Is Clean Water A Basic Human Right?

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Nearly 76 million Indians live without access to safe water. Can India guarantee access to safe water as a human right?

Thousands in Bihar have fallen prey to various cancer-related illnesses, after drinking groundwater contaminated by arsenic. A 2015 study revealed arsenic concentrations from samples of the state’s groundwater to be five times the limit prescribed in the United States.

50 micrograms of arsenic per litre was enough to give countless residents cancers in the gall bladder and liver, all symptoms of arsenic poisoning. It’s yet another chapter in the hunt for clean water, as until the 1970s, locals drank river water that flowed from the Himalayas.

When that water started causing onsets of diarrhoea, international agencies recommended they switch to borewells and groundwater. But as the cases in Bihar demonstrate, this wasn’t a long term solution either.

India in the World

In 2016, a Water Aid report claimed Indians had the worst access to safe drinking water in the world. According to the report, nearly 76 million people lived without access to safe water.

India has shown progress in improving water access. In 2006, over 130 million were without safe drinking water. By halving this number by 2016, India was on track to meet some of its Millenium Development Goals. The challenge now is to keep the momentum, even as existing water sources are contaminated – particularly in the cities.


Access to open sources of freshwater like lakes and rivers has become a hazard in cities like Bangalore. It’s also Bangalore where private control over water had led to a booming ‘water-mafia’ – that dispenses water at high rates to those who have no choice.

Should water be considered a right? If so, what kind of right should it be?

The Right to Water: Positive for Some, Negative For Others

In 2010, the representative from Bolivia to the U.N. General Assembly introduced Resolution 64/292, which declared safe and clean drinking water a human right. Few other nations have known the price of water as sharply as Bolivia did – where tariffs over privatised water increased by two to three times, generating massive controversies and political turmoil.

The need for indigenous understanding and solutions is key. In the Arthashastra, water is mentioned as state property. The state handles irrigation but charges a levy over private ownership of water. Ownership could be revoked if water was left unused for up to five years.

It shows that the private ownership of water dates back millennia. But on paper, it’s no longer the case. Water is a state subject in India today, with the central government restricting its role to inter-state disputes over water. With no explicit provision on the right to safe water, judgements have been made observing the rights to life under Article 21 of the Constitution.

The outcome is that state-level approaches on clean water vary. Kerala prominently made news when the state government barred a Coca-Cola bottling plant in Plachimada for its overuse of water. It was an important decision for marking the line between private exploitation of water and resident detriment.

Other rulings, such as that of the Supreme Court judgement against the government of Andhra Pradesh, that prevented the state from permitting polluting industries to set up near the major reservoirs of Himayat Sagar and Osman Sagar. Amongst the arguments cited was Article 21 and the Right to Life, which encompasses safe water.

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The real question over pure water in India is its cost. According to the United Nations Development Program, “Water cost should not exceed 3 percent of household income.”

The question of pricing water depends on its use. For export-industries like the growing of rice, one has to consider the water-input per kilogramme – 2173 litres. The result is that when India exports rice, it is really exporting water – one of the world’s largest such ‘exporters’. Putting a price on water drawn from Indian soil could be necessitated in tackling over consumption.

Putting a price on its everyday use is the challenge. According to the Water Aid report, the price of 50 litres of water (the UN-recommended amount of consumption per person per day for consumption and hygienic purposes) from a water tanker comes up to 17 percent of the average salary. And with more than half of the country’s aquifers depleting fast, these tankers are increasingly the only source of (unregulated) clean water.

Ensuring Equitable Access

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But before the Indian government can fill in the gap, it has to take into account the question of equitable access.

Dalits in India have historically struggled for their rights to access water. As Deepa Joshi and Ben Fawcett reported in their paper “Water, Hindu Mythology and an Unequal Social Order in India”, age-old caste hierarchies remain prevalent in a water-rich hill region of Uttarkhand, controlling access over water despite it being a state subject. Naulas are stone wells used to collect and purify water, traditionally maintained by the upper-caste households in Kumaon. Dalits are barred from taking water from these, and must make do with government issued-tapwater; sourced from storm water drains.

An excerpt from their interview with a Dalit woman read:

Ask us what water scarcity is? It is not to bathe in the summer heat after toiling in the fields. It is to reuse water used in the cooking for washing utensils, to use this water again for washing clothes and finally to feed the soapy water to buffaloes. It is to sit up the whole night filling water glass by glass as it trickles into our naula. It is to wait for someone from the Khanka [upper-caste] household to give us water from their naula.

A national level water policy must ensure safe water access for all while balancing economics and human rights. With 18 percent of the world’s population and only four percent of its water, India needs a framework to ensure equitable distribution. But existing water policies favour industries over communities when it comes to the role of the state.

Diarrhoea, a water-borne disease, kills over 300,000 children in India each year. The universal provision of safe and clean water could prevent all of these deaths. Bringing down this number should be India’s greatest priority unless the country wants to remain the world’s worst nation to be thirsty in.


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