The Naveen Patnaik-led Odisha government, on July 26, 2021, declared its coastal city Puri as the first city in India to have continuous safe drinking tap water. This means that households in Puri can directly access water from taps to drink and cook without the need of further filtration.

Drinking water fountains have been built at public places in Puri to discourage the use of plastic water bottles. "The project would benefit 2.5 lakh citizens of Puri and 2 crore tourists who visit the tourist place every year. They need not have to move around with a water bottle. Puri would no longer be burdened with 400 metric tonnes of plastic waste," Patnaik said during the launch. The state government plans to supply safe drinking water to 16 more towns across Odisha.

The state government's 'Sujal' or 'Drink From Tap' mission is part of Odisha's Vision 5T governance. Before we jump into how Odisha achieved this feat, let's first look at how many households actually get piped water supply in the state.

32% households have tap water

The Odisha government first launched the 'Drink from Tap' Mission as a pilot project on October 13, 2020, covering five areas in Bhubaneshwar and two areas in Puri. Out of the estimated outlay of Rs 3.60 lakh crore for the project, Rs 364.74 crores was allocated in 2019-20, Rs 812.50 crore in 2020-21 and Rs 3,323.42 crore in 2021-22, according to a reply Minister of State for Jal Shakti Prahlad Singh Patel gave in the Lok Sabha on July 29, 2021.

During the launch, Patnaik said all urban households will get tap water connection by March 2022. But, till date, Odisha has a total of 85,66,513 households and 31.86% or 27,29,485 have tap water connections, shows the Centre's Jal Jeevan Mission dashboard. The central scheme aims to provide potable water to every rural household through Functional Household Tap Connections (FHTCs) at a service level of 55 litres per capita per day (lpcd) of prescribed water quality of Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS):10500 and supply on a regular and long-term basis.

When it comes to Puri district, which has a population of 3.2 lakh, only 38.85% households have tap water connection. More than 1.2 lakh households have been provided with tap water since the beginning of the launch in 2019.

In fact, according to another Lok Sabha response Patel gave on July 29, 2021, none of the districts in Odisha have 100% tap water connection coverage.

FactChecker dug deeper and spoke to those in-charge of the project to better understand the process followed to deliver safe drinking water in household taps.

How is tap water purified in Puri?

Let's go step-by-step. First, Odisha's Department of Housing and Urban Development government fixed leakages in its defective and aged pipes as they play a major role in water contamination.

Mathi Vathanan, Principal Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Odisha and Director of Water Corporation of Odisha (WATCO), told FactChecker, that water contamination mostly takes place during transmission and distribution and seldom during treatment. No municipal body will say they supply contaminated water, said the IAS officer.

"There is no issue with water treatment. The main problem lies in transmission and distribution. This is because it consists of several kilometers of network and several joints and everything is underground except the tap and the overhead tank," said Vathanan.

Underground pipelines are close to drainage pipes and sewer lines. So, owing to leakage and interruption in water supply, the pressure sucks in the surrounding air and this contaminates the water.

The government then analysed and assessed all leakages and focussed on workmanship. "We focussed on leakage control and leakage management. Along with the treatment, we have to ensure that water is not contaminated enroute till it reaches the tap in every house," he said. "We scanned the entire network of pipelines. Noticing leakage and fixing it was our main priority. Now, leakage is under control," he added.

Second step was training. The total water demand in Puri is 38 million liters per day (MLD) and has 20 elevated service reservoirs, five overground reservoirs and one water testing laboratory. Vathanan said the government partnered with National Informatics Centre (NIC) and developed their own software to monitor the system.

"We do not have a precedent and hence cannot look up to any city or state so we had to look for international best practices. My core engineering team was sent to Singapore and they underwent exclusive training from there," he said.

Once the leakages and training were taken care of, Odisha took the third step: installing systems every few hundred metres to measure the velocity and pressure of water. They compared water pressure at different points and did real-time quality surveillance. For instance, if the chlorine level drops, the system senses it and the chlorine doser automatically starts the chlorination process.

One of the main sources of water in Puri is the Mangala river. A channel is created to provide water to all the underground reservoirs in the city which further pump it to the overhead tanks finally supplied through taps. Since this is 100% metered a household will have to pay a charge of roughly Rs 100-150 per month, said Vathanan.

About 30 parameters are considered to determine if the water is fit for drinking, including chlorine levels, PH levels, odour, taste and colour, as per BIS standards. To ensure quality, the government focussed on BIS standards followed by most packaged bottled water companies to assure people of the quality of water.

Scalability & Sustainability

When asked about the scalability of the project, Vathanan said since Puri is a small town, it was easy to implement this project, but the completion in Bhubaneshwar will take longer. The mission is mandated to be upscaled covering each household in all 114 Urban Local Bodies (ULB) of the state in a phased manner.

"The government has simultaneously started this project in Cuttack, Nabarangpur and a few more cities that will cover more than 50 lakh or 80% of the population. Our aim is to complete it by October 2023," he said.

The government has also brought about certain measures to sustain the water management project. According to the 'Drink From Tap' Mission brochure, the population of the entire city including slums is covered under the mission. Around 60,000 people in Salia Sahi in Bhubaneshwar, which is the largest slum in Odisha, now have safe drinking tap water, the report shows.

Additionally, there will be a 24X7 centralized customer service system to resolve water related issues and quick response teams with mobile crews will be deployed. Lastly, the government has launched 'Jalsathis' who will act as links between consumers and the government water authorities. The all-women crew will be responsible for facilitating new connections, field water quality testing, reading water meters, distributing water bills, collecting user charges and sensitizing people on water conservation.

Ranjan Panda, environmentalist and researcher at Water Initiative Odisha, said, "The success of this project in a city like Puri depends on a dynamic water governance system. To win the trust of the people, the government has to work on accountability and engage with citizens in increasing their faith in consuming public water."

Editor's Note: This article was originally published on July 30, 2021 at 6.27 pm and was updated hours later to reflect that Odisha government's Sujal or 'Drink from Tap' project is not a part of Centre's Jal Jeevan Mission. We regret the error