Water for sale - to the highest bidder!

Water is a natural resource that should be 'free' for all or at least easily accessible but why is India allowing more and more companies to privatise it?
Rising cost of water Source: K.N. Balraj
Rising cost of water Source: K.N. Balraj

Did you know that the planet would die in three days if it ran out of water? Water is a basic necessity and the United Nations recognized the right to it as a basic human right in 2010. Isn’t it ironic that we are still allowing a few utility companies privatise it, speculate over it and control it?

Despite mounting criticism against water privatization, governments in several Indian states are giving water utility companies the go-ahead to dominate water management in the cities. Our National Water Policy (2012) too had called for privatisation of water delivery services and suggested that water be priced to “fully recover” the costs of operation and administration of water-resources projects. This has created a serious debate around the issue.

The promoters of private sector firms say that water is an economic good and hence they can commoditize it. They also assert that private sector involvement leads to better results as pricing water according to its true cost will promote practices that are more efficient. Those against water privatization explain the many drawbacks like lack of access to clean drinking water by a large section of society and constantly increasing water bills. Water is a natural resource essential to all life, not just the priveleged and hence we should treat it as a common good, they argue.

In 2000-2002, poor neighbourhoods of Johannesburg, South Africa, were hit by a terrible cholera epidemic. Slum water supply was disconnected by the private water supply agency when people did not pay their high water bills. Residents drank water from polluted rivers in the absence of an alternative. A cholera epidemic resulted claiming a hundred lives while some hundred thousand people fell ill. The government woke up and directed the private companies to provide at least twenty-five litres of water a day to all residents during the epidemic.

Is India going down that path too?

A group of civil society organizations slammed the Government of India’s water privatisation plan at a conference that dealt with Indian and international experiences related to the subject. Held recently at the Indian Social Institute, New Delhi, close to 300 participants attended it to discuss the challenges and the negative outcomes of water privatisation.

Rajinder Sacchar, Former Chief Justice of Delhi High Court pointed to a breach of laby the governments colluding with private players in the provision and management of water resources. "Water is a human right in international law, and attempts to privatize it are a breach of law", he said. He also noted that the increasing commodification of water has put a large section of the society in a disadvantaged position.

Privatisation puts a stop to equitable distribution of water

Pablo Solon, former Bolivian Ambassador to the United Nations and Executive Director of 'Focus on the Global South' a Bangkok-based NGO, shared his experience of fighting water privatisation in the Bolivian cities of Cochabamba and La Paz. Bolivia, a poor country in South America witnessed one of the most controversial water privatisation programs aided by the World Bank in the 1990s. The Bolivian government put up water systems for sale to private players in some of the poorest regions of the country. In the city of Cochabamba, the US Company Bechtel won the bid through an uncontested ‘bidding’ process. While this improved access of water to formerly unserved communities in the short run, it caused problems when the entire public infrastructure including local wells and pumps were taken over by the Company. Consumers unable to pay the increased water rates lost access to water. Riots broke out in the city as protesters filled the streets. People forced the company to leave and the local government successfully took over the management of the city's water supply.  

Solon stressed the importance of awareness among people regarding the negative impacts of privatisation. He concluded by hoping that through the efforts of its people, India actions the tenet of the United Nations Convention 2010, which stresses on water and other natural resources as a right of the people.

Medha Patkar highlighted the role of International Financial Institutions (IFIs) such as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank in forcing privatisation and creating “imposed development”. Countries seeking assistance from them were required to deregulate and abolish subsidies. They were also required to sell their water systems and infrastructure to private investors. Independent private water regulatory bodies were set up and private sector management thrust on these countries, if they wanted to receive funding from these institutions. Also, they focused on mineral and bottled water so that private companies can continue to make profits. She urged the people to fight privatisation and treat water as a natural resource over which the entire populace has a right. "There is a need to promote community ownership of water management and conservation", she said.

Arvind Kejriwal, discussing the recent move in Delhi to have three public-private partnership projects in the city, pointed to the link between corruption and privatisation with respect to the energy and water sectors. Delhi’s “Sonia Vihar water treatment plant is being operated by a French company. They claim to be supplying 140 million gallons of water per day while the raw water being supplied to the Plant is just about 90 million gallons per day. The government is however paying them for 140 million gallons per day. How can they possibly manufacture an extra 50 million gallons per day?” asked Kejriwal, while discussing the case of Delhi’s water scenario.

While there is plenty of water available per individual as per the Delhi Jal Board figures, the government continues to promote the private sector. Bureaucrats create a water shortage and show revenue deficits. Then, private companies are provided raw water by the State. They use State infrastructure but collect revenues based on their management fees and profit margins. As a result, water tariff has increased almost eighteen times in the last nine years in Delhi.

“India is promoting Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) in the water sector despite being a signatory to the UN Resolution of 2010, which recognises Right to Water as a Human Right”, said S. A. Naqvi of the Citizens Front for Water Democracy.

Water is a natural resource that belongs to everyone. It is owned by the community and not just by a group of people or companies. We need to understand the social issues and governance related to water and its management to effectively fight against its privatisation. 

The Conference was organised by the Citizen’s Front for Water Democracy (CFWD), Focus on the Global South, Popular Education and Action Centre (PEACE), Delhi Journalist Association, Water Sewer and Sewage Disposal Employees Union (WS&SDEU) and the Water Workers Alliance.

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