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December 13, 2009

In a tangential continuation of my last rant, a news report in the Hindu today caught my eye, because it made clear what we all know: the poor pay much much more for essential services than the rich do and therefore price of living indices as they are currently defined/calculated do not capture in any way the everyday realities of millions of Indians.

The report:

A new initiative for improving access to clean water and educate the public about the hazards of drinking contaminated water with a rare collaboration among panchayat samitis, government departments and private institutions has improved the quality of life for many grappling with high fluoride content in water in Goner village, 20 km from here.

Fluoride in water is a major health hazard for the residents of Goner – comprising 800 households – and the diseases of bones, joints and teeth, including deformity, after long-term consumption of ground water are common among the villagers. Private organisations such as Nandi Foundation, Bosch and Mahatma Gandhi Medical College have joined hands with the local Panchayat Samiti and the Public Health Engineering Department (PHED) to provide an answer to the challenge on the heath front for villagers by installing a reverse osmosis-based water purifier.

Sounds good right? I mean surely the provision of clean drinking water is something to celebrate. But wait, this is what the water costs an individual household:

Bosch has donated the water purifier with the capacity of supplying 1,000 litres of water per hour for the entire village. Water is supplied on a nominal charge of Rs.92 per month for a household for a 20-litre canister everyday.

A nominal charge? Rs 100 per month for a little over 600 litres is certainly not a nominal charge, it is very very expensive. This is what consumers in Delhi pay for their water.

As per the new tariff structure, consumers who were paying monthly water charge of Rs 52 for consuming 10 kilo litres of water will have to pay Rs 82 from the next billing cycle beginning January one.

Similarly, the consumers who were shelling out Rs 82 for consumption of 20 kilo litres of water will now have to pay Rs 180, an increase of more than two times.

The Government also announced a more than two and half times increase for the consumers whose monthly consumption is 30 kilo litre of water. These consumers will have to now shell out Rs 470 against the existing charge of Rs 187. The revised rates will come into effect from January 1, next year.

After the price hike a household in Delhi will pay Rs 52 for 10,000 litres of water per month and Rs 180 for 20,000 litres of water per month! And remember this is for authorized DJB water connections, which large numbers of people don’t have. Private water tankers, the supply source for large numbers of Delhi’s poor who live in unauthorized settlements charge Rs 100 for 1,000 litres of water. And the DJB still carps on about “leakage” “stealing” and “wastage”, namely that “unauthorized” interlopers are diverting precious water resources away from the city. A rich household in Delhi currently consumes over 4 times as much water as a poor household.

(Which then brings us to the incredible and amazing truth that whoever thought of packaging water and selling it was an absolute corporate genius. Take a substance to which you have to do absolutely nothing, clean it up and pour it into a bottle, unaltered, unchanged, as god made it, and charge Rs 45 for 25 litres!)

14 Comments leave one →
  1. December 13, 2009 8:51 PM

    Access to clean, affordable water is so obviously one of the most important things in life. Good to see you bringing this issue up so clearly. It’s something we all need to think more about.

  2. December 14, 2009 9:13 PM

    The NDA and UPA have joined hands to make the Indian citizens untouchables economically . The time has come when these cruel rulers will have to face the agony of the poor masses . The rulers are worst than the ex British rulers .

    The rulers are in the grip of the capitalists and the Brahminist elements .

  3. somnath permalink
    December 28, 2009 11:32 AM

    Hi Aarti,

    This is precisely the reason why everyone should be clamouring for 100% metered water connection to every household..It is then that you can precisely measure how much is being used by whom and charge her accordingly.

    The essential premise is that the poor use less water than the rich..A tiered pricing of water with full metering will enable low volumes to be priced low and high volumes to be priced high, while ensuring regular supply!!

    Much better than empty pro poor sloganeering that politicians get away by doing!

  4. Aarti Sethi permalink*
    December 28, 2009 3:51 PM

    Hi somnath,

    People in fact are constantly asking for metered water connections, but the process of acquiring a metered water connection is extremely complicated because it is connected to the “regularisation” of colonies. What the government calls “unauthorized” colonies are not given electricity and water connections because once people start paying for electricity and water they can establish some history of habitation and claims to the land on which they are living. In the current climate where working-class habitations are under constant threat of destruction, and in fact the last five years in Delhi have precisely witnessed the large-scale demolitions of “slums”, simply demanding a water connection is not enough to ensure you will get one. The report to which I have linked bring out the fact that in most cases having a water connections means nothing because there is no water in the taps.

    Certainly politicians get away with empty pro-poor solganeering, but there are also slow incremental political processes through which people lobby with local MCD counsellors to gradually get access to services like water and electricity. This is also why near election times politicians routinely push for the “regularisation” of unauthorized colonies in their constituencies. We can dismiss this as “vote-bank politics” (a term that renders the actual stuff of which democracy is made, namely the fact that elected representatives should actually be responsive to the demands of people who have voted for them, into its opposite), or we can recognise the fact that access to services is a very fraught issue and must in fact be squarely located in the realm of politics. You might find this essay by solomon benjamin interesting in light of this discussion:

  5. Somnath permalink
    December 29, 2009 8:59 AM

    Hi Aarti,

    Thanks, it is an interesting article.

    The problem is that by simply asking for incremental movement, ie, regularisation of slums, getting a modicum of services in (of variable quality), you are only increasing the problem.

    The fact is that the problem needs radical restructuring of municipal operations and urban planning. Politicians should be pressurised to create viable infrastructure to cope with migration, without creating more slums. That means revisiting tenancy laws, enforcing land use norms strictly and build a city that we can be proud of..

    Unfortunately, each radical “reform” measure is immediately buffeted as an imperialist conspiracy against the poor. Taking water as an example, getting a private utility to ensure 24 hrs (or at least as a start reliable) supply in return for assured user charges is good idea. The user charges will always be defined by the local govt, and it can keep the charges lower as low levels of consumption. But something along the lines was scuppered completely.

    It is said that 40 years back, KL, Shanghai, Beijing, Singapore were not all that different from a Delhi or a Mumbai..Today, despite being a success story in many other spheres, not one Indian city matches up to the standards of any major Asian urban hub..There’s nothing ideological about it – it means that we have created that much less wealth that India’s poor can tap into to lift them out of poverty (cities are a huge economic multiplier, better cities are even more so)!

  6. Aftab Danish permalink
    December 29, 2009 5:56 PM

    But Aarti, What is your problem if neo-liberals can actually provide metered water connections to all? Somnath, just one problem though – you will have to ensure (lest it all become empty sloganeering of another kind) that all Indians have proper, i.e. regularized housing (and all that goes with it). Now if neo-liberalism can do that, wouldn’t that be great – though we are yet to see it done anywhere in the world. But that is your best bet to put the left-liberals like Aarti out of business.

  7. somnath permalink
    December 29, 2009 6:12 PM

    Hi Aftab,

    World has not seen perfect egalitarianism yet. The previous attempts at it (Soviet Union, North Korea) were reasonably fantastic failures (and if I may add, hypocrysies)..Therefore, there isnt a country that has managed uniformly good housing and everything else that goes with it for every single citizen.

    That doesnt however mean that we keep plugging at a level that is the globally the lowest uncommon denominator…We can still try and make things better, maybe it impacts only 50-60% of the intended beneficiaries. But it is still better than uniform misery..

    I would anyday take assured, preferably 24 hour supply of water for 60-70% of Delhities than the current state of affairs, where it is rank misery for about 95% of them..

    About left liberals, I have great respect for many of them. But doesnt mean I agree with everything they say!

  8. Aarti Sethi permalink*
    December 29, 2009 6:26 PM

    @ Somnath,

    The moves to privatize water were scuppered because there was massive public outcry given the disasters that ensued when electricity was privatized. In fact our very own kafila correspondent aman sethi wrote a series of pieces on water. Here are the links:

    Once water resources are handed over to the corporates what happens is this:

    This is by now a critical body of work on urban planning, and Delhi is no stranger to master-planning. You are right. We certainly need to have a rigorous set of conversations about the futures of our cities. However these conversations cannot be premised solely on whether urban forms fall within designated master-plans or not, because master-planning and zoning fundamentally misrecognise the ways in which cities grow.

    To take two examples that you raise: land use and tenancy. Land use norms that differentiate between residential, commercial and industrial have no conception of the fact that for millions of people these are not separate spheres. If you walk into Bhogal or Nabi Karim or Jhandewallan or Kilokri or any number of other localities in Delhi, you will see that people produce goods ranging from fiber optical cables to shoes to radios to computers to embriodery and bead-work in small workshops located in their houses. Often they also sell these goods from their houses. Sometimes these take the form of small industrial operations, say for cloth dyieng or assembly work. When you then impose artifical distintions of “residential” “commercial” etc onto this very dense network, you displace, dislocate and render homeless and jobless millions of people.

    Lets look at tenancy laws. There has been a move under the “bhagidari” scheme (which has been lauded by the middle-class as finally bringing “governance” to our cities, and of course this is a whole other discussion) whereby land titles are being digitalized. What this move does is to make land a transactable commodity (which yes it has been for a long time, but this is a fundamentally different level of abstraction), and papers over the very complex systems of tenancy through which claims on land are established. In Bangalore, when this was done, they found there were over 350 different local land tenancy forms of letting and sub-letting. I am very wary of any radical moves of urban restructuring because they are invariably violent. We have seen this in Delhi in the last five years.

    @ aftab
    If neo-liberalism could actually provide safe drinking water, housing and health-care to everyone, hell yes I’d like to go out of business! Please tell me one, just one, instance, from anywhere in the world, where this has occurred.

  9. gautam bhan permalink
    December 29, 2009 8:15 PM

    Dear Somnath and Aftab,

    I think the spirit of your objections is correct — there is certainly a failure of planning systems and there is certainly a need for more reliable infrastructural and service systems. The question is: what is this failure? and how do you respond to it?

    I am a planner by training, so I can confess to this: planning runs the danger, always, of pretending cities are like the blank butter sheets planners and designers make land use maps on. The problem is that they’re not. They are full of uses, people, built environments, and ecologies that planners dont want to see but that they (in part) helped create.

    We made three major long range Master Plans in Delhi, none of which ever mapped the entire inhabited area of the city. Which meant that settlements (rich and poor), built themselves outside it and became “irregular”. Not illegal, because to be illegal, you have to violate a planned land use code. You cant violate a land use code in a non-plan area. This is one of the problems with a 20yr plan — it is structurally incapable of keeping up with urban growth and change.

    But now, in these “irregular” or “illegal” colonies, there is a problem of water supply, if you are poor. If you are Sainik Farms, you just buy your water. If you are LNJP colony, you can’t. And you can’t because claims to services are claims to existence and existence is tricky for planning agencies because it creates more citizens that then need to be serviced and catered to.

    The issue is not of public and private water supply — the issues are two:

    1. Private water supply does not (and did not in the Delhi proposal) guarantee universal supply and did not face a regulatory guarantee of controlled pricing. Blueline buses, for example, did, which is why you dont hear people crying about blueline buses being “privatised” versions of public transport [lets leave aside their killing records]. So, in the real world, private proposals for basic services [health care included] have never come onto the table accepting the conditions, Somnath, you lay out. If they do, I’m more than happy [even as a left-liberal] to listen to them and back them. I just want a comparable system of accountability — when water prices go up, government’s get through out of power. When private water prices go up, what happens?

    2. There is a temptation, very easily, to think that poor settlements in the city can simply be given services. There is a fallacy in this — many poor people cannot bear the costs of formal service delivery because we do not distinguish between the cost of formality with a poor and rich citizen. Aarti is right that water meters are near impossible to get in a settlement because they imply regularity and legal existence, but they try because public water is still affordable. Tomorrow, they will not clamour for water meters that they can efficiently get privately [lets assume this - it was not true for auto meters, for example] because there is no point clamouring to get what you cannot afford to keep [please keep in mind the foreclosure criss of houses being given to people who could not afford them... that is also neoliberalism, Aftab.]

    3. How do we rethink planning the city? This is a very worthwhile debate that goes beyond neoliberalism vs left politics. the reality of this city is endemic and extreme inequality and still vast public control over land. That is the city, not the clean slates all of us want to reimagine the city from this point on. From this base, there are many things you can do, and that is perhaps a debate we need to have. But wishing away what exists will not help, and is not realistic, forget what political spectrum corner you squat on currently.


  10. Somnath permalink
    December 30, 2009 9:00 AM


    Ownership is but one aspect of restructuring the system..An efficient public delivery is any day more desirable than a private water supply initiative. Prblem is that vast stretches of the public sector in India is so incorrigibly corrupt, inefficient and just blase about its responsibility that it is well nigh impossible to reform them thru incremental changes..A private management of services is sort of one “shock treatment” for radical change..

    I am aware of the problems that have come about globally on the area of water privatisation. These are bad times to argue for water privatisation actually, given the raft of negative news about it from as far as Africa to Asia to the US!!!

    If the existing public utility could do with (at least) 70-80% metering and some sort of assurance on supply, I would go with that..

    Fundamentally however, one has seen that the problem is not with “privatisation” per se, but with the policy underlying the same..The same politicians that have a vested interest in the status quo use the privatisation process to get some of the “wealth” loss to themselves recovered by manipulating the policy fineprint..So, if the problem is with pricing of water by the private utility, the solution is not to revert to the inefficient DJB for the “management” of the utility, but to set up a regulator that will fix the price..

    For natrual monopolies, public ownership is ideal..Unfortunaetly, especially in India, the public sector is an absolute waste of time and money for most parts..

    Finally, fully appreciate the point on “legacy effect” on any urban planning process..At the same time, the debate seems to be directing towards a point where the best becomes an enemy of good..Assured water supply to 100% of the households at “nearly free” prices is ideal..But assured supply to 65% of the households at a tiered pricing level is good enough, much better than the status quo!

  11. December 30, 2009 11:51 AM


    I’m no expert about this, but let’s consider three points carefully before we consider privatisation of water.

    1. Most corruption that exists already is a private-public joint venture! Yes, the government is weak and corrupt, but do we really think we can improve that be making it weaker? I suspect that if you give water over to private interests, any reduction you would see in corruption would be more than made up for by (legal) profiteering! Besides, private companies don’t typically deliver good services to people who don’t have money, anyway. There is just not enough money in giving poor people high quality water–which is why most efforts to profit from it have been unsuccessful or have relied on large public subsidies.

    2. The word “shock” makes me cringe. Most, if not all, efforts to use “shock” tactics against the public sector anywhere have been utter (and often brutal) failures. Most of us suspected that that before Naomi Klein wrote The Shock Doctrine, but she certainly clarified that point. Interestingly, India is one large country that has not, so far, suffered from a major externally driven “shock” therapy program, though we’ve adopted a lot of similar things on our own (under pressure, but not by force) since the early 90′s. (Our reluctance to adopt all the “reforms” advocated by the West may have saved our financial sector last year, right?)

    3. Private water has a bad reputation elsewhere, because, to my knowledge, it hasn’t worked elsewhere!

    So what do do? It’s a big, big problem, and probably requires a big, big movement to properly deal with it. I’m not sure where that will come from. But my sense is it will involve holding the government accountable for what it should be doing and not giving up and going corporate. I don’t see that working.


  12. Somnath permalink
    December 31, 2009 9:04 AM

    Hi Hari (assume thats how I can address you!:()

    I realise (and I said that in an earlier post) the pitfalls of arguing for private water these days – the bad press has been just overwhelming on that..

    There is no problem if a public utility can operate even at 60-70% of ideal efficiency..Problem is that the situation in municipal services across teh country, incl Delhi is so bad that the public sector utilities are beyond redemption..”Shock” therapy is an unpalatable word, but call it radical if you will, something “different” needs to be done..Status quo is just getting us from worst to another deeper unexplored end of it!

    Warts and all, the privaisation of the erstwhile DESU has generated some results, even if we can still complain..T&D (Theft and Dacoity!) losses are down to 20%, from 52% earlier..By all anecdotal instances, the customer experience has also imprved substantially in the areas managed by Tata Power. Challenges are still substantial, but a lot of that pertains to two things:

    1. Quality of regulatory oversight – which is getting better now (as is sighted by the Reliance franchisee being pulled up for “insider” trading)

    2. Investment – which is happening now, and once new capacities come on stream, the situation should be much better..

    Sure, privatisation has in this case created (and in all case, will create) problems, but at least these are new problems rather than the same old ones for which we have not had any solutions for 50 years, as C Subramanium once put it!

    Similarly, water can be even more “tightly” privatised, if I can use that word..LEave the operations to a pvt operator, retain the pricing flexibility with a regulator..The operator is remunerated on “efficiency gains”, and the deficit out of regulatory pricing is picked up by the state…Basically take the goons of DJB out of the equation…As I keep saying, getting reliable supply to 60% of the population is still preferable to nearly 100% without assured supply..

  13. Zainab Bawa permalink
    January 9, 2010 11:59 AM

    Dear Somnath,

    It is interesting to read your arguments. I am currently writing on the issue of water privatization efforts in Mumbai (masked as water distribution improvement programme) and this post and the thread of discussions has been very interesting for my work.

    To begin with, here is something to think about which is also what I have been ruminating over in the past two-three years of researching water privatization in Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai and people’s resistance to and disdain for privatization. The issue is this – privatization of all basic services does not mean the same thing to everyone and in all circumstances. What does this mean? It means that supply of electricity by private operators has different repercussions on poor people’s lives than private supply of water. This does not mean poor people are not affected by private supply of power in terms of the higher costs that they have to pay. But it means that within the context of their socio-economic conditions and their physical houses (shacks, hutments, shanties, kutcha houses, etc), the importance, usage and consumption of electricity has different price and social connotations when compared with water. This means that you can alter the use of electricity i.e. reduce or increase it to juggle with the incomes and costs of living, but when it comes to water, reducing usage has, usually negative, consequences for health and well-being. Therefore, the point that I am trying to make here is that privatization of basic services is not and does not mean the same thing to everyone. Poor people do plug into private education services, often in recognition of the poor quality of education provided in municipal schools. But to plug into private water supply does not mean the same thing to them as plugging into private schooling systems.

    Secondly, and this is perhaps the most important point, whether it is the rich or the poor or the middle-class or anyone in between or above these layers, we all prefer cheap, municipal and state resources especially when it comes to water, electricity and sanitation (in terms of drains and sewerage facilities). This means that there is very intense competition to access these resources in the first place and which is why families and individuals residing in apartment blocks totally dislike poor people accessing municipal water supply like them. They then raise the issue of how come poor people access municipal water when we, the middle and upper middle classes, pay the taxes? If you see the situation in Mumbai now with the water shortage crises looming, the poor are marked as thieves who steal water and who use booster pumps to draw out more water (when the fact remains that in every housing society, booster pumps are attached to the water tanks to get water with more pressure). So one cannot be blind to the competition that exists among all the residents of the city to access municipal and state resources when it comes to water and electricity. And we want these resources cheap, whether we are rich or poor, so that we can save on our expenses and costs of living and invest the accruing extra money into other resources. This is a common sense fact for almost each one of us.

    Thirdly, why privatization efforts failed in Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai is because the actors involved, mainly consultants, development aid agencies and higher echelons of government and politicians, only sought to replace the public provider (municipality, DJB, BWSSB) with a private operator. This is like replacing the (presumed) public monopoly with a private monopoly and it makes no sense in terms of efficiency and accountability. In Mumbai, the model that was worked out was that the private operator would manage the distribution of water while the municipality would retain control over the resources such as lakes and reservoirs. This did not make economic and administrative sense because firstly, the municipality would be deprived of the revenues which they gather from supplying water and WHICH THEY USE FOR CROSS-SUBSIDIZING SEWERAGE AND SANITATION SERVICES. Secondly, as has been pointed out in the discussion threads, the private operator usually has no incentive to supply high quality services to poor people who cannot pay. And Aarti’s point is very very crucial that you can have the water connection and yet, there is no water flowing because to make the water flow, you have to mobilizing valvemen, plumbers, engineers, etc. who know the pipeline system and who capitalize on their power to bend the rules and the pipeline system. This sounds like corruption, but in reality, politics is about negotiating through these seemingly high seas of power, graft and ‘corruption’. We are part of such politics in our own houses and families and the state is one of the images of our own household systems.

    Fourthly, water in settlements in Mumbai, Bangalore and Delhi is accessed through public and private networks. Poor people particularly need multiple sources of accessing water because water is a severely contested resource and it is often diverted away from the poor to the rich on the grounds of legality of tenure. I have spoken to several people, especially women, in settlements in Mumbai who say that they buy water from brokers, agents, tankers, from their own neighbours, from local leaders, etc. But they don’t necessarily see this as extortion and I am not trying to say that this is a perfect situation, but it is at least one where they are not exploited by one single tyrannical source. They can opt in and out of the various channels of water supply, of course with repercussions depending on their own socio-economic mobility. In fact, when the water privatization project was being discussed with women in slums in Mumbai, they openly said that they don’t care who gives them water as long as they get water. The issue is one of access to water and this access includes issues such as costs, accountability, assured supply in adequate quantities, etc.

    Finally, and there is much more to say here, why do not we talk about privatization of toilets and sewer services? Why only water and electricity? That is because it much easier to generate profits with water and electricity supply than with putting one’s hands in the DIRTY jobs. Most municipalities across India subsidize sewerage services through the revenues they generate via water supply. The private operator will not do this. This means that the private operator will supply and distribute water, but the municipality will have to continue to do the dirty job of managing toilets and sewer networks and this time, at their own expense because the private operator is sharing in the profits of water supply. This only adds to the financial burdens of municipalities and provides a basis for saying, ”Duh, these municipalities don’t know how to manage their finances or they debt-ridden. Let’s go to the markets and borrow more money and/or mortgage their assets. Let’s teach them financial management!” This is only a vicious cycle …

    electricity is not the same as privatization of water for one of the big reasons being, among many others, that the technologies for electricity are different from the technologies of water. What does this mean? It means that people can tap into water

  14. somnath permalink
    January 10, 2010 6:53 PM

    Hi Zainab,

    Thanks for a great post – really “value adding” stuff in there..

    From my perspective, the private-vs-public debate is but a corollary of the chronic problem..No one can deny that we have a problem, and for once the problem is NOT of inadequate availability…I am sure you know this, but Singapore has a per capita water consumption of 158 litres, Delhi does 240 litres!!Still almost no area in Delhi, including Lutyen’s Delhi where I lived for a long time, has 24 hour assured water..

    Obviously, for once the problem is not limited to that of availability of resources, but purely of the management of it..Therein the private v/s public option is moot..

    Almost anyone who has been a citizen of Delhi or Mumbai (and I have been for many years of both) will certify that any interaction with DJB/MCD/BMC is a soul destroying one, even for a “thorough bred” middle class individual..

    At the core of the (justified) issues you are raising is the question of pricing…And “proper” pricing for natural monopolies is a function of the quality of regulatory oversight…

    the debate should therefore be focused on the quality of regulatory oversight on pricing and quality of delivery, whether the utility is privately owned or publicly owned..The usual “oversight” mechanism through municipal corporators is such a disaster that we need a “better institutionalised”, more “technocratic” (I use the word despite a left liberal aversion to it) structure there..

    It is really difficult to argue for private sector water..Unfortunately, preserving the status quo, either in terms of the instituional setup or in terms of the debates around it is reaally beating around the same bush without any prospects of a brighter future..

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