At Bhirdhane village in Dhule, Maharashtra, the sarpanch, Baggabai Vasant Kuwar showed us how to use the water ATM installed in the main public area. Brandishing a smart card, she filled a bucket with purified water at what is claimed to be the cheapest price in the country — 15 paise per litre and ₹5 for 20 litres.

“No longer do women have to fetch water from ponds, wells or stand in queues. This reverse-osmosis system gives water that is clean and free of contamination,” she said, delighted at the opportunity to demonstrate a facility that has come up during her term.

This was in October last year. Water ATMs had been introduced in several villages with the help of the Desh Bandhu & Manju Gupta Foundation as part of its effort to mitigate the drought conditions prevailing in the district. Water stations were envisaged as a community activity to help villagers draw safe water at a minimal cost.

Since then, water ATMs have been introduced in villages and panchayats across the country by different agencies. It has even become a popular CSR activity for companies that want to build assets that can be counted on the ground.

World Water Day in March saw a bustle of activity around water ATMs. Though these water stations are of different kinds, in their most modern avatar they come connected via cloud-based technology, enabling online analysis of operational parameters and volumes. Many of them now even run on solar energy and electricity, thereby reducing operating costs.

One of the sponsors for water stations operated with smart cards is Honeywell India, which through its partner Safe Water Network India (SWN) has helped set up many of them. According to reports, around 150 water ATMs dot Telangana.

Cairn India has initiated a Jeevan Amrit pilot project in collaboration with the Public Health and Engineering Department in Rajasthan. Here the water stations are known as ATW (anytime water) kiosks. The aim is to set up 333 small-scale ATW plants (1,000-3,000 litres per hour capacity) in Barmer and Jalore districts.

Cairn has also partnered with local entrepreneurs to run a Jal Rath (water-on-wheels) system to generate rural employment opportunities. Eureka Forbes, too, has started Water Shops for villages under an entrepreneurial model.

In the villages of Manesar, close to Delhi, where Maruti Suzuki has a manufacturing facility, the company has, in association with Waterlife India, set up water ATMs across four villages. These include water treatment plants that can handle 24,000 litres a day using a 10-stage filtration process. Purified to WHO and ISI standards, the water costs ₹7 for 20 litres.

While all the initiatives are borne out of an urgent need for clean drinking water in rural areas, it is sad that today citizens are required to pay for a natural resource that should be free, in abundance and a basic right.