Water privatization begins again in Delhi

Six years after its earlier attempt to privatize water supply in Delhi, which was thwarted by the vigilance and opposition of progressive forces, the Delhi Government is at it again. A “Pilot Project” is being initiated in the up-market Vasant Kunj area of South Delhi to hand over water supply and pipeline maintenance, to be followed later by meter reading and perhaps revenue collection, to a private contractor. Rumour has it that four Multinational Corporations have been short-listed. The Delhi Government claims the project is for reducing theft and leakage of water, estimated at around 40-60 percent, but in fact it is simply a rehashed version of the earlier plan to privatise water distribution in Delhi in phases, starting with 24×7 supply of water in selected areas. Supply of water through Delhi Jal Board tankers, upon which a large section of Delhi’s poor population depends, is also be fully privatized under the new plan.

The earlier plan was prepared by the multinational consultancy firm Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PWC), which has been involved in water privatization in different parts of the world. PWC’s Report explicitly stated that privatization was necessary, especially to introduce higher water tariffs. The present plan too seeks a loan from the World Bank, precisely the measure stopped at the eleventh hour in 2005 under pressure from the Left and other citizens groups. The World Bank and other multilateral agencies are notorious for their world-wide push to “reform” utilities through privatization as part of the neo-liberal economic policy framework calling for “full cost recovery” of all public services. Privatization of water supply has been pushed through in countries such as Tanzania, Colombia and Bolivia with disastrous consequences especially for the poor who have faced severe water deprivation and high prices. Different models of privatization of water supply in Chennai, Bangalore and Mumbai have already seen prices go up by 3 to 5 times their prevailing rates. These same policies are now sought to be imposed in the national capital after which the model will be replicated in the rest of India.

The people of Delhi, especially in poor and middle-class localities, resettlement colonies, unauthorized colonies, jhuggi-jhonpri settlements and rural areas, are reeling under severe water shortage, highly irregular supply and often no supply for days on end. The Delhi Government has not only failed to check rampant mismanagement and corruption in Delhi Jal Board (DJB), but has also undermined the utility. As an excuse for its failings and to generate support for its nefarious privatization plans, the Government has spread the falsehood that privatization is the only solution and will be a panacea to end Delhi’s water woes. It hopes that the increasingly desperate people of Delhi will accept any alternative including privatization and higher water prices.

The Delhi Government’s explanations and its claims that privatization is the only solution are simply untrue. Liberalization and privatization always begin with tall promises. But privatization of water supply will only make the situation worse, since private contractors will only be concerned with profits and will have no accountability to the people. A quick look at the water situation in Delhi will make clear why this is so.

The biggest lie is that water will become available 24×7 to citizens of Delhi through privatization. Fact is that Delhi has limited supply of raw water and has even less capacity to treat this water for household supply. Delhi faces a shortfall of about 675 million litres per day (LPD) compared to demand. New power plants can be set up to make electricity if there is inadequate supply, but water cannot be manufactured, it can only be obtained from existing, limited sources. Delhi Government and DJB have taken no proper steps to augment Delhi’s water availability. On the contrary, it is allowing its finite sources of water to be recklessly exploited threatening the future of coming generations.

The Yamuna river has limited water and Delhi only receives what is left over after extraction of river waters in Uttarakhand, UP and Haryana. Efforts to procure additional water from Tehri and Renuka Dams have met with only limited success because upstream rural areas and other towns and cities have demands too. Within Delhi, groundwater has been severely overexploited and currently about 50% more groundwater is being extracted than gets recharged from rainwater each year. Ill-conceived and illegal constructions on the Yamuna river bed such as the Akshardham Temple, the Metro Service Depot, Commonwealth Games Village and the DTC Bus Depot, all block the recharge of groundwater in the critical Yamuna floodplains. All these projects were opposed by citizens’ groups. But each time both Delhi and Central Governments had assured that no more construction will take place on the river bed, only for the next project to come up, sacrificing the future of Delhi and its citizens. The same process is taking place in Delhi’s other major recharge system in the Ridge area with numerous unplanned and illegal constructions in the Mehrauli region, in Vasant Kunj and other parts of South and Outer Delhi.

Distribution of water in Delhi is also marked by gross inequity. Two-thirds of the city’s population gets only 5 percent of the water supplied. People in parts of Delhi, especially south, outer and north Delhi, get less than 40-50 Litres of water per day (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 are waiting to get tap water.

It is self-evident that, given finite availability of water, if any area such as Vasant Kunj is to be supplied water 24×7, this can only be done by taking water away from some other area. Why is it that every time a 24×7 pilot project is proposed, it is for a posh South Delhi colony? Why not 24×7 water supply in a resettlement colony or a JJ cluster? It is because the main motivation of the private company is profit, and the Delhi Government wants to help them make it. Water that leaks or is stolen is described by consultants and the Delhi Government as “non-revenue water,” thus viewing water purely as a commodity for profit-making. Obviously then a private contractor will supply it to areas from where more money can be made. Since slab rates are proposed for water supply, like with electricity, higher consuming households, malls, hotels and commercial establishments will pay more and hence private companies will supply more water to them. Privatization will clearly exacerbate inequalities and deprive the poor even of what little water they get at present.

The private contractors will only handle distribution, and be paid handsomely for it, while all responsibility for making treated water available will remain with DJB. So if there is water shortage, the private company will bear no responsibility, and will still get paid the contracted amount. This is already happening with the Sonia Vihar water treatment plant which is being operated by Suez Degremont of France which is paid huge amounts even though Delhi government has been unable to procure sufficient water from UP. Private contractors will thus make huge profits but will have no accountability, and can conveniently blame DJB for not providing enough water, while Government will wash its hands off any responsibility!

Privatization was introduced using the excuse that the corruption associated with the license-permit raj would be curbed. But experience has shown that corruption has not only increased but assumed gigantic proportions, witness the growing number of scams and the huge sums involved, of over 1,76,000 crores in the 2G Telecom spectrum scam, several thousands of crores of subsidy transferred to the two corporate houses involved in privatization of electricity in Delhi, the thousands of crores siphoned off in the Commonwealth Games. Is there any doubt that water privatization will bring more such scams in its wake? That huge kickbacks will be involved in awarding contracts and more money will be made by permitting frequent tariff increases as in electricity supply?

This deceitful game must be stopped. Government must own up to its basic responsibilities of providing essential services to the people. Under the neo-liberal policies, Government is withdrawing from these responsibilities in sector after sector which are being privatized such as health care, education, electricity and now water. In all these sectors, privatization has meant higher expenditure, poor services, less accountability, and more burden on the common man,

We call upon the people of Delhi to oppose these plans and demand:

  • No Water Privatization, no Pilot Project in Vasant Kunj

  • No World Bank loan for reforming Delhi Water Supply

  • Transform Delhi Jal Board into an efficient and accountable public service provider

  • Formulate comprehensive plan for improving water supply in Delhi