The last week has seen the most bizarre set of events unfold concerning the quality of water in the national capital. This has cast a shadow not just on a reputed institution such as the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) and the office of a Union Minister of India, but also, unfortunately, large sections of the media.
On November 16, the Union Consumer Affairs Minister Ram Vilas Paswan released before the media a water quality report with results of tests carried out on drinking water samples across 21 state capitals of India. In reality, though, the “report” was a euphemism for what was actually a one-page summary of city rankings based on the number of water samples and parameters that have failed to meet drinking water standards. Delhi was listed at the bottom with all its 11 samples failing in all 19 quality parameters.
This was an unprecedented report in the history of the Union food ministry and something that should have invited deep scrutiny from environmentalists and the media. Except, there was nothing in it to analyse barring the one-page table. There was no report per se and, therefore, no information on crucial questions such as on what basis were the locations of the samples selected, where were they tested, and reasons, if any, for deviations from established norms.
At first look itself, the number of water samples collected seemed to violate WHO norms that stipulate one sample for every 10,000 population. But few seemed bothered as to whether any assessing body, let alone the much respected BIS, was right in judging the water quality of a city with approximately two crore population with a measly 11 samples, instead of a minimum of 2,000 required as per WHO norms. The BIS and the Union consumer affairs ministry welcomed this silence by offering no explanation either.
Never to be the ones to let important questions on data sanctity come in the way of fixing the nation, the media lapped up the one-page report in-toto and started debating who to hold accountable with hashtags such as #ToxicTapWater to describe the water quality in Delhi. For most of them, the word of a Union minister was nothing less than the gospel truth. None seemed interested in the fact that just two months prior, the Union water minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, arguably more qualified to talk on the nation’s water quality than any other minister, reportedly said that his ministry had tested 20 water samples from Delhi — and all had been found to have passed Indian as well as European standards.
No one also seems bothered about the much larger, and more credible, piece of evidence released by the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) on its own water quality tests — which had been carried out round the year using a sampling procedure that met WHO norms. From January to September, the DJB had tested over 1,55,000 samples as per BIS standards and found 98.5 per cent passing the test.
The latest “report” also does not reveal the details of the 11 locations in Delhi where samples were purportedly collected from. It was only after persistent demands of the AAP government that the addresses of these locations were revealed on November 20. A scrutiny of these locations blew the lid off the report. For reasons best known to itself, the Union consumer affairs ministry had chosen to junk the random sampling method, a staple of any survey-based study since the late 19th century, to pick samples exclusively from a few parts of north Delhi with two lonely exceptions — the residence and the office of the Union consumer affairs minister.
Subsequent reports by journalists who sought out each of the addresses where water samples were collected has shown that either they belonged to individuals affiliated with Paswan’s party, that is, the Lok Janshakti party, or they were collected by workers from his own party, and not the BIS, or they were addresses of citizens who had lodged water complaints in the past but are currently happy with the supply. In the case of Deepak Kumar Roy, the first name in the list, the person reportedly denied on camera that any sample was collected from his house, saying he hasn’t faced any problems with water quality.
In such context, therefore, the entire sampling looked politically motivated. Even in a best case scenario, the sampling sought out areas with the worst water complaints in Delhi, and tried to make them representative of all of Delhi.
What is clear though is the crisis of the moment. A practically junk report with no scientific validity was presented by a minister on the floor of Parliament and has been discussed endlessly by the media with little scrutiny, barring few exceptions. The Union government has de-facto maligned its own reputation as well as that of the national capital, instilled fear into the minds of its own people, and diminished the stature of not just a reputed scientific institution such as the BIS but also the DJB and all its hard-working scientists and engineers.
Perhaps the biggest casualty of the great lie unleashed last week is the reputation of the media. It could have been the arbiter of facts of a contested one-page report with no details and scientific validity. But it chose to amplify its contents and presented the legitimate concerns of other parties as part of a political blame game.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 30, 2019 under the title ‘Foul play over water’. The writer is vice chairperson, Dialogue and Development Commission, Delhi government.
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