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RO water too costly for Punjab’s poor in Malwa



In the Malwa belt of Punjab that is riddled with water problems, the Punjab government’s project to install water purifiers working on reverse osmosis (RO) theory does not seem to have yielded desired results, at least for the poor.

With the clean drinking water costing at least Rs 60 per month, the families of landless and small farmers, daily wagers and others like them continue to drink the same dirty water.

The Malwa belt, comprising mainly of the south-western Punjab, is one of the most backwards areas of the state. The water table here is very low and the water is brackish and full of pesticides, studies have found, concluding this as the reason for the high incidences of cancer among the people here.

The worst affected districts are Moga, Muktsar, Sangrur, Bathinda, Ferozepur and Faridkot.

“The RO system installed in our village is a mixed blessing. The water quality in our area is very poor and earlier we used always have this heavy feeling in our stomach but the situation has now changed. But paying for water is not right as we have some very poor families in the village who cannot afford this.

They, too, have a right to drink clean water,” says Darshan Singh, a farmer in Khai village And while the state is selling water at the rate of Rs 2 per 20 litres, the private enterprises involved in the project are also making hay, charging Rs 10 per 20 litres.

This area has three private concerns selling RO water. This water is, however, chilled, unlike the one sold by the state.

The Punjab Infrastructure Development Board will be setting up 373 RO systems in the villages of Faridkot, Tarn Taran, Bathinda, Mansa, Muktsar and Sangrur districts. These are in addition to RO systems already working in 327 villages. These plants are set up with the help of agencies engaged through the water supply and sanitation department. While the Punjab government boasts of setting up RO systems in villages as a big achievement, experts say the technology being used is not right.

Says Magsaysay Award winner Rajender Singh of Tarun Bharat Sangh, who is called the “Waterman of India”: “The waste generated by the RO system is highly concentrated with impurities, which further deteriorates the quality of the water. This technology is a failure and should not be adopted by Punjab at all. Punjab needs to recharge its aquifers just as we have done in Rajasthan. The work is simple; we just need to identify aquifers in areas that are located at a height and where water quality is good. Just recharge the water there and we have water for the entire Malwa belt.”

He is also of the opinion that creation of a market for water will in turn create a divide between the poor and the rich.

“Selling water is violation of human rights. Just like food security Act, we need to have a water security Act, too. If we cannot allow people to die of hunger, we cannot let them die of thirst either,” says Singh.



Like other heavy metals, uranium can not be neutralised by the RO technique. The Punjab government’s exercise of setting up of over 200 RO plants in Bathinda, Mansa and surrounding districts has proved futile. Experts claim that the government has to go for other techniques to decontaminate potable water of uranium and other heavy metals.

Dr Rohit Mehra, Assistant Professor, Department of Physics, Dr BR Ambedkar National Institute of Technology, Jalandhar, who examined hand pump water in 34 villages, found uranium in water was more alarming in Mansa district of Punjab compared to Faridkot.

The study found that the level of uranium, radium, thorium and potassium in soil samples was also higher. “The possible reasons for high level may be the extension of Tosham Hills under soils of Bathinda region, but for the final conclusion more analysis is required,” he said.

Dr Mehra claimed that the RO system was not suitable for the separation of uranium, radium, thorium and certain other heavy metals from the water. Instead of filtration, the RO plant could develop certain faults, he revealed.

The government should either go for some other technique for purifying the water for uranium and other heavy metals or only the canal water be used in RO plants. He, however, ruled out the possibility of high level of uranium in water drawn from deep bore wells.

On the presence of uranium in air, Dr Mehra claimed the mismanagement of fly ash in huge quantity in Bathinda might be another factor contaminating underground water as well as air. Mud houses, as loose soil contains uranium, and construction material having permissible quantity of fly ash, apart from marble and granite, should be avoided to get rid of the problem.

Chief Engineer (South), Water Supply and Sanitation Department, Punjab, SR Aggarwal, claimed that the government had taken up the setting up 98 RO plants in Bathinda district and 78 in Mansa district alone. Setting up of one RO plant costs from Rs 10 lakh to Rs 15 lakh.

“The plants are being installed in identified villages, besides those on the tail end of the canals. The department has been planning to get waters tested afresh from known laboratories and research centres after the apprehensions of uranium level in potable waster in the region,” claimed Aggarwal.

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