Bengaluru: The census of 2011 says that a little more than half the population of India’s 5,705 towns have access to treated water supply, but that statistic may be disingenuous, some analysts say.
Many small towns, including three on the outskirts of Bengaluru, do supply water to their residents through taps but the water, in fact, is getting pumped up from the ground.
The town of Hosakote is an example.
Hosakote is a small municipality of 56,613 people just to the north-east of Bengaluru in Karnataka. But unlike its far larger neighbour to the south-west, Hoskote does not have the benefit of surface water. It gets all its water from 107 tubewells, 74 of which are within the town limits and 33 are outside of the town area, according to R. Mudharangaiah, a municipality official.
The town’s website says it supplies 1.15 million litres of water a day to its 56,613 people, which is about 20 litres of water per person per day.
The average bucket holds between eight and twenty litres.
Nearly 42% of India’s 377 million urban people live in the so-called metropolitan towns, many of which have cropped up around existing urban centres.
Doddaballapur to Bangalore’s northern outskirts, just past its airport, has 85 borewells, which supply water to the town’s over 93,000 residents. In Nelamangala town, the municipality owns 105 borewells of which 102 are operational according to the municipality’s chief. It provides water to an estimated 3,500 connections.
The census makes a distinction between tap water and water from a tubewell or handpump, among other things. However, one expert says the distinction it draws is merely in the mode of supply of water, not the actual source.
In water “they confuse between the source of supply and the method of supply, and in the sanitation, they confuse between the mode of disposal and the point of disposal," said S. Viswanath, who runs the India Water Portal.
Viswanath said the problem was that the census data is based on citizens’ responses. “So, the citizen may or may not know the source of water at all. Now if I get water in my tap, generally, I am not aware where it is coming from."
Viswanath said that while there were no numbers on where much of urban India gets its water from, the general assumption was that at least half of the water came from underground sources.
Where India gets its water from becomes more important with the pace and extent of our urbanization. Apart from 468 so-called class-I cities (cities with populations in excess of 100,000 but below one million), India has 5,648 of the so-called class-II towns or those with populations up to 100,000.
“You cannot assume that tap water means surface water," said Usha Raghupathi, a professor at the National Institute of Urban Affairs. “A lot depends on where the city is located."
A 2016 study by the National Institute of Urban Affairs said that a mere 15 of the country’s more than 5000 towns formally classified urban has 100% coverage of tap water.
“This is nothing new. So, census is not the appropriate source for information on how much water is coming from the use of surface water, how much from ground water. This is maintained essentially by the central water commission with inputs from the (Central) Ground Water Board.," said Pronab Sen, former chief statistician of India.
Sen said small towns could not have access to surface water for the simple reason that the economics of water treatment plants don’t work out.
“So, all habitations, as they grow, will continue to depend on groundwater up to a point. But by and large, these places draw very little water. Because most of these places require water essentially for drinking and household purposes and if you look at water usage in India, drinking and household purposes accounts for less than 10% of the water use. 90% is for agriculture and industry, of which agriculture is the dominant with about 78%," Sen said, adding that just saying many towns got their water from tubewells wouldn’t mean much because urban water requirements were much lower than the rate of recharge of the underground aquifers.