All speakers addressing the main session of the World Water Week in Sweden during 5-11 September were presented with a beautifully wrapped bottle of tap water! Yes, you heard right: tap water from Stockholm. It is a symbol of achievement that the Swedes love to flaunt—and rightly so.

It is also the best gift the Indian government can give to all Indians in general, and particularly those 500-odd million that live below the poverty line (BPL). Though it may not seem so intuitively, it is by far more important than guaranteeing food security. Fixing it would, in fact, be the first step in ensuring nutritional security and thereby empowering the poor in an unprecedented manner—a good thought ahead of the United Nations meeting in New York, which will, among other things, record the achievements of each government in meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), including the provision of drinking water. (Prime Minister Manmohan Singh will be skipping the event this year.)

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This requires a political commitment of the kind that rallied people to fight for the country’s independence. Six decades after independence, the government merely pays lip service to providing safe drinking water to the people; there are individual efforts happening at the state level in some urban pockets, but there is no grand strategy in place.

Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who has been restlessly exploring the next big idea for her party and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) that can capture the imagination of the public—like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) which was launched in 2005—is one politician who has the potential to actually make this idea a happy reality. She has so far, at least by her actions and public postures, showed that she is conscious of the social reality of India. At present, she along with the rest of the National Advisory Council (NAC) is engaging the government in a plan to provide food security, to the poor in particular and if possible to everyone.

A laudable intent indeed. But imagine if this was dovetailed with a promise to provide safe drinking water for all—a right to water. The underlying economic logic, something that was discussed at length during the World Water Week, is very compelling: According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), every $1 of investment in water can generate $8 worth of economic development. The MGNREGS budgets for 40,000 crore of spending annually; given a 1:8 benefit ratio, the math of such spending on providing safe drinking water is obvious.

Alternatively, the cost of not providing safe drinking water is even more compelling. It is the major cause of the killer disease diarrhoea, claiming the lives of 1,000 children of five years and below every day! It is one of the key reasons as to why the odds are stacked against children born in poverty in this country. A study undertaken by the government reveals that diarrhoea is among the top 10 causes of death among infants and children 0-4 years of age; about 10% of infants and 14% of 0-4-year children die due to diarrhoea in India. Imagine the lives saved and the reduction of recurring annual spending by providing safe drinking water, not to speak of the increase in productivity.

It is not that the Stockholm experience with safe drinking water needs to be targeted only at the poor. Everyone needs it as much. Stop and think as to how we manage our daily lives in urban India, where the supply of potable water is scarce and in some cases non-existent, leave alone safe to drink. The mitigation costs—whether it is filter machines or bottled water—are a substantive part of our daily household budgets.  (It is another matter that this problem has given rise to an entire industry claiming to provide safe drinking water.)

This is the political economy of a development strategy that fails to provide for safe drinking water. While the right to food is a great idea that should be executed, its success will be severely retarded if people don’t have access to safe drinking water. Finally, as several experts at the World Water Week underlined, water and sanitation should be seen as desirable twins. They are mutually reinforcing objectives and one without the other will not be as effective. It is a basic public good to empower the poor.

Are the politicians listening?

Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome