consumers beware!
In troubled waters
If the civil authorities are supplying poor quality drinking water, file a complaint before the consumer court
Pushpa Girimaji

Several people in our residential colony have fallen sick with water-borne diseases. We suspect that the water supplied by the municipality is not properly purified and is contaminated. What action can we take against the civic authority and how do we go about it?

You need to take two important steps: A) Collect evidence for filing a complaint against the civic authority for supplying contaminated water. B) Ensure that the colony gets safe water without any delay. So first and foremost, collect water samples at several places in the colony and give these for testing. The results will help in establishing the negligence of the municipality in supplying unsafe water. You must also keep the list of people who suffered on account of such unhygienic water, along with their medical records confirming water borne diseases and the treatment given. Ensure that receipts for medicines purchased and for doctors' fee are also properly kept. You will need all this when you file a complaint against the civic authority, seeking damages for its negligence.

It is also important to immediately complain to the water supply authority about the poor quality of water if necessary, launch an agitation get all the residents to protest before the authority, so as to pressure those in charge to act without delay and ensure supply of potable water. You can also ask the residents to boil the water before drinking, till the safety issue is resolved. Even after the civic authority says that it is purifying and disinfecting the water, ask for details and demand results of tests done on the water. You should also get the water tested independently to ensure that it is really safe.

Where should one file a complaint for compensation for the suffering undergone as a result of the poor quality of water supplied by the municipality? Can it be done before the consumer court?

The residents' association can file a complaint on behalf of all the residents. And yes, you can file the complaint before the consumer court. However, in 1994, when a complaint seeking redress against the poor quality of water supplied by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) was filed before the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission, it was of the view that the consumer forum had no jurisdiction to address such issues and that the petition,more in the nature of a public interest litigation, should be filed in a regular court of law.

This was challenged before the Supreme Court by the petitioners Consumer Education and Research Centre and the families of those who had died of jaundice in an epidemic that had swept Ahemdabad in 1993. The Supreme Court then directed the consumer court to adjudicate over the case.

Subsequently, the National Commission, in a landmark judgment, directed the AMC to: (a) Replace all old and corroded, or leaking pipes (b) Adhere to World Health Organisation's guidelines on "Framework for safe drinking water" and (c) Publish periodically in newspapers, the results of water testing. It also asked the AMC to (a) Inspect every fortnight, the water tanks to confirm that they are not contaminated (b) Ensure that they are properly sealed to prevent contamination through animals entering the tank or through any other source, (c) Test the water from the source every fortnight and (d) File the results with the deputy municipal commissioner of the zone. It also awarded Rs 50,000 as costs to the petitioner. (OP no 125 and 126 of 1994) Of course, since then, the law has also been amended to give the consumer courts wider powers to give directions.

An equally important order of the National Commission on this subject stemmed from a complaint filed by Brij Mohan of Nurpur Bedi village, Ropar, Punjab. Here, the apex consumer court made it clear that the civic authorities have to supply water complying with ISI standards for potable water. It also awarded a compensation of Rs 10,000 for the suffering undergone by the complainant's mother on account of unsafe drinking water and Rs 5,000 towards costs.

In this case, the consumer courts at the district and the state-level had dismissed his complaint. But the complainant's perseverance in filing a revision petition in the National Commission, resulted in an order of far reaching significance that set the standards for supply of water by civic authorities. (RP no 2183 of 2005)

So do file the complaint before the consumer court. You have a right to safe drinking water and there is a duty cast on the State under Article 21 to provide clean drinking water to its citizens.