in it, which confirmed the supply of substandard water.

The report pointed out that the outbreak of jaundice in Baripada town in June-July 2001 (138 persons were affected) was a clear proof of the supply of contaminated water. Although the authorities claimed that necessary precautions were taken to avoid contamination in the distribution system, there was another outbreak of jaundice in Baripada in January-February 2004 affecting 524 people (there were 25 casualties. Random bacteriological analysis of 102 samples conducted in February 2004 by the State Public Health Laboratory revealed that the water supplied through 39 sources in Baripada was contaminated. The health authorities of Baripada observed that leakages in the distribution pipelines and non-clearance of sewage and drain dirt from the drinking water outlets had led to the contamination.

Rapid growth in urban population during the last decade necessitated the augmentation of the existing water supply systems and the development of new schemes to ensure the supply of at least the minimum quantity of potable water. But the performance of the State government has remained poor on this front too. The authorities not only ignored the quality of water supplied but failed to supply even the minimum quantity of drinking water in areas under 88 of the 103 urban local bodies. The primary objective of the urban water supply scheme is to ensure the supply of a minimum of 70 litres per capita per day (LPCD) of potable water in towns with a population below 20,000; 100 LPCD in towns with a population between 20,000 and one lakh; and 150 LPCD in towns with above one lakh people, as per norms fixed by the Central government. A review by the CAG revealed that the minimum quantity of water was not supplied in areas under the 88 local bodies as of March 2004. The water supplied in areas under 30 local bodies ranged between six and 40 LPCD.

Against 51 local bodies eligible for coverage under the Centre's accelerated urban water supply programme (AUWSP), the State government chose only 24. The Centre approved water supply schemes for these towns between 1994 and 2004. The State government also failed to execute several water supply schemes properly; it took them up without a pre-construction survey. Besides, funds earmarked under the AUWSP were diverted for other purposes.

The issue is not only about contaminated water, non-supply of the minimum quantity of water, irregularities in the execution of water supply schemes and unauthorised diversion of funds. The authorities admit that over one million people living in the urban areas were yet to be supplied piped drinking water. Out of the population of five million in the areas coming under the103 local bodies, around four million were provided with piped water.

Bhubaneswar city alone has 300-odd jhuggi clusters. The government provides drinking water to 109 recognised slums, while those living in the remaining clusters depend on tubewells and other sources.

Meanwhile, State Urban Development Minister Kanak Vardhan Singhdeo has questioned the CAG report. "The CAG report is not 100 per cent correct. The CAG authorities have not taken into consideration many of the submissions made by the Public Health Department. If the water supplied to the various public health divisions was contaminated, it would have caused an epidemic," he said.

About the non-completion of several water supply schemes, Singhdeo blamed his own government for failing to allocate the required funds. The Centre bears half of the cost of each water supply scheme and the State bears the remaining cost as matching share. Continuous shortage of funds and rapid growth in the population were the reasons for his department's failure to provide piped water supply in the urban areas, Singhdeo said.

While the authorities question the CAG findings and people in urban areas live under constant threat of water contamination, the drinking water situation in rural Orissa is turning worse with the water table fast receding in many areas. As many as 8,000 habitations still remain outside the reach of the rural water supply scheme. The majority of tubewells remain defunct, making it difficult for the people to cope with the water crisis, particularly during the summer months.

All the 147 legislators in the Assembly were given copies of the CAG report. Although legislators cutting across party lines raised in the Assembly the issue of water crisis in the rural areas, none of them questioned the supply of substandard water.

Even as the problem of water contamination continued and agitations for safe drinking water were being organised across the State, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik reiterated his promise to provide a clean and responsive administration, apparently ignorant of the fact that his government had failed miserably on the drinking water front.

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