Friday, February 8, 2008 India polarised over water privatisation India polarised over water privatisation: "Across India, there is a rising tide of water privatisation projects made possible in recent years by a radical departure in the way national policy views water.

Water is no longer just a public service to be delivered by governments but a resource to be managed well if need be, with the participation of the private sector.
National Water Policy 2002:

* Private sector participation should be encouraged in planning, development and management of water resources projects may help in introducing innovative ideas, generating financial resources and introducing corporate management and improving service efficiency and accountability to users.

It's a shift that parallels wider international trends sharply critiqued by environmentalists like Vandana Shiva who has argued against the commodification of water.

Excerpts from Vandana Shiva's book:

* Water is a commons, a public good. Privatization is the enclosure of the water commons. Will water be viewed and treated as a commodity, or will it be viewed and treated as the very basis of life?

In a New Delhi slum colony whether they want to or not, the poor have to view water as a commodity.

''Private tankers charge Rs 500 for 5,000 litres. But we have to pay. How do we survive without water? asked a Delhi slum resident.

Seen from the perspective of the urban poor, the moral critique of water privatisation begins to falter.

In fact, it's this failure of the public sector to provide water to all or to regulate its use that has formed the basis for those who argue that like other resources, water too must be more efficiently utilised.

Where the debate actually gets polarized is whether bringing in efficiency also means bringing in the private sector?

''From the World Bank's perspective, the issue is not one of private versus public,'' said David Grey, Senior Water Advisor, World Bank.

The World Bank seen as the greatest supporter of privatisation is keen to distance itself from what it calls an ideological debate.

''We are not ideological about which is better than the other. It depends on circumstance. And the important thing is when services are very poor we have to look at alternative solutions,'' Grey added.

''The question is of distibution, in plugging leakages. The non-revenue water in Indian cities is 50-60 per cent. If you reduce those leakages, you increase water supply by that much. If you compare Delhi with Paris, Delhi has 220 litres per capita water while Paris has 150 litres per capita. Paris has water 24x7. So why can't Delhi? asked Smita Misra, Senior Economist, World Bank.

Supporters of privatisation argue private companies are better placed to increase efficiency. Critics say private companies will raise tariffs making water unaffordable.

Apprehensions that get heightened each time a water privatisation plan is brought in quietly. Like in New Delhi, where Right to Information activists found plans to privatise Delhi's water supply been concealed from the public.

''This project was being envisaged since 1998 and till 2004 public had no idea that reform project or privatisation was being envisaged for the Delhi Jal Board,'' said Suchi Pandey, RTI Activist.

''When we asked them how do they plan to go about it, we found the private company will only be responsible for supply to district metering board, not households. So whether water actually gets delivered to homes or not is nobody's responsibility,'' Pandey added.

Each time controversy hits water privatisation projects, the debate becomes even more polarized at the cost of the real concerns, says environmentalist Sunita Narain.

Sunita Narain says:

''The larger debate in India is not about water privatisation, it should not be. The larger debate in urban India should be how do you make safe water available to all. The biggest issue in urban India is in the name of the poor; it is the rich who are being subsidized for water.

The other problem is in the technologies we are adopting for water supply, we are bringing water from further and further away. The longer the distance the water has to travel the more the leakages.

The problem is this debate has become so polarised between one camp the world bank, which essentially believes the answer to efficiency lies in privatisation, and the activists who believe privatisation will deprive poor even further.

I think the answer is not either private or public, the answer is really combination of both, but understanding is the only way to deal with inefficiency in the system is when you first learn to pay for it.

And you will never be able to pay the right price for water and sewage because it's too costly; you have to change the tech both for supply of water and taking back the sewage. Both sides are completely missing the point.

I think we should get out of debate over private. I think the issue really is you need to regulate the supply of water and the taking back of sewage of homes, don't de-link the two.

Remember in every country the body, which supplies water public utility, should always take back the sewage so that cost to system is affordable.

Once you begin to think like this, pieces will fit together, today these agencies are called inefficient because urban populations cannot even pay price for water supplied to them as well as sewage.

Bangalore charges most for water at Rs five per 1,000 litres, yet to supply it costs Rs 40. Mumbai charges less than Rs 2 however, long distance pipelines leakages costs Rs 30-40. If you were to take back sewage it's five times more expensive, so we must start thinking differently.

And I think the people who are crying public or private are completely missing the point that it's not about public and private. It's about the affordability of technology of supply of water and taking back the sewage and currently the urban rich India is wasteful. It is subsidised literally as we say to defecate inconvenience.

This is not about private or public this is about finding a new technology which we in urban India can afford, if we can afford it, our public utilities, our Delhi Jal Board or our municipal will become more profitable we do not need private agencies, private agencies are not per se more efficient.''"

No comments: