Railways to overhaul drinking water supply system

The Indian Railways aim to reduce risks of food poisoning from contaminated drinking water at railway stations and on trains, or used in making tea and cooking food

Passengers waiting at the railway platform for their train's arrival (photo: Getty Images)
Passengers waiting at the railway platform for their train's arrival (photo: Getty Images)

NH Business Bureau

Nine years after a public interest litigation (PIL) was initiated seeking improvement of drinking water supply at stations and in trains of the Indian Railways, the Railway Board this week finally gave an undertaking that it would overhaul the system.

In an affidavit submitted to the Delhi High Court, the IR this week agreed to follow the Indian Water Quality Standards (IS 10500 by the Bureau of Indian Standards) and give up the Indian Railways standard. It has also agreed to repeat sampling and pathogen presence tests (for E. coli) and to eliminate dangerous substances in water, modify all bore wells and conduct testing of water twice a year.

Drinking water from mostly bore wells is made available at railway stations and railway colonies. The same water is filled into the overhead water storage tanks on the roofs of the coaches, from where it is supplied throughout the train to all water taps. The same water is also used for washing utensils and cooking food in the pantry cars.

The Northern Railway and the Railway Board had brushed aside concerns raised in 2013 by Alok Kumar Verma, a railway services engineer, and claimed that all was right with the supply. Nine years after Verma filed his PIL, the Railways admitted that the Railway standards and testing were flawed.  

Verma claims to have recorded in a file, "Only God knows how many people have lost their lives by consuming unhygienic and contaminated, untreated water for past so many years... I have no hesitation in saying that it would be criminal neglect of duty on the part of [the] Northern Railway as an organisation to allow the status quo to continue."

The water quality supplied by the Railways since 1994 had revealed a high incidence of contamination in tests, and not just in the Northern Railway. Serious design flaws had made bore wells, a major source of water for the Railways, vulnerable.

The Indian Railways's water quality standards did not require testing of water samples to detect the presence of pathogens that are known to cause various waterborne diseases. Tests conducted by the Northern Railway between July and December 2013 revealed widespread contamination in every sample from the Lucknow Division, with all samples showing the presence of coliform bacteria (of which E. coli is one). Other divisions were just as bad, if not worse.

Despite the extensive contamination, not a single further test was performed to determine whether pathogens were present, much less which specific pathogens were present, and repeat sampling and testing to find whether corrective actions had been taken to remove the cause of contamination. These standards did not call for testing of samples to check for contamination by known harmful chemicals, including radioactive substances, toxic substances and harmful pesticides, among others.

The Indian Railways only tested water for a few common harmful chemicals, per its standards, and only when installing borewells; none afterwards.

A large number of the water treatment facilities were not tested at all. Inspections uncovered egregious irregularities in the purchase of treatment plants, including the tailoring of technical requirements to fit the needs of particular businesses.

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