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Water and sanitation – the role of the informal sector

February 12, 2012

Water and sanitation services are big business especially in urban areas of India. With the government institutions failing to deliver both quantity and quality of water several services have sprung up to assist the citizen.

The first of them is the private water tanker. EPI coated ones roam around the city delivering water to sump tanks at a mobile call. More than a 1000 tankers are registered in Bangalore who may be delivering up-to 3 million litres of water or more every day. Unfortunately since they are not regulated there is no assurance of quality of the water delivered. Since this group also has not formed any association it also does not attempt to self regulate itself and draw up guidelines for correct operations.

A new service which has emerged is that of cleaning sump tanks and over head tanks. Since the supply from the water utility is intermittent almost every building in Bangalore has large sump tanks from where water is pumped to overhead tanks for reticulation. Over time these sump tanks accumulate dust and dirt and therefore this service of cleaning have sprung up. They pressure clean the dirt and slime using a jet pump and disinfect using chlorine or iodine. Again there is no formal structure to ensure what quality of service has to be delivered and trust alone is the compact between the client and the service provider.

Bore-well drillers are the next set of service providers again operating in the informal sector. They will come and identify a point for drilling and will then proceed to drill and operationalise the bore-well. As usual there is no assurance of whether water will be struck, how much water will be available and what will be the quality of water available. Caveat emptor is the mantra and since there is no alternative the system operates without any regulation. Recently a groundwater bill has been passed and rules and regulations have been drafted. It remains to be seen how effective it will be in protecting the interest of the consumers. An added service is the cleaning of bore-wells and hydro-fracturing. When old bore-wells reduce in yield or become dry people resort to cleaning them up or trying hydro-fracturing. This service too is not regulated and there is no system of complaint or grievance redress.

The water filter has become ubiquitous in almost all households. From the simple candle filter to the sophisticated Reverse Osmosis based ones are available in the market. Here the system is more formalized and if there is a complaint with the filter the manufacturer usually takes responsibility to replace or repair it. The selection of the filter itself is in a grey zone with many people unaware as to which filter is the most appropriate for them. More information on the right filter choice should be available but the question is whose job is it to do that?

Fir septic tanks and pit toilets a new service has sprung up in recent years called the ‘Honeysucker’. These vacuum trucks will de-sludge the pits and the septic tanks for a fee. Again since they operate in the informal sector there is no price regulation or standards of service required. A formal structure for their operations and a good regulator will need to be activated.

There are many informal service providers and they are doing a reasonably good job with service provision and helping address a need. It is in the interest of the state and the citizens to enhance the skill set of these operators regularize them and integrate them into mainstream operations of water supply and sanitation. The biggest utility namely the water supply and sewerage board should take this responsibility.

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