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2015: 334 million Indians will still lack access to safe water supply

By Darryl D'Monte

Inequities in water availability are a reflection of unequal development within the country. 13% of Delhi's citizens do not get water supply every day; 40% of households in Madhya Pradesh are not supplied even 40 litres per person per day. Even if we achieve the Millennium Development Goal of halving the population without access to drinking water and sanitation by 2015, 244 million people in rural India and 90 million in urban India will still not have access to safe, sustainable water supply

Two of the most crucial UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), set in 2000, are to halve those in the world without drinking water and sanitation by 2015. India, as the poorest country in the world in terms of number of people, would also have the correspondingly highest number of people without access to water in absolute terms, although there may well be a higher proportion in some African countries.

According to a document recently published by the Delhi office of the international NGO, WaterAid, even if this target is reached within a decade, as the UN seeks to do, “29% of the rural population, or 244 million people, and 23% of the urban population, or 90 million people, would still lack access to adequate safe, sustainable water”.

There is some ambiguity over what “sustainable” means in this context. So far, an area has been considered “covered” if a tubewell has been installed in a rural area to serve 250 persons. It is another matter altogether that there might not be a drop of water in the pump due to inadequate maintenance or over-exploitation of underground water. Or, worse still, in certain pockets of West Bengal and more recently Uttar Pradesh, discovering traces of arsenic (and, elsewhere, fluoride) in such groundwater, which renders it undrinkable.

To introduce some clarity, WaterAid suggests some indices to gauge “coverage”, in addition to those employed by the central government’s Department of Drinking Water Supply. These are mainly, the provision of at least 40 litres per day (lpd) per person in rural areas and 136 lpd in urban areas. In villages, this ought to be within 1.6 km of a home, or without having to climb more than 100 metres in hilly areas. Needless to add, a single handpump should serve no more than 250 people, and there ought to be water for 365 days in the year.

It is obvious that on this count, villages fare poorly. The department claims that by April 2004 as many as 94% of village homes -- some 720 million people -- were “fully covered”, an astounding statement that V K Duggal, the secretary at the time (now home secretary), regurgitated at the Global WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene for All) Forum in Dakar in November 2004. While it is certainly true that the government has made progress on this score, anyone with the faintest acquaintance with rural realities will realise that we are still very far away from slaking the thirst of village India.

As WaterAid observes, the official statistics relating to the provision of “government water points” do not even address the issue of reliability of such supply, either in terms of quantity or quality. “Uttar Pradesh (with a million out of the 3.5 million handpumps in India) and Bihar are considered 100% ‘fully covered’, yet large numbers of people in these states suffer from water-related diseases (including gastroenteritis, cholera and dysentery)…Whilst 94% of rural habitations may well be fully covered, this is not the same as saying that 94% of the population only use safe water points as they may also be using their unsafe private wells.” The department does concede some of these problems, encapsulating them under the euphemism “slippage”, which may, according to a Tenth Plan (2002-2007) working group, be as high as 15% of village homes.

India’s urban population, which was 280 million in 2000, is likely to rise to 400 million by 2015. Despite this, the country is likely to meet this MDG in cities. Between 1990 and 2000, for instance, the government was able to provide an extra 8 million urban-dwellers with water every year. Here again, it tends to lay greater emphasis on numbers of community taps or household connections installed, rather than the quality, reliability and sustainability of services. Chennai, it is well-known, is one of the worst-off in this respect and an enormous number of households rely on tankers: each middle class family has to spend Rs 400-Rs 500 a week on drinking water, in a crisis. By some estimates, the average availability of water in Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi, Chennai and Hyderabad is 50-70 lpd per head. Bangalore is much better off, with 120-150 lpd.

The disparity within urban areas is also obvious. WaterAid states that slums constitute at least half the urban population, and it is fair to assume that only half the urban slum population has adequate access to safe water. Its estimate is that 155 million out of the 280 million urban population, or 55%, enjoyed access in 1990, against the official estimate of 88%. According to a World Bank report on 27 metropolitan cities in all of Asia, Chennai and Delhi are at par with the worst-performing cities in terms of hours of availability per day.

Indeed, as the recent flooding in Mumbai has underlined with a vengeance, instead of estimating what it costs to provide drinking water (and drainage) in a city, the authorities ought to calculate what it costs not to provide such basic amenities, including sanitation. According to Marie-Helene Zerah, who has published a book titled Water: Unreliable Supply in Delhi (Manohar, 2000):“The unreliability of water supply costs Delhi Rs 3 billion annually, that is double the municipal expenditure on water.”

WaterAid has also studied two electoral slum wards in Delhi. In Bhalaswa, one of the fringe (‘peri-urban’) areas, standpost water is not potable in the resettlement colony. Drinking water is provided by tankers, which are irregular. In an unauthorised colony there, timings for supply are not fixed and the quality is poor. Few colonies depend exclusively on tankers. Zerah found that 13% of all city households did not receive water every day: if this happens in the national capital, which is pampered with civic services, the situation in the rest of the country can well be imagined.

A third study conducted by WaterAid India of Water and Sanitation in Madhya Pradesh found that 40% of households in that state do not get 40 lpd; the proportion of homes not covered could be as high as half, in some districts. There were 1,545 villages with 2,767 water sources that had been contaminated with fluoride. The surest sign that water quality is deteriorating in this large state is that the number of people suffering from waterborne diseases almost doubled between 1998 and 2003. This alarming increase indicates that rural areas get a raw deal in this respect. The Drinking Water Mission, set up under ex-prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, has done commendable work in Madhya Pradesh, particularly in drought-prone Jhabua district. But much more needs to be done. Madhya Pradesh also used to hold a month-long Pani Roko Abhiyan, where villagers cooperated in building their own rudimentary water-harvesting structures, but this has obviously only touched the fringes of the problem.

It is clear that disparities in water availability are a reflection of unequal development within the country. To begin with, there are differences in living standards between the states, with the so-called ‘BIMARU’ states of north India  -- Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh -- being the worst-off. Within metropolitan cities, the condition of slum-dwellers is not just bad in terms of quantity and quality; volume for volume, these marginalised sections pay far more for a bucket of water than those who have piped supply.

The high cost the country is paying by way of ill health and morbidity due to lack of safe water sources is seldom considered. One can loosely measure the progress of any country by a simple yardstick: whether the water from its taps is potable.

The central government is earmarking huge sums to provide this most basic amenity. The Department of Drinking Water Supply is seeking Rs 40,400 crore for the Tenth Plan, as against only Rs 16,700 crore in the previous plan.

If as much as 94% of the country is covered, does this call for expenditure of this magnitude? Experts are questioning the capacity of the government to cover unserved villages, and are looking to self-help schemes for solutions or, at least, to panchayats to supervise official schemes. WaterAid also observes that many municipalities have bigger budgets than do some states and so can provide water, but “there is little transparency in information-sharing or public debate in the budget allocations”. The controversy surrounding a move by the Delhi Jal Board to privatise part of its operations is indicative of this trend. The NGO Parivartan has criticised this tendency, prompting Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit, this August, to promise to make it more transparent.

NGOs are beginning to scrutinise operations within major cities and cite instances of moves towards privatisation. In 1998-99, Vivendi of France signed an MoU with the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board for privatising water supply in two divisions. After protracted opposition from employees, the proposal was dropped. Subsequently, Thames Water set up shop in Bangalore and got a contract for a leakage prevention project. With the formal launch of the Greater Bangalore Water and Sanitation Project, it hopes to be one of the companies to get an operating contract funded by the Japan Bank of International Cooperation (JBIC).

Compagnie Generale des Eaux, formerly Vivendi, has signed a similar contract for “24x7” supply of water to Hubli-Dharwad, Gulbarga and Belgaum and, soon, Bangalore. USAID has already begun a water and sanitation project that involves credit-rating, setting up co-financing initiatives with state and local governments, citizens, banks, financial institutions, etc, to finance projects. The JBIC loan, worth Rs 3,300 crore, is for increasing water supply to Bangalore through the Cauvery with about 500 million lpd; the project is now in its second phase. The World Bank itself has moved away from outright privatisation of public water utility assets, as it announced at its Washington headquarters during World Water Week this March, and is advocating public-private partnerships.

There are two concerns about these massive funding projects in urban areas, both by the central government and private investors. The first, as we have seen, may be a waste of resources on hardware, with no thought given to the sustainability of this infrastructure. As for private partnerships, it is right in principle to move away from subsidies and require all consumers to bear the cost of providing water. However, when more than half the population of the most-populated metropolis, Mumbai, lives in slums and is therefore “illegal”, how will this majority be served when there is no security of tenure? Furthermore, as the South Africa experience shows, when poor consumers are metered and cannot pay for their supply, they are cut off. This has been the cause of severe cholera epidemics in that country.

The right course would be for better-off consumers to pay more for their water supply -- by imposing tariffs on volumes consumed -- so that the poor can be cross-subsidised. There is also the anomaly that slum settlements are, for the most part, not connected to sewerage systems. Apart from the health hazards, this ends up in the homeless subsidising the housed when it comes to sewerage, since the bulk of the revenue earned by all cities in this country is from indirect taxes like excise, payable on all goods bought.

If any city is seriously trying to reform itself, it should begin by raising property taxes, which have been frozen at unrealistic levels for decades. This alone would raise the revenue required to provide water and sanitation.

There is also the danger, in the current infatuation with economic liberalisation, of placing the bulk of resources in cities and leaving rural areas to fend for themselves as best they can. This would perpetuate, if not worsen, the tremendous disparities that already exist, with three in every four citizens now eking out an existence in the countryside. Anil Agarwal, who founded the Centre for Science and Environment in Delhi, used to observe that it would be impossible for every Indian (or Chinese, for that matter) to have a flush toilet in his home: the water resources of our country do not permit this. We must start looking at all the alternatives that exist, rather than permitting the reckless urbanisation and construction of conventional homes that have become all the rage.

In Europe, environmentalists are already beginning to introduce “ecological sanitation,” which reduces dramatically the volume of water used. Instead of only looking to increase supply of this most precious resource, we should also consider curbing demand at least in urban areas that are drawing a disproportionate amount. It is worth remembering that despite a very much higher lifestyle, countries like Holland and Germany make do with about 130 lpd per capita, which shows how much more efficiently they use -- and re-use -- this “blue gold”.

(Darryl D’Monte is the former Resident Editor of The Times of India and The Indian Express in Mumbai. He writes on environment and development, and is the chairperson of the Forum of Environmental Journalists in India)

InfoChange News & Features, October 2005