Policy contradictions and water woes

Privatisation of common property resources like water compromises basic human rights.
People take water from a common water point. (Source: SaciWATERs)
People take water from a common water point. (Source: SaciWATERs)

The serious implications of privatisation of natural resources like water, which is often brought under the overarching umbrella of market reforms, often evade us. There is a qualitative difference in the state withdrawing from the social sector as opposed to the economic sector, and in the increased privatisation of private commodities as opposed to that of a rightly owned common property resource like water. The National Water Policy, 2012 states that “water is fundamental to life, livelihood, food security and sustainable development” (p 1). The latest Draft National Water Framework Bill, 2016, is somewhat baffling in that it states, “The state’s responsibility for ensuring every person’s right to safe water for life shall remain “even when water service provision is delegated to a private agency” and in case of such delegation, the right of citizens to safe water for life and the duty of the state to provide the same shall remain in force” (p 7). The fundamental contradiction between “delegating” water service provision to a private agency and fulfilling state’s duty towards maintaining “the right of the citizens to safe drinking water for life” appears to have bypassed the policy makers.

The dependence on private water source is more pronounced during lean seasons. (Source: SaciWATERs)

The effect of privatisation of water for household use is observed extensively in peri-urban Hyderabad. It takes different forms in drinking water and domestic use. In the drinking water front, use of surface water as well as public provisioning is waning and is available in some measure in only one of the four surveyed peri-urban villages in the form of use of common water points; the source is treated Krishna water and is, of course, free of cost. Other than this, even in the normal, water-abundant season, there is a widespread dependence on government RO (a public-private model) and private RO plants that treat the groundwater for supply. The latter is up to four times more expensive compared to the former. 

The dependence on private water sources becomes distinctly more pronounced in the lean seasons which are longer during the drought years. Domestic water, though normally supplied by the gram panchayats through pipelines sourced from groundwater in all surveyed villages, is supplemented appreciably by paid tanker water in the lean seasons. It is important to note that the completely privatised forms of both drinking and domestic water thrive in the most part to feed the urban and not the local demand. 

The ongoing research conclusively points towards both a physical and economic distress in the water scarce periods when poor households are at times forced to depend on unsafe sources of drinking water. The more fundamental concern is that with water being increasingly treated as a ‘profitable’ commodity, the groundwater depletion is likely to become worse in the years to come. This could spike the price of drinking and domestic water, further reducing access in the marginalised households.


This is one from a series of blogs written by the researchers of SaciWATERs after their work on a two-and-a-half-year-long project titled "Ensuring Water Security in Metropolitan Hyderabad: A study of Hydrological Settings and Informal Institutional Dynamics" to understand the contribution of informal markets to the overall water security of metropolitan Hyderabad. The author is executive director, SaciWATERs.