Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Water Supply , Sanitation and Solid Waste Management : Why does India Fair Poorly ?

While I was an engineering student pursuing my chemical engineering, I was thinking that some day I would be doing my career in some chemical process industries which produced petroleum products, fertilizers, insecticides, bulk pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals, etc. I had never imagined that I would spent a good deal of my career in water supply, sanitation, water treatment or waste water engineering. 
I began my professional career in a captive thermal power station of an integrated steel plant. My job was to manage the production of de-mineralized (DM) water for steam generation in the boilers. The steam is used for rotating the turbo-generator machines which produced electricity. Steam is also required for various other heating and process applications in the steel plant. After its thermal energy is used up, steam gets condensed to become condensate water which is recycled to the boilers again for generating super heated steam. The losses of steam and water in the boiler water system required addition of make up water in the form of DM water. Quality of water and steam is very critical for the smooth operation of high pressure boilers and high speed steam turbines. Hence, all aspects of water chemistry is given due regards and attention in a properly managed thermal power station. My first job helped me to understand the nature of water and water treatment in much detail, including the chemical quality management aspects. In reality my function was of dual nature, because I was required to look after both the production processes and the quality control aspects of the chemical testing laboratory.

My second innings in my professional career was as a water supply and sanitation design engineer, a job conventionally done by civil engineers. I considered this job a bit inferior to my status initially. But soon I realized that this field is essentially sanitation engineering which is a very important aspect of city and town management and also one of the most neglected engineering area in modern India. My senior was an en experienced civil engineer who spent almost whole of his life time in this field. It was not much difficult for me to master the conventions of practical designs of this field and there was opportunities for me to improve upon the conventions because of my chemical engineering background.

Later I had opportunities to function as lead design engineer and consulting engineer for many projects involving water supply, cooling water systems,  water treatment, water softening , gas cleaning, effluent treatment, bio chemical treatment, coal chemical processing, etc which gave me much opportunities to expand my experience and knowledge in interdisciplinary engineering. Most importantly, insights into the way of functioning of the Indian system with its complex ,contradictory and vague rules , statutes and influences have also been acquired concurrently.

All these helped me to understand and analyse the root causes of the systemic lethargy in India to a great extent, though no one ever required me to do such a thing !

I have seen some municipal corporations in India taking over three decades to implement even mundane water supply projects which could have been done in one or two years time. I also find many cities and towns with no water supply and sanitation services. Regrettably many cities and towns of India also do not have any plans for making such facilities in the near future. Even progressive cities like Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of the most literate state of India, have failed in implementing and managing good waste handling and disposal facilities.

Any developed and progressive country can perhaps call itself developed when the majority of its citizens are able to get good drinking water in sufficient quantities and also when they enjoy decent sanitation and waste disposal services.

Unfortunately, India stands at a pathetic low level of development when water supply and sanitation norms are concerned. [I suggest those interested to read this wikipedia article : Drinking water supply and sanitation in India ] Waste disposal facilities are virtually non existent. 

As a professional engineer with decades of experience in this area, I feel ashamed of such a pathetic situation in this country.

It is not very difficult to design and implement good water supply systems and sanitation systems linked to effective municipal effluent treatment plant systems for any cities or communities having a population of 5000 or more. So also is the case with solid waste management.  However, very few cities and communities in India have such systems.

What are the reasons for this kind of situation in India?

Why is it that the Indian leaders and administrators do not feel ashamed of such deplorable conditions of their country?

In my opinion, such a situation arise out of many things, all linked to each other in one way or the other.

The following are some of the main reasons as I see it:

1. Excepting a few large metropolitan cities, the city and municipal corporations have degraded to become play grounds of local politicians. As a result, the bureaucratic organizations that are required to assist the democratic city governments have become lethargic or non committal or ineffective to do any proper planning or city management.Often, the city administrations are headed by pliable or incompetent bureaucrats who are posted by the state administration as per political compulsions and priorities. Besides, the personnel and staff that get in to these administrative organizations of the municipalities and corporations are selected without any due consideration of their specialist experience or qualifications that they soon become vested interest groups. Specialist wings of the city administration such as the town planning, public health engineering, water supply and sewerage, public works, etc become side tracked to such an extent that their specialists and engineers no more are required to show any professional competence. It becomes all the more convenient for the incompetent political heads and bureaucratic chiefs to have such incompetent technical people as their subordinates that the former never feel the necessity to improve the competency of the latter. Soon, for any infrastructural development involving water supply, water treatment, sewage treatment, solid waste management etc the political heads and bureaucratic chiefs become the decision makers including those matters that are purely technical in nature. Such decisions eventually create nonviable or inferior schemes and projects which would either never get fully implemented or commissioned for the benefit of the people. Such technical incompetence soon creeps in to the operation and maintenance areas as well.

2. Lack of coordination among various governmental agencies and departments.

3. Lack of respect of contractual obligations. Indians are infamous for this kind of an attitude. Once contracts are placed, the Indian authorities at all levels seem to create undue problems for the contractors mostly for personal benefits. Delays of payments and works on account of such objections created by the officers and staff of the city governments often create a situation that good EPC contract firms with expertise and experience in the relevant fields avoid taking up such contracts.

4. Indian top authorities are keen to keep all major decisions to themselves even when they are not competent to take such decisions. Delegation of powers exist only in theory and not in practice. The root cause of this situation is the eagerness to get importance for unfair gains.

5. Incompetence of vigilance personnel and authorities to judge technical issues. Often such a situation makes the technical personnel from taking firm and sound decisions for the overall good of public projects. Again, this situation arises out of the lack of vision of the law makers who create such rules and regulations without due consideration of expert opinions. In my opinion, it is not a good practice to allow non technical authorities to find fault with technical decisions and file vigilance cases based on such findings. Even when there is a prima facie technical error, it has to be based on the recommendations of an expert technical committee.

6. In India, disciplines of engineers do not carry much value once an engineer gets posted. It makes the engineers who are trained in some discipline not getting the appropriate jobs and making the particular engineering discipline becoming a non preferable one for fresh students eventually creating a shortage of trained man power in certain areas. A typical example is the shortage of sanitation engineers or environmental engineers in the Indian city administrations.

7. Indian engineering institutions and technical universities plan their engineering curricula quite arbitrarily without due research on the requirements of the potential employers and their needs. The courses are planned based on the aspirations of the youngsters who are pretty unaware of the usefulness of the courses that they are going to study.

8. Experienced engineers have practically no say in the selection and deployment of fresh engineers within their organizations in India. This function is almost entirely decided by non technical people who have no idea about the work of engineers. This creates adverse imbalances in engineering expertise within even engineering organisations. Technical groups of city administrations are no exception.

9. Technical groups in India which are required to do collective engineering tasks are made up of technical personnel having incompatible capabilities and competence. The continued practice of reservations, favoritism, etc play an important role in this. The result is failure of the group to perform effectively even when there are exceptionally good individuals in the group.

10. Lack of consistent opportunities for EPC firms to maintain their expertise on a long term basis. There is no guarantee of work in areas such as water and waste water engineering, solid waste management, etc from the local authorities. The allocation of budgets and funds are erratic. This causes much uncertainties for EPC firms to maintain their expert engineers and technicians on a long term basis. Much bunching of work also happens making all work to suffer of time schedules and quality . EPC entrepreneurs try to maintain their technical organizations without enough numbers of permanent experts and managing the show somehow by outsourcing or entering into temporary understandings to form consortia or similar other gimmicks making a mess of things that eventually everything proceeds without any proper direction or planning.

11. India now has a number of so-called environmentalists who are text book experts and have no practical experience or expertise. They copy impractical norms and quality parameters and make big noises of not achieving certain values of quality parameters with regard to environmental quality norms on water, treated effluents, land fills, air , etc. These so called experts often make things complicated and often provide much fodder for the non technical media and the public. In the developed countries, often decisions on such things are taken on the basis of best achievable technology (BAT) and best practical technology (BPT) . In India, text book experts are least concerned about practical aspects and costs involved. This compels many organizations to spend huge sums of money for practically achieving no results, especially in the areas of water treatment, effluent treatment and air pollution control.

12. Indian organizations do not allow planned development of expertise in engineering and technology. Whatever experience the engineers gain happen randomly and in much unplanned manner. Hence it is not very easy to identify and evaluate the real experience and expertise of engineers. Again this evaluation is left to the whims and fancies of non technical personnel, making many experienced engineers wasting their times without actually contributing to works where they could do it well or important engineering assignments getting in to the hands of inexperienced engineers and non technical leaders bull dozing them to commit gross errors.

13. There is no political will in India to make these services privatized allowing  reasonable charges to be levied from even the affluent class of urban citizens. There is no reason to fear that the affluent urban citizens are so selfish and ignorant that they resist such facilities that would make their lives better. However, the present political atmosphere is such that every good move by one political party is opposed by the other parties who are not in power. This kind of attitude can change only when the mind set of the politicians change and they think collectively for the citizens and their country rather than for themselves.

14. Indian cities develop and grow in the most unscientific manner due to the absence of effective town planning. Very few cities have free spaces earmarked for development of infrastructural facilities for water treatment, waste water treatment, waste processing, laying of pipe lines, etc. Even after 60 years of independence and even after the whole world has progressed, the Indian authorities feel that these are important matters which require firm actions. Ministries handling urban development, housing, water, environment, etc all seem to work in different directions. Few Indian citizens are aware of the existence of such ministries or their objectives. Incidentally these ministries keep changing every now and then with different names and objectives making any sustained actions never taking place with regard to water supply, sanitation and waste disposal in urban or rural India.

15. No one India seems to be in control of planning and execution of infrastructural projects with regard to water supply, sanitation and solid waste management for the Indian cities. It could perhaps be a good idea to notify the names of the key drivers of such projects with their responsibilities and authorities known to the public.

16. India has an acute shortage of design and engineering personnel who can formulate and plan an infrastructural project on water supply and waste water management for the cities and to do the detailed engineering works involved. As of now, India may be good in developing computer software, but it is not good in works involving conventional and core engineering due to its  expertise and capacity continuously on the decline in this area for the last many years. Serious thinking and corrective steps at the highest levels only can save India from becoming a slave to other nations in the future. One of the reasons for this shortage is the reluctance of brilliant engineers to take up this career in India because in this country being in this field of work they earn little respect now and of the prospects of being at the receiving end to be bull dozed by their not-so-brilliant colleagues who chanced to climb up the career by taking up other easier routes. No wonder why the brilliant IITians of India prefer to become IIMees by doing an unlearning of their difficult engineering- a thing perhaps never happen in a developed nation !

As some one has recently written in the Economic Times, this situation can be rectified if the politicians of India think about their country for a moment. It is possible if the bureaucrats think of their country for a moment instead of spending time on wasteful tours and meetings and lamenting on the inefficiency of their political masters. In my opinion the latter are better placed to correct the situation if they want. They have a greater responsibility as per the Indian constitution. If they collectively decide to make India a better place, no politician can ruin that. That is the safeguard they have as per the constitution. If politicians are willing to support them, things could move much better. Again, there is much need to enhance the confidence of the engineers working in core areas in this country and their confidence levels. Without them, neither the politicians, nor the bureaucrats can hardly achieve anything!

That was what Singapore had done. That is what China has been doing. That is what the developed nations have been doing.

India needs to learn how to honor and motivate its engineers to perform. If not, much of those brains are all going to migrate to places where they can use their brains effectively and work with some prestige.

It is a big opportunity to prove India's capabilities first in Water Supply, Sanitation and Solid Waste Management and making India filth-less and hygienic before trying to make the missiles, bombs and the rockets using borrowed technologies. This field has enormous potential for job generation. It also has enormous potential to generate income for the government.

I know the stories of many young men from India who never got any worth while employment in India, getting good paying employment in small county water treatment and sewage treatment plants in the USA. If the US could pay over $ 5000 per month to an Indian born supervisor of a water treatment plant of a county of 5000 odd population, why can't India do it ? USA is rich, because the majority there think big. The moment the Americans think like the Indians they too are going to be doomed !

Think India, think! Think and act the way those progressive peoples are doing! Remove your narrow mindedness and your greed and your unjustified fears! You have immense potentials to come out of the pathetic conditions. Even those of you who like to exploit the nation from behind the curtains- it is better to change. You too would benefit a lot than you do at present!

Improving the health of the citizens is good for every one. Even for those who have made vast fortunes in India and thinking of staying in alien countries for breathing well.

And what I said above may be applicable to all other fields as well!

[Please also take some time to come back and read my previous  blogs and blogs on other topics as well. You can reach to those by clicking the links in this page. I would be happy if you take some time to express your views using the comments facility down below. Please  use the same comment facility to interact with me for any doubts or clarifications that you might have. Here is the page link that gives the   list of all my blogs  where you can open all my blog titles.]


  1. its an awesome blog about water supply ...thanks for posting such a useful article...all the best

  2. its an interesting blog..the water can be purified in many ways like Water Softners , Sewage Treatment Plant , Effluent Treatment Plant..thanks for posting

  3. really its an inspirational blog about Water a days water is playing an important role...thanks for posting article about water salination...

  4. the <a href="”>Waste Water </a> also can be filtered...thanks for posting...all the best..keep on posting

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  6. Great Informative blog.. Now a days waste is very big problem for human health... So we need waste management services and environmental services for good human health and keep clean the environment.

  7. I am happy that the new prime minister of India, Shri Narendra Modi has taken up the problem of lack of sanitation and toilet facilities in India as some thing shameful and has set forth some strong message to the nation to set this right. With the PM's vision, let us hope India to improve in this within a few years!


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