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Chronic water scarcity has gripped India as the groundwater table continues to fall at an alarming rate. The current crisis is not just about the disturbed demand-supply curve but mismanagement of resources. Most water sources are contaminated by sewage and agricultural run-off.

Rising population, sprawling cities, and an enormous and thirsty farm belt have jeopardized a feeble, ill-kept public water and sanitation network.

Water problems are endemic, mainly because system maintenance is almost non-existent. As India celebrates ‘water conservation year,’ a faulty municipal system is reinforcing several stark inequalities. There has been a rapid decline of water levels in Delhi and Andhra Pradesh, with 85 and 74 per cent of wells respectively registering a fall in the water level during 2007-2012.

Sunita Narain, director-general of the Centre for Science and Environment, says municipal supply is caught up in a problem resulting in rising cost of supply and an increasing number of people who need the water.

“Most cities are caught in a very vicious cycle as costs are rising, sourcing the water is taking up a huge amount of energy, the distribution network requires longer and longer pipelines. Municipal agencies spend all their time extending the length of the pipelines rather than repairing them. They are not able to supply water to people at affordable prices,” Ms. Narain told The Hindu.

She suggests that we need a different way to reform the municipal supply systems because today it is the poor in India who are the worst-affected. The rich virtually exit the municipal system and often do not pay water or sewage charges. For example, New Delhi has the lowest water and sewage charges in the country.

Ms. Narain warns that the rich have the option of bottled water, leaving the poor to drink what is polluted. This has huge health costs and social implications. She reiterates that water is an issue of need. “Today, the challenge in India is to fix the municipal supply not to get everyone to drink bottled water.”

Companies that use the natural resource for profit pay no charge or royalty for the raw water they use — only a nominal ‘cess’ varying from State to State (a few paise per kilolitre).

There are no credible data available in the country on the quantum of the groundwater, surface or spring water that is being extracted and used by the bottled water and beverages industry, even in the authorized sector.

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