In his first address to the nation after being selected to lead the UPA-I government in May 2004, PM Manmohan Singh had famously stated, “Reforms are needed, I have always said that, but economic reforms with a human face will give India’s common man real hope.” He had gone on to reassure the over one billion listening that economic and social development would be “for all, not just for a few”.
Nine years on, alas, it is not just the poor and forgotten millions in rural India who are waiting for long-promised basic amenities like clean potable water, electricity, public transportation, working sewerage systems, good roads, neighbourhood schools, gas connections and supplies. No, all this sounds like a fantastic dream for most people outside privileged gated communities. Life in the teeming cities, especially in urban slums, poor and middle-class localities, is getting tougher—bordering on the unbearable.
Sure, everyone and their grandmother complains about the rising cost of living. And there arises a palpable anger and frustration when there’s no guarantee of quality service despite escalating charges on utilities, be it electricity, water, sanitation, transport and so on. There have been several protests across urban India. People feel let down by the very reforms that were supposed to improve essential services, eliminate wastage, serve up increased competition and thereby lower costs. Instead, people are upset at the higher user charges, the indifferent service, and the realisation that the state, in retreating in favour of private players, isn’t taking precautions to protect consumer interest.
And this is not a Delhi or Mumbai phenomenon alone—the state of affairs in most cities is no less alarming. Over the past year, consumers in cities in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra among other states staged protests against hikes in power tariffs. Supported by political parties, Hyderabad’s consumers recently took to the streets against a fuel surcharge adjustment that has almost doubled the power bill for many. Consumers in West Bengal have been up in arms over insufficient delivery of LPG cylinders. There have been mini riots over the build-up of roadside garbage in Kerala’s cities. And so on.
Little wonder why political parties all over the country—including new entrants like Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party—are tapping into this negative sentiment. Everyone knows that corruption is a big issue. Exactly how big remains to be seen. Experts are asking whether the general elections, which are due anytime over the next year, will be the common man’s stage to deliver a verdict on reforms? If the results of municipal elections across the nation are any indicator, ruling parties, more often than not, do pay the price for such indifference.
For someone like Lata, a housemaid, the answer is unclouded: she will not vote for the ruling Congress government in Delhi as she is angry at its failure to provide piped water in her colony. Every month she, like others in her neighbourhood, has to individually pay the private contractor in Sangam Vihar, a colony in south Delhi, Rs 500-1,500 for supplying borewell water once a week. Lata considers herself one of the lucky ones; many Delhi colonies don’t get water supply even once a fortnight. No wonder consumers are upset at having to pay more for water (and sanitation) through the setting up of public-private partnerships (PPPs).
It’s no secret that public utilities in India are seen as a huge business opportunity. Mismanagement, apathy and corruption in the delivery of the public services is used as a justification to introduce private players. Says political analyst K. Nageshwar, a member of the Andhra Pradesh legislative council, “In reality, the privatisation of public services is resulting in availability of quality public utilities for the rich, while depriving large sections of poor and lower middle classes access to such public utilities both in terms of quantity and quality.”
Or simply ask some of the millions in the Capital whose hearts skip a beat every time the electricity bill is delivered. The increase in power tariff since the privatisation of distribution system in 2002 has raised bill amounts, not necessarily the quality of services provided. According to the law, the consumers should have benefited with being able to choose between power distribution companies (discoms). However, no such provision exists in practice. Tellingly, RWAs are asking why discoms are claiming losses when they have been able to save around Rs 4,000 crore in lost revenue by plugging 40 per cent of power thefts from the system.
“When a public utility is transferred to the private sector, the ethos of public service should be transferred by default and it should not become a purely commercial money-making venture,” says Ashutosh Dikshit of People’s Action Campaign Secretariat of URJA, an umbrella organisation of RWAs in the NCR. Instead, the state government seems to show blind faith in the discoms—there is no proper auditing of their operations or accounts. Whereas the government’s representatives on discom boards have not been as trusting. Their signatures are missing in the annual statement of accounts of 2011.
At the core of the urban mess in India is the fiscal unsustainability of urban local bodies, which, paradoxically, is often at variance with the economic growth and prosperity visible in their catchment areas, a FICCI study in October 2011 states. This is often used to justify privatisation. Sanjay Kaul, a BJP leader and founder president of URJA, cites the case of the Delhi Transport Corporation, “which has been deliberately run to the ground so as to buttress the argument for privatisation”. Kaul points to the irony in the state government’s provision of security to privatised utilities—to prevent power thefts, for instance—when it could have easily used the same security force earlier.
Experts stress that while the mechanism to secure private operators’ profitability is in place, nothing is being done to ensure that the regulatory bodies perform their task. This holds true across the board, be it water, electricity, telecom or transportation. Sure, as Professor Shreekant Gupta of the Delhi School of Economics puts it, some projects are doing better than others. The problem has to do with the regulators. “Partly, it is the lack of technical competence of the retired babus heading the regulatory bodies and partly it is the regulators’ capture by private companies,” says Gupta, an expert in urban and public policy.
There are, for instance, a myriad challenges and high costs involved in the operation and maintenance of water supply and sanitation. The common result: slippage in pipeline targets, leaving people to depend on ground water—the case in most cities, including Delhi. People end up paying more for water, but with no surety of the quality of supplies. In the long run, this is not sustainable.
Barring a few exceptions, therefore, consumers in most cities are caught between the rapacious private sector and unaccountable government agencies. Subrat Das of the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability points to a major systemic flaw. Information on spending on drinking water and sanitation in urban India is difficult to segregate, especially by the Centre. “The way administration is divided in urban areas isn’t clear unlike in rural areas,” says Das.
Take the case of Gurgaon, India’s fast growing commercial hub, which is slated to add another 55 sectors in the next 11 years. This city depends on diesel to fuel most of its power supply. Barring the Delhi Metro, there is no public transport. The only option then is private transportation. “Redirecting subsidies to the deserving is understandable. But people do mind the fact that there is just no public transport infrastructure,” says Shashi Sharma, a management consultant and representative of the People’s Action Campaign Forum in Gurgaon.
On another, more immediate, front, the decision to link the supply of subsidised LPG cylinders to Aadhaar has led to near-stampedes as millions across the country are still not enrolled in the programme. The result: most poor people are being deprived of subsidised cooking gas. For instance, Ivy Das, a librarian at Jadavpur University in West Bengal, has bought an electric induction oven, fed up with the hassle of “booking, waiting and then not knowing when the LPG cylinder will eventually arrive. And private LPG cylinders are way too costly”.
And privatisation of waste management has had unsavoury outcomes in many cities. Kerala, for example, has thrown up its hands with no land available to dispose of the over 8,300 tonnes of waste generated per day. Protests over the waste dumps of Lalur, which falls under the Thrissur Corporation, are a microcosm of what is happening throughout Kerala. “The government is not serious about managing waste,” says T.K. Vasu, president of the Lalur Malineekara Viruddha Samara Samithy.
It seems that for all the noise, many governments are simply not serious about managing reforms. Their logic isn’t immediately apparent. Wouldn’t it make more sense to ensure votes through better utility services?
By Lola Nayar with Outlook Bureau