Invoking the Culture of Water in India


This article Invoking the Culture of Water in India by Anuradha Goyal, author, and founder of was first published by the New Indian Express newspaper on September 13, 2021.

Puri becomes the first city in India to provide quality drinking water in taps was the headline in most newspapers recently. Everyone congratulated the Odisha Government and rightly so. Puri is one of the most visited destinations in the country. Visiting population ends up using packaged water both due to availability as well as safety reasons – perceived or real. It almost seems like a dream to drink straight from the tap, at least in most urban areas.

The Culture of Water in India

The news took me back to my student days in the 1980s and till the mid-1990s when we used to travel across the country in trains. We ate what was sold at the stations. We filled our water bottles or clay Surahis at railway stations, without ever worrying about the quality of water. Bottled water was not yet ubiquitous, nor was the pollution it created glaring at us everywhere. Do we realize that just about 25-30 years back, we trusted the tap water across the country? We had no second thoughts or doubts while drinking from taps at most places.

Exception rather than the rule

Tap water not being safe was an exception rather than the other way round. What happened in these 2-3 decades that we cannot consume tap water without passing it through multiple filtering and purifying machines? It has become one of the biggest selling commodities.

Flip the news and you see that what was freely available till sometime back has been reduced to just one city. That too after considerable effort. Is it a problem we have created by polluting the sources of water? Or, it is a problem that is profitable to have as it feeds many industries like packaged water, water purifiers, water tankers to name a few.

Water shortage in high rainfall regions

How is it that our regions with maximum rainfalls fall short of drinking water in summers? The same goes for our coastal regions with so many rivers flowing close to them. There cannot be a deficiency of water with so many rivers and ample rains. It has to be our inability to store and manage the water we so generously receive. Why are we still not studying places like Mandu that had one of the best local water management systems?

Imagine a densely populated city on top of a hill with no natural source of water, storing the rainwater in a way that they could even afford swimming pools. Why are we not restoring our thousands of step-wells and temple tanks to store water as well as recharge groundwater? There are some sporadic efforts in some places. But they are mostly individual efforts, appreciable but not enough.

Private water suppliers

How is it our homes in urban areas are relying on water tankers, who magically have access to water they can sell? While our agencies cannot supply the same water despite all the resources in their control? Have we thought about the ecological cost of transporting waters in water tankers? How does a corporate organization manage to distribute packaged water to the remotest corners of the country through a small but focussed network? They are essentially selling our water to us after the basic purification process. By creating a demand that should not exist in the first place if things worked the way they should.

Karma – Water to the thirsty

I am reminded of different Piaus or water pots that still pop up in the hinterlands of north India during summers. Making water available to the thirsty is considered the best way to collect good karma. It is not uncommon to see people personally offering water. In Punjab, it goes further in form of Chhabeel where sharbat or juices are offered to travelers who are out in the sun. Similar traditions are followed across the country. To me, this is the most beautiful part of Indian culture. Our great grandmothers may have been shocked at the fact that we sell water in plastic bottles, at prices comparable to milk in up-market areas.

Sacred – Culture of Water in India

Have we forgotten our sacred bond with water, as a nurturer? As one of the five primordial elements in our universe? We wash off worshipping our water bodies as superstition or obsolete practices. Little do we realize that they help us create a bond and respect for the water that is at the core of our existence. Most of us would struggle to name the source from where our drinking water comes from.

In other news, Indore, Hyderabad, Surat, Vishakhapatnam, and few more cities got certified as Water Plus cities. My natural instinct was to believe that these cities have more water than they need. Having lived in Hyderabad, it did seem a tall claim. A bit of reading informed me that it actually means that the city is able to dispose of its wastewater responsibly, including recycling and reusing at least 30% of it. As part of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, cities have to make sure sewage water is not going to rivers and other sources of drinking water.

I hope one day our cities would be ‘Water Plus’ in the real sense. Better we learn to respect the water and consume less than what we receive through rivers or rains.

Culture of Water in India in New Indian Express
Original op-ed article published in New Indian Express on 13 September 2021

Edited for this online publication.

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