Water has always been a source of power—and of discrimination. Just as the study of an irrigated landscape is a route to the memory of the power of kings and earlier forms of state, the government’s recent water policies, especially those on drinking water, are a product of the interplay between many spheres and interests. Recent water policies are conspicuous for two important shifts: first, the removal of the state from its responsibility of operating and managing water services; second, the overwhelming role handed over to the private sector, with water services being handed in their entirety to bidding companies.
Karnataka became the first state to implement the pro-privatisation policy when Veolia, a French company, was provided a lucrative contract to manage water and sanitation in parts of four major cities in the north of the state. Soon, the whole of Mysore, home to a very progressive public water utility—with a major water reservoir, the Krishnaraja Sagara (KRS), just 13 km away—was transferred to JUSCO, of the Tatas.
Contracts are drawn up in a way Private partnerships are at an advantage. Yet, their service is poor.
According to the contract, the state is responsible for bringing water to the city from a distant source, treating it and filling up the overhead tanks. The state is also mandated to pay and depute the entire water board staff to work under the private company. A brand new water infrastructure was also to be laid by the state before the private operator could work to prove reduced levels of leakage. Despite all these benefits, services in all the privatised cities started collapsing. In the northern Karnataka cities, municipality-operated wards, constituting three-fourth of the area of these cities, were deprived of water just to ensure that water flowed to the privatised wards. Water bills shot up five to six times and those who couldn’t pay were mercilessly disconnected from the service. Public taps and all other alternatives were also permanently plugged to ensure complete dependence on privately managed water services.
In Mysore, JUSCO is being repeatedly penalised by the local authorities for not being able to fulfil any of the agreed targets. Water services were stopped for 50 days in a row in many areas and large sections of the population are now dependent on private water-tankers.
Notwithstanding the failure of these undemocratically decided policies and privatisation projects, and repeated demands for their reversal, the Centre is prevailing over states to proceed with more such projects by linking fund transfer to conditions that mandate dismantling of public bodies and encouraging privatisation. From Mysore to Nagpur and Hubli to Belgaum, it is clear that water privatisation is threatening our sovereign policymaking. Elected representatives have become subservient to senior bureaucrats and business contracts are deemed more sacrosanct than public opinion. For the sake of democracy and of water, we need to “punch the shark” sooner than later and stop the privatisation menace in India.
Kshithij Urs is founder-member of the Peoples’ Campaign for Right to Water; E-mail your columnist: theragisprout AT gmail.com