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Filling up fast

How safe drinking water is emerging as the next big sustainable business opportunity

Vishal Koul

Bansi Dhar Yadav of Pacheri Khurd in Buhana tehsil of Rajasthan’s Jhunjhunu district is mostly confined to a chair these days. It started about 10 years ago as a pain in his lower back. The pain would steadily increase by the day, until one day when he tried lifting something and couldn’t. “I began to get numbness in my fingers, and soon it spread to my entire body,” the 63-year-old recalls. His younger brother had died after similar symptoms, so, in 2006, Yadav’s son took him to Delhi. After an MRI scan that showed nerve compression, the doctor said it was the increased fluoride level in the water that was causing his problems. “I couldn’t move or eat food or even turn. I tried many treatments, including Ayurveda and yoga in nearby Sikar, but nothing seemed to work,” says the former forest contractor. He admits that since Sarvajal brought its purified water system to nearby Bagar in 2008, there has been an improvement. “I can now walk for a few metres. Earlier, someone had to help with everything.”

Against a normal acceptable TDS (total dissolved solids or impurities) level of 50-150 ppm for packaged or purified water, TDS levels in Pacheri’s ground water have been at 2,500-3,000 ppm, according to a Sarvajal officer. Mahendra Singh, 51, and Raj Singh Yadav, 53, together run the local franchise for Sarvajal at Pacheri Khurd. They sell purified water at 25 paise a litre, less than the 30 paise per litre price stipulated by the company. “That’s what it costs us. My objective was to do social work,” Singh says of his decision.

For companies in the water business in India, the social aspect is an inevitable corollary. The numbers speak for themselves: the per capita water availability is about 1,545 cubic metres per year according to the 2011 Census, and declining progressively, where a country is considered water-stressed if less than 1,700 cubic metres is available per person per year. Importantly, the World Health Organisation estimates that around 97 million Indians lack access to safe water, while newspaper reports say only two Indian cities have continuous water supply; all others get water for a few hours every day. It is a crisis waiting to explode but, meanwhile, it is also

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