ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Rethinking Right to Water

Availability and accessibility of adequate water is critical for maintaining optimum sanitation and leading a healthy life. However, it has taken a global pandemic to make this fact evident. Maintaining adequate hand hygiene is a prerequisite for avoiding the novel coronavirus infection; global advisories suggest washing hands with soap and water multiple times a day. But in India, where 163 million people do not have access to clean water, handwashing for 20 seconds becomes a luxury for some.

Availability and accessibility of adequate water is critical for maintaining optimum sanitation and leading a healthy life. However, it has taken a global pandemic to make this fact evident. Maintaining adequate hand hygiene is a prerequisite for avoiding the novel coronavirus infection; global advisories suggest washing hands with soap and water multiple times a day. But in India, where 163 million people do not have access to clean water, handwashing for 20 seconds becomes a luxury for some.

By magnifying the catastrophic consequences of an unsanitary environment, the current pandemic has reinforced the importance of availability of adequate water for personal hygiene. Concomitantly, it has also problematised India’s interpretation of the right to water, an interpretation that subsequently informs the state’s policies to address water scarcity. Whilst the Constitution does not readily provide the right to water, the
Supreme Court has read it within the right to life. Apart from conceiving it as a general entitlement to drinking water, available to all persons, the content of the right is far from certain. The pandemic problematises this rendition on two counts.

First, it challenges the narrow interpretation of the right as an obligation to provide water for drinking. Initially, the Supreme Court treated the provision of unpolluted water as a prerequisite to fulfilment of the right to life. However, subsequent decisions focused only on the provision of unpolluted drinking water as pivotal to improving public health. Unfortunately, this narrow interpretation has also paved its way into government policy. The recent Jal Shakti Abhiyaan, an ambitious programme launched to address water scarcity in India, targets the provision of piped drinking water to all by 2024. Pertinently, this rendition of the right to water by the Indian judiciary fails the United Nation Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights General Comment No 15, which conceives the right as a universal entitlement to adequate water for personal and domestic use, including personal sanitation. Undoubtedly, clean drinking water is essential to nurturing public health. However, so is water for maintaining personal hygiene and sanitary living conditions, particularly in the current scenario. Consequently, limiting the entitlement to water for drinking purposes is counterintuitive.

Second, the concerns about the universal access to water guaranteed by the right has resurfaced in the context of the COVID-19 crisis. Philippe Cullet has argued that a prerequisite for securing universal entitlement is the provision of free water, particularly in India where an overwhelming majority of the population is poverty-stricken. However, since General Comment No 15 does not envision the provision of free water, this argument has been a contended one. That said, the Indian government has provided free water through community infrastructure for several decades, except in cases where water is supplied through individual connections, that is, through pipelines to individual houses. However, with the nationwide lockdown and suspension of economic activities, for several daily wage earners located in cities, even drinking water became economically inaccessible. Consequently, in the current scenario, it is essential that the state provides free water, regardless of whether it is a community source or an individual piped connection. In fact, to ensure effective social distancing, the focus should be on expanding the network of individual water connections. If economic drudgery caused due to the lockdown is precluding certain sections of the population from securing access to water, it undermines the universality of the right.

The argument that we should revisit and rethink a more comprehensive entitlement under the right to water is a long-standing one. However, the pandemic has revealed an urgent necessity to do so, disregarding which could be life-threatening.

Kanika Jamwal

Sonipat

 

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