A Latin American story is playing out in a Punjab town. It has been so magical and real that the government has decided to take it to 20 villages.

The story began on June 21, 2002, when Uruguay gifted a modular water-treatment plant, the first of its kind in India, to Talwandi Sabo. A town whose saline water dripping with fluoride, chloride and other toxins had doomed its residents to severe stomach, bone and dental ailments.

A year of sparkling clean water, and the town is celebrating. So, earlier this month the Punjab Government inked an MoU with the Uruguay Government for installing 20 new water treatment plants at a cost of Rs 20 lakh each. Chief Engineer (Public Health) Manmohanjit Singh says the Uruguay plants would be a godsend in Muktsar and Bathinda, where underground water is laced with impurities.

At Talwandi Sabo, the miniature rapid filtration plant purifies 80,000 gallons of water a day. People come from distant places to collect their daily supply. Ask farmer Gurbaksh Singh why he is queuing up at the waterworks office, and he pats his knees: ”Ever since I’ve started drinking this water, my joint-aches have almost disappeared.” Rajinder Singh, another farmer, points to his yellow teeth, and says he doesn’t want his children to meet the same fate. ”It is providing health cover to 10,000 residents,” beams Dr Mohinder Pal Kalra, a local medical practitioner, who says there has been a steady fall in cases of water-related ailments ever since the plant began functioning. ”My own son’s bone problems have been cured,” he adds.

The compact plant, which requires little space, purifies water with a unique mix of coagulation, sedimentation and filtration. It was the Takht Damdama Sahib, one of the five temporal seats of the Sikhs, which was the first to be supplied this ‘nectar’ (that’s what the locals call it) by the Public Health Department. Now, the list of the fortunate few who get pipe supply includes Mata Sahib Kaur Girls’ College, Dashmesh Secondary School and Canal Colony besides Gurdwara Tarna Dal, and Jandsar. For the rest, the department has fixed taps on the waterworks premises, outside the main bus stand, and near the Takht gurdwara. ”We don’t have the funds to lay new pipelines for supplying water to each house. Besides, the town’s demand is 3.5 lakh gallons a day, while the plant provides only 80,000 gallons,” says a public health official.

In simpler terms, it means only 10,000 of the town’s total population of 25,000 is able to enjoy this nectar. This yawning gap between demand and supply is beginning to fuel tempers. Baldev Singh, a former panchayat member of Talwandi, is determined to fight it out for his share of pure water. ”Everyone in the town has an equal right to it, VIPs alone cannot corner this water,” he fumes.

The fresh MoU holds out some hope for him. Baldev is confident that the government would soon set up another plant here. Uruguay Ambassador to India, Enrique Anchordoqui, gives another reason to cheer about. His government, he says, is working towards setting up a joint venture project to assemble such plants in India itself. And Punjab is thrashing out the modalities. If this works out, the cost of these plants will fall, making it possible for every Punjab town to install them.