Privatisation of water services in New Delhi : Myth and reality - Report by Water Privatisation - Commercialization Resistance Committee

This booklet argues that are attempts being made in India to privatise and commodify water, which is a retreat from our constitutional and economic duty and from our own human obligations

Residents of Delhi have been protesting against privatisation of water atleast since 2005. A large number of intellectuals, workers, lawyers and activists came together in November 2011 under the banner of the ‘Water Privatisation-Commercialization Resistance Committee’ to build up a campaign for an immediate withdrawal of tariffs imposed by the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) since 2010 and to ensure that the State Government retains the responsibility to provide good quality, adequate and assured drinking water and sanitation to its citizens.


Ever since the National Water Policy 2002 was formulated, there have been attempts in India to privatise and commodify water. This constitutes both a retreat from the constitutional and economic duty of the state, and from our own human obligations to other humans. Water is a naturally occurring public good. Not only is the right to basic services like health, education and water and sanitation essential for survival, our society has, over centuries, recognized its obligation to provide water to the needy and thirsty through the establishment of piaos at temples, mosques, gurudwaras, and dharamshalas, as well as by individuals in front of their homes and in public places.

Delhi Government decides to privatise water infrastructure

Delhi Government has, through directions given to the Delhi Jal Board (DJB), inflicted a fourfold increase in the cost of water and sanitation services since January 2010. The DJB’s increased water tariff includes a provision for an automatic 10 per cent increase in water bills every year. No such requirement exists in any other privatisation process whether for electricity, education, health or public transport.

Many residents of ‘unauthorized’ colonies and slums are already paying even more than these increased rates for water of poor quality from private suppliers for the DJB does not provide an assured supply of drinking water in these areas. Water supplying contractors have the patronage of the local mafia and politicians. In addition to this privatisation of water supply for the slums, large parts of the DJB works including maintenance of pipelines and construction works are already given out on contract to private agencies. DJB is inviting NGOs in provisioning of water supply in slums as well. All this amounts to a creeping privatization of the DJB, in the name of efficiency and people’s participation.

Delhi Government is utilizing the widespread public discontent over the lack of adequate, good-quality drinking water and of sanitation services to pave the way for full-scale privatisation of the DJB. The government does not tell us why such investments in strengthening the DJB to deliver quality services to the slums and planned colonies of Delhi cannot be achieved. Instead, the single solution of privatisation is offered as the answer to all problems.

The steep increase in water rates by the DJB is the first step towards privatisation and for attracting private business interests. The government is now proposing to place the provision of water completely in the hands of private business, arguing that the private sector will charge less for these services than the mafia/private contractors. The argument that people are already paying higher rates cannot be used as an indication of their ‘willingness’ to pay exorbitant amounts for water — they do so from desperation.

It is obvious that no lessons have been learnt from the privatisation of the Delhi Electricity Supply Undertaking (DESU). Not merely will consumers’ monthly bills for water increase, the government will eventually have to subsidise the private operators (as with North Delhi Power Limited - NDPL, now renamed as Tata Power Delhi Distribution Limited and Bombay Suburban Electric Supply - BSES).

Those who cannot pay for life-giving water will lose their water connections. Water will become a profitable business for a few and unaffordable to many.

Water Privatization

The key questions that the booklet raises are -

  1. Is there a real water shortage in Delhi or are the shortages a result of unequal distribution of the water available in Delhi?
  2. How can water efficiency be improved by privatisation of water services?
  3. What are the proposed plans of privatisation? How are the proposed plans going to bridge the demand-supply gap?

The arguments given by the Delhi Government are that there is inadequate drinking water, and leakages are high, privatisation will solve all problems. What is not set out is how the proposed privatisation of supply and distribution will address water shortages and the unequal access to drinking water supply that is at the root of the crisis. Rather than addressing the gaps and improving the efficiency of the existing Public Utility Service of the DJB, the whole problem is presented as one of creating infrastructure and privatisation is presented as its solution.

The first issue is of unmetered connections. What are the reasons for unmetered connections? Why is the DJB unable to meter these connections? The reason is their unwillingness to provide water through pipelines to the vast majority of residents of the ‘unauthorized’, and resettlement colonies and slums of Delhi. Let the DJB provide them piped water and meter it.

The second and related issue is of improving the efficiency of water distribution to reduce the incidence of Non Revenue Water (NRW). What is the estimate of water losses in transit? What is the basis of these estimates and how reliable are they? How do private companies propose to reduce transit losses? Why can the DJB not do the same?

What are the inadequacies in the current infrastructure? What has been the budgetary outlay vis-a-vis real demand for improving infrastructure? What is the proposed private investment on infrastructure? Why does augmentation of infrastructure have to depend on private investment?

Whose responsibility is supply augmentation? What are the ongoing projects, their investments and time-frame for completion? Who is making the investment?

In the process of scrutinising these reasons and answering these questions in this booklet, we get a picture of the overall water situation in Delhi and realize how privatisation cannot be a solution to Delhi’s water problems.

Demands of the Water Privatisation-Commercialization Resistance Committee

We demand that the DJB accept responsibility for water and sanitation services in the slums and ‘unauthorized’ colonies of Delhi. We believe that Delhi Government needs to take steps immediately to strengthen the public utility purpose of the Delhi Jal Board, to make it accountable and capable of delivering quality water and sanitation services to the people of Delhi. The DJB should be strengthened with more funds and functionaries and placed under greater public scrutiny and accountability. Private contracts awarded by the DJB for operations and maintenance and new construction works must be stopped immediately as most of these construction contracts are meant to serve the private contractors’ interests more than the citizens of Delhi and the poorest slums and colonies. The government must understand that water, being the basis of life, cannot be equated with any other commodity or service.

Specific demands include -

1. Withdraw the privatisation/commercialization initiatives immediately.

2. Provide water supply pipelines to unauthorized and J.J. Colonies without imposing development charges on the residents.

3. Revise the DJB water billing. Withdraw the annual 10 per cent automatic water bill hike immediately, with retrospective effect from 2010.

4. Reintroduce the lifeline zero-tariff slab for drinking water for household consumption of less than 10 kilo litres a month that was borrowed from the South African model of ensuring basic equity.

5. Remove inequity of water supply in different parts of Delhi. The NDMC and the Cantonment Board areas should get the same amount of per capita drinking water as other parts of Delhi. The Government of Delhi must make public disclosures on monthly per capita supplies in all areas of Delhi.

6. Make full public disclosures and initiate fresh surveys to identify water losses at various stages:

  • •Losses in transit at the canal stage to Delhi
  • Losses during water treatment stage
  • Losses during supply at the mainline stage of the pipeline
  • Losses during the distribution stage of pipelines

7. Restore piaos/public drinking water points and public toilets, at regular intervals all along the Ring Road, in market places and poor settlements. Use technology and staff to ensure that water points are functional and do not waste water.

8. Come out with a plan to conserve the Yamuna river banks from encroachment - as has been witnessed for the Akshardham temple, facilities for the Commonwealth Games and a host of other projects and allocations.

9. Make the DJB water bills available for public scrutiny. Information on monthly water bills of all residents and businesses should be in the public domain and placed on the DJB website. This will check the cheating in water bills that takes place with the collusion of DJB staff.

10. Make the DJB responsible for providing safe and adequate piped potable water, sewerage and waste disposal services to all residents of Delhi. The JJ slums, the ‘unauthorized’ and resettlement colonies should not be left to the mercy of the private water mafia or to tanker water supplies or to NGOs to provide and manage drinking water. The government is responsible for providing drinking water and sanitation services.

11. Improve the accountability of the DJB. Bring greater public scrutiny and control over the functioning of the DJB. The Government must initiate steps to set up ‘Area Committees’ involving people from the concerned area to oversee the functioning of the DJB. Resident Welfare Associations and similar organizations should be encouraged to take up this responsibility. Improve billing and poor services by providing adequate grievance-redressal systems.

12. Strengthen the systems of the DJB:

  • •Extend its functions from simply water distribution, to water conservation. Include the protection of river-banks, and recharging, monitoring water-quality
  • Improve systems and staff to provide transparency and information sharing
  • Increase staffing with adequate appointment of engineers and non-technical staff to provide quality service and grievance redressal.

13. Convert outstanding debts of the DJB into a grant and waive it immediately. Given that water is a social good, the government of Delhi should not see the DJB as a service provider operating on full cost-recovery efficiency criteria. The current outstanding debts are a result of the accumulation of interest burden on loans taken.

14. Make all documents pertaining to ‘reforms’ available on the DJB website or Delhi Government portal. This includes:

(i) Reports of Committees

(ii) MoUs between Government and private companies with respect to water distribution, revenue collection and other related activities;

(iii) Financial expenditure statements with respect to reforms

(iv) Up-to-date minutes of the meetings of the DJB

(v) All major decisions taken with respect to reforms

(vi) Delhi Assembly Debates pertaining to reforms

(vii) Objections of representatives of people, Government officials, and citizens and citizens’ groups

15. Hold public consultations on any restructuring plans of the DJB involving experts, civil society, academicians and people’s representatives.

To provide a better understanding of the problem, and possible solutions, this booklet has been prepared by the Water Privatisation-Commercialization Resistance Committee for the ongoing campaign in Delhi. 

To get hard copies of the booklet please contact –

Dipak Dholakia, Water Privatisation-Commercialization Resistance Committee, B-48/G-2, Dilshad Garden, Delhi-110095. Phone : 22573880, 9818848753; E-mail:


Viren Lobo, Society for Promotion of Wastelands Development, 14A, Vishnu Digamber marg, New Delhi – 110002

The soft copy of the booklet is available in English and Hindi below:

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