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The political economy of water

Rehmat Bi, a Mumbai slum-dweller, pays Rs 125 every month to people living in the lane behind hers, so she can collect water from their tap. Sagira, a pavement-dweller, is worse-off: she buys water at Rs 5 a handi. Others in Mumbai report how much they’ve paid to local water mafias and elected representatives for ‘unofficial’ taps. Those who cannot afford to buy water or pay the bribes must wait till nightfall and then surreptitiously steal the next day’s supply from nearby housing colonies. In Harijan Basti in Delhi, Simla Devi pays Rs 20 every day to drivers of Delhi Jal Board tankers to allow her to siphon off eight drums of water. Those tankers are supplying water to middle class households which, even though they pay for it, do not get sufficient municipal water.

In Chennai, an overwhelming majority of citizens – including the middle class -- are buying water from the city’s fleet of 1,300 tankers. These tankers in turn make forays into the farmlands surrounding the city, buying the water from farmers’ wells. This is water taken away not just from agriculture but from the drinking water supplies of rural communities. But with agriculture in crisis, farmers find it more profitable to sell their water than farm their lands. Meanwhile, in Chhattisgarh, 2,500 families of six villages are up in arms against an industry that threatens to construct a ‘private’ dam on the river Kurkut.

These are some of the stories that are told in this issue of InfoChange Agenda. The stories illustrate inequities in access to water supply. They ask how one of the wettest countries in the world has been reduced to a water-insecure one.

But more importantly, they ask who suffers and who gains as a result of these inequities. In Mettur, Tamil Nadu, where communities lack drinking water but industries draw plentiful supplies from the Mettur reservoir, G Madheshwaran of the West Gonur Farmers Welfare Association asks, “How is it that there is always plenty of water for industries but never enough for people’s basic needs?” Yamunabai Uikey of Bazargaon village in Vidarbha, Maharashtra, where villages sometimes get water once in 15 days, observes the colossal amounts of water being supplied to the neighbouring water park and ‘snowdome’, and asks, “What is there in all this for us?”

What, indeed, are the political and economic pressures, pulls and vested interests that exploit and perpetuate water inequities? 

There is increasing evidence that global commercial interests, international aid agencies and national governments are conspiring to transform water from a public resource into profitable enterprise. Several international corporations are waiting in the wings to expand a $ 287 billion global water market into India. There is a huge market being exploited by the packaged water industry, and it’s growing at 40% per annum. The government is increasingly dependent on aid for water infrastructure projects from institutions like the World Bank. As liberalisation and free markets are the guiding principles of these agencies, they are pushing full cost recovery and reduced public control. This is shifting the flashpoint for water conflicts from agrarian basins and rural areas to the cities, where the battle is on for the control and management of municipal water supplies.

The battle is also bringing to the public consciousness the polarised debate over water as an economic good, a commodity that can be priced, and water as a social good, a basic need and a fundamental right. This has meant that where earlier only activists or engineers questioned water and infrastructure development policies, the middle class householder now questions the status quo, along with the slum-dweller and the environmentalist. 

If there is a positive side to the water inequity it is this, that the middle class too are beginning to be aware -- as prices keep rising, as the water table sinks ever lower, as the need for tanker-supplied water goes from occasional emergencies to regular to every day -- that water problems connect them to the poor who they see standing in line for hours or who have to buy water at prices far higher than they do.

This issue of InfoChange Agenda attempts to question the paradigm that India’s water policies and institutions are built on and to examine how our fundamental right to water is exercised, how the government ensures that it is upheld, and how the political economy operates to walk roughshod over that right.

InfoChange News & Features, October 2005