Are Gram Panchayats setting up RO units more as showpieces than utilities?

M Somasekhar Hyderabad | Updated on July 25, 2019

The e National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj study found that one in three reverse osmosis plants was a showpiece   -  THE HINDU

Are reverse osmosis (RO) plants, intended to provide safe drinking water in rural areas, set up as showpieces or to serve a purpose?

The answer is that one out of every three plants set up in Gram Panchayats (GPs) was more a ‘showpiece’, according to a study by the National Institute of Rural Development and Panchayati Raj (NIRDPR), Hyderabad.

“Our hunch was that, possibly, a Gram Panchyat President feels elated to say that he provides RO water to his voters,” says P Sivaram, Head, Centre for Rural Infrastructure of the Institute. The study focussed on finding out if RO plants are set up only in those villages where the quality of water is unfit for drinking.

The study covered 21 GPs in seven States where the most number of RO plants had been set up, as per the data provided by the Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation, Government of India.

Of the 21 cases studied, eight units were in places where an RO plant was not required as there was no quality-related problem with the water. This has several cost implications not only to the State but also to GPs in terms of maintenance, Sivaram explained.


Chemical contamination of water is known to cause physical ailments and diseases. The study of the 21 GPs found that while 13 had set up RO plants to address issues related to the quality of water, the rest were set up despite the water quality being well within permissible limits (as per BIS norms).

Another interesting aspect was that in 16 of the 21 GPs, the RO plants are operated by the GP whereas in the others, they were operated by private players for profit or by NGOs as part of their rural development programmes.

Bland, low in calcium

The study further revealed that in terms of cost, people were paying for the water in all the GPs, from ₹50 to ₹150 per month depending on usage. Some unique modes of payment have been introduced such as swiping the ATM card, a coin-operated system, and water coupons.

Yet, challenges persist in their uptake since several families feel the taste of RO-treated water is bland, or that it is not affordable, and they prefer piped water supply. Thus, in all the States under study, there are households that do not use the RO water.

In several GPs, it was found that the levels of calcium and magnesium fell drastically after the RO treatment, which could potentially lead to calcium deficiency.

Reverse Osmosis is a water purification method that uses membranes to remove unwanted molecules, ions, large particles from water in an effort to make it potable.

The study concluded that while drinking water is a basic service that the GPs must provide, in areas where there are no quality related problems or not of a serious nature, setting up an RO system only added to the cost burden of GPs for their maintenance.

Further, since an RO plant tends to deplete essential minerals, efforts must be made to ensure these units are set up only where there is a water quality issue, and not because it is a fashionable infrastructure for a GP to have.

Published on July 25, 2019

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