(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)
September 02, 2012
IT seems the Sheila
Dixit government of
A pilot project for
privatised distribution of water in Malaviya Nagar, Vasant Vihar
and Mehrauli areas of
As before, the public is being seduced with the claim of 24x7 supply of water in these pilot areas and a promise to extend the scheme to other areas later.
The case against water
privatisation has been repeatedly made and remains valid.
Despite these arguments being vindicated by bad experience with
privatisation in other countries as well as in the nascent
The term “water privatisation” is, of course, short-hand for privatisation of water utilities. In coming days and months, we will no doubt hear loud protestations from DJB and Delhi and central government spokespersons, that “there is no privatisation of water” in Delhi. It will be asserted, as in 2005, that this is merely a limited contract for management of water distribution given to some reputed private parties after a tendering process, and that ownership of all water sources, treatment and distribution assets, will remain with the government, and that citizens in these pilot areas will surely benefit from 24x7 water supply brought about by more efficient management. All these are barely half-truths together amounting to fooling the public.
The pilot projects in
But whatever the nuances, the common feature is that, although formal ownership continues to nominally vest with public entities, all these “public-private partnerships” are undoubtedly different forms of privatisation, with public bodies ceding varying degrees of control over quantity, quality, coverage and pricing to corporate bodies. Since the private party is in the business for profit, water in such privatised utilities is always viewed, valued and managed in terms of its price. Whatever the specific form of involvement of private players, water moves from being a common good to a commodity, with all that this implies.
Water (and other common resources) as an economic good is slowly but surely becoming an integral part of public policy under UPA-2 and indeed under the neo-liberal economic framework which have shaped the policies of both UPA and NDA governments at the centre, and those of governments in many states. The recently released Draft National Water Policy explicitly calls for water to be treated as an economic good, and the earlier NDA government too had issued a Water Policy advocating private sector participation in the water sector. Such “reforms” in the water sector and other public services are also central to the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) which makes such privatisation of public utilities a condition for grants and soft loans from the centre, much like the World Bank, IMF, ADB and many other multilateral and bilateral agencies especially including USAID which helped formulate and push it. Privatisation of electricity distribution has now become institutionalised and it is clear that water is heading that way, education and health having already been significantly “reformed”.
What makes water unique is not only that it is essential for life, part of the fundamental “right to life” according to the Supreme Court, but also that it is a finite resource. Water cannot be manufactured (not counting expensive and limited desalination) unlike electricity. It is hardly surprising therefore that privatisation of water, as with other commons, has always constricted rights especially of the poor, restricted access, resulted in sharp rise in prices and gross inequity in distribution.
water supply systems in Europe and the
In fact, there is a
strong trend of re-municipalisation of water utilities in Europe
and even in the
Water utilities in the
Inequitable distribution of water in Delhi is acknowledged even by published figures of DJB and Delhi government. Two-thirds of the city’s population gets only 5 per cent of the water supplied. People in parts of Delhi, especially south, outer and north Delhi, get less than 40-50 LPD per person against the norm of 120 LPD while the rich and privileged in NDMC and Cantonment areas get a staggering 400-500 LPD per head. Around 1,600 unauthorised colonies and 1,100 JJ clusters and resettlement colonies do not get piped water. The argument by some well-meaning citizens’ groups that Delhi’s water problems can be solved by tackling the unequal distribution, and that Delhi’s water deficit is unreal and only results from leakages, distribution issues and poor management, is simply wrong and unfortunately strengthens the administration’s position.
If water is actually supplied 24x7 to some pilot areas, the truth is that it can only be done by taking away water from some other areas. And there is simply insufficient water to enable supply of water 24x7 to all of Delhi. 24x7 water supply in Delhi is a total myth.
In fact, the contracts for the pilot projects do not at all require the companies to supply water 24x7 to each household, but only at the entry point to the concerned District Metering Area (DMA). So if the company can show that some water is being supplied round the clock at the DMA entry point, it is completely free to divert as much water as it wants to high-consumption, high-paying users within that area by supplying low-paying consumers only a few hours each day. Even a tariff structure with lower charges for low-consumption households, while appearing to be a social equaliser, will actually mean that consumers at higher slabs will be supplied more water because that will mean more revenue and profits for the distribution company.
This model of privatisation was drawn up in 2002 by the consulting MNC Price waterhouse Coopers (PwC), a favourite of various multilateral agencies. Frontline magazine reported several years ago, with documentary evidence, that the World Bank kept raising objections to appointments of consultants until PwC was selected for the Bank-supported DJB restructuring project! The current management contract too has been drawn up along the lines suggested by PwC and ensures minimum responsibility and maximum profits for the contractor, while all accountability continues to remain with the DJB and Delhi government.
DJB has full responsibility for sourcing and treatment of raw water, and supply of water to each zone. So if DJB does not supply requisite quantity treated water, the private distribution companies would be absolved from their contractual obligation for 24x7 supply within the DMA. In the Sonia Vihar water treatment plant in Delhi operated by Suez-Degremont, the DJB has been unable to supply adequate quantity of raw water and is therefore paying through its nose for work that the plant is NOT doing, and the penalties it incurs for non-fulfillment of its obligations are mounting!
Reducing “Non Revenue Water” (NRW), that is un-metered water supplied or lost through leakages, is another major expectation from the private operator, and one fraught with dangerous consequences especially for Delhi’s poor. The contractors are apparently required to reduce NRW from its current 60 per cent levels to 23 per cent in five years. However, NRW is not confined to leakages and theft as suggested, but significantly also includes water supplied to most JJ clusters and unauthorised colonies and to other community taps, hydrants or through tankers. Private distributors will obviously first cut off these water supplies to the poor, thus showing good progress in reducing NRW!
The end result is predictable and clear. Basic problems of inadequate water availability will remain unsolved. Neither the pilot privatisation projects, nor their future extension to the whole city, have any solutions for augmenting water availability through conservation, demand management, flood-water storage, rainwater harvesting, groundwater recharge or any other means. Water will become more expensive, with no assurance of more regular supply. Inequalities in water supply between localities, and between high-paying and low-paying consumers, will become sharper. The poor all over the city, and low-income areas in particular, will be badly hit. The DJB and the Delhi government will wash their hands of all responsibility and, while now claiming that it is only handing over distribution and management, will later unashamedly pass the whole buck to the private distributors even while defending their performance, and the high tariffs and fees. At best, the chief minister may write a letter to the distribution company, as she occasionally does to the electricity discoms! Déjà vu!
Finally, why an Israeli company operating in occupied territories with an apartheid-type system, where Palestinians are denied water rights by law, by procedure and by prices, should be selected for water distribution in Delhi is beyond comprehension. It is also ironic indeed that Hagihon Jerusalem Water, while being a fully autonomous corporation and Israel’s largest water company, is a public sector entity. If Delhi can contract out its water distribution to an Israeli municipal “expert,” can it not develop such capability in its own Delhi Jal Board?