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State needs clear-cut drinking water policy

 Ajit Patowary

GUWAHATI, March 10 - Experts here link the rise in the number of fluorosis, arsenicosis and suspected arsenic-related cancer cases in the State to its lack of a safe drinking water policy. Such cases are burgeoning because of the rampant consumption of water contaminated with fluoride and arsenic. A clear-cut drinking water policy and its execution with transparency and accountability would have been a deterrent to all such water-related woes, said the experts.

It needs mention here that in the State, till February this year, a population of 4.19 lakh in 930 habitations under 44 development blocks of 11 districts were affected by fluoride contamination of groundwater, while a population of 29.12 lakh in 6,881 habitations under 110 development blocks of 20 districts were affected by arsenic contamination of groundwater.


To add to the water-related miseries of the State’s people, like in most of the other States, the Public Health Engineering Department (PHED), which is responsible for all the rural water supply schemes, besides some urban water schemes, in the State, also lacks sufficient qualified public health engineering experts. It appears that qualified public health engineering experts constitute hardly one or two per cent of the around 700 existing engineers of the State’s PHED, said the experts, adding, this causes a vital knowledge gap and attitudinal barrier for the Department.


Public Health Engineering is a combination of civil engineering and public health knowledge and aptitude. As a result of the above deficiencies, experts said nearly four lakhs (3.31 lakh) of spot sources were installed in the haste to cover more areas with ‘safe water supply schemes,’ without checking groundwater other than iron, for highly dangerous chemical contaminants over a very long period.


This resulted in the loss of scores of lives and mental and physical disability of thousands of people, wastage of crores of rupees in water supply schemes (WSS). This could occur due to the lack of public health knowledge and non adherence to public health practices. Erroneous data of other agencies like Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), Rajiv Gandhi Technology Mission, among others, are also responsible for this pitiable state. It clearly calls for immediate effective steps to remove this critical knowledge and attitudinal gap, said the experts.


There is also a dearth of trained manpower for maintenance of piped water supply schemes (PWSS). This has made a huge number of PWSS either redundant, or, to function partly. But without taking this aspect into consideration, numerous new water supply schemes are undertaken in a manner that PWSS have increased about tenfold in the last two decades. It is alleged that there is no recruitment of maintenance staff in the Department since 2004.


For the around 9,420 PWSS (8,004 completed and 1, 418 are under implementation), the present maintenance staff strength of the PHED is 8,402 only. There is a requirement of about 20,000 more maintenance staff properly trained in the basics of multi-engineering disciplines, such as – electricity, pumps, plumbing, disinfections, chemical handling, dosing calculation, chemistry, hydrology, water pressure, flow regulation, repairing, water sample collection etc. These people should also have fair knowledge about water-borne and water-related diseases for effective performance.


Without bothering to solve all these problems, pressure is mounted on the PHED to hand over the existing PWSS to the Gaon Panchayats as a policy. Since there is the dearth of trained manpower and no visible efforts to train such huge number of workers, how the Gaon Panchayats will avail the services of such trained people to run the schemes properly is not clear, said the experts.


Source: The Assam Tribune, Guwahati, Sunday, March 11, 2018