By Amandeep Singh and Nikhil George
The young Aam Admi Party’s unprecedented electoral victory in the national capital had occupied prime space in the country’s opinion pages during the first half of February this year. After the government formation, the discussions and media attention should have moved onto policies and the new government’s efforts to follow them. But, the opinion space and reportage since then has largely been on the party’s internal rift and less on the policies of its government. An exception was the media interest to discuss a water tariff that made water, free for households consuming less than 20 KL a month.
Governance of water is a policy area where the AAP has a well-articulated vision – Jal Swaraj, The Aam Admi Party Whitepaper on Water. This is in all likelihood a first for a political party in India, discounting the few lines on water that appear in election manifestos. Our initial thoughts on the whitepaper is an attempt to broaden the discussion and hopefully attract more interest and attention to the subject.
Water a Need, a Right or an Economic Good?
The whitepaper in its six pages comprises i) a rapid assessment of the water scenario of the city ii) the party’s normative vision of water governance, iii) policy targets that arise from this vision and iv) policy steps that could help achieve these targets. The normative position of AAP is that every household should have a right to water and a certain quantity to sustain comfortable living should be made available for free. The whitepaper also asserts the commitment of the party to reviving the Yamuna, and envisions a more direct role for citizens in water governance referred to as ‘Jal Swaraj’.
Is the AAP’s vision for water governance in Delhi consistent with the National Water Policy (NWP) 2012? At first glance there appear to be two inconsistencies. The whitepaper explicitly and repeatedly mentions a right to water[i] to the citizens of Delhi, whereas the National Water Policy does not mention a right to water. It only goes as far as saying that ‘principle of equity and social justice must inform use and allocation of water’. The NWP states that water has economic value and pricing of water should meet (along with equity) economic principles. The AAP white paper however explicitly states that water is not an economic good and therefore economic principles should not apply to pricing of water. Conceptualising water as an economic good vs a basic human right has been a continuing dichotomy in the debates on the subject for sometime now. The two normative formulations are each supported by a large body of theoretical and policy literature and separate groups of actors and institutions both nationally and internationally. The AAP whitepaper leaves little doubt that their approach is rooted in the latter camp.
We hope that the Aam Admi Party which has often described itself as ‘pragmatic and problem solving’ has not articulated a dogmatic stand on the use of economic principles when it comes to water. While taking decisions on water, the government in Delhi has advantages that few other state governments have; a) In Delhi, the one major use of water is domestic consumption. The city currently has enough water to satisfy this demand. With no pressure from major competing uses like irrigation, the Delhi government is seldom pressed to use economic analysis in justifying decisions of allocating a scarce resource. b) As a financially strong city state, Delhi need not approach development finance institutions for financing water sector projects — who are strong advocates of policies that treat water as an economic good.
Although there may not be immediate pressure, can a government who is serious about enhancing sustainability and improving water security ignore insights from economics? How would they address questions like the following — how to motivate households to harvest rainwater when they are guaranteed piped water? Should Yamuna revival be funded through a sewerage cess or from general tax revenue? Would property owners facing baolis and ponds be willing to contribute more to their revival? What approach would yield best results in preventing over exploitation of ground water? When faced with these questions the AAP would do well to complement their human rights approach with empirical research.
Bridging Inequities in Water Access
According to the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) website, the current water production from their nine water treatment plants amounts to 833 million gallons per day (MGD). With the 2011 Census population of the National Capital Territory pegged at 16.75 million, the per capita potable water availability is 188 litres per capita per day (LPCD), well above the stipulated minimum amount by international and national agencies. Add to this water extracted by private users via bore wells. But, aggregate availability of water does not mean it is available at every home. Aside from the losses due to leakages, the remaining amount is inequitably distributed spatially. We could not find any recent reports that capture the stark inequity in access to water in Delhi. A Delhi Urban Environment and Infrastructure Project report of 1999 shows that water supply for areas within New Delhi Municipal Corporation and Cantonment Board was above 450 LPCD, while settlements in areas such as Mehrauli and Narela received 29 and 31 LPCD respectively. AAP’s white paper promises piped water connection for all households and reduced bills. But both these won’t matter if water is not available in the pipes. How does the AAP plan to address this inequity? Would it require realigning the distribution network – by laying new pipes to bring water to water scarce areas? The whitepaper does not answer these questions.
1 Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images A woman fills water containers from a tanker, New Delhi June 16, 2012
2 Swimming Pool at a New Delhi hotel, undated
Delhi’s wastewater predicament
Geographers describe the global hydrological cycle as a closed system. There are no inputs and outputs, so the total amount of water is constant. River systems and groundwater reservoirs, on the other hand are open systems – susceptible to gain and loss in material from input and output flows. Delhi draws its water needs from the Yamuna, Ganga and Indus basins as well as subsurface water from tube wells. Potable water then is a diminishable commodity – a litre of water consumed by one person leaves a litre less for the rest. Unless treated, a substantial component of the consumed water is returned to the river basins as wastewater – the single most significant contributor to the pollution load in rivers.
Often cited estimates of wastewater produced in Delhi excludes wastewater generated from sources that depend on private bore wells and tankers. Hence, the quantum of water entering the river systems is not only of inferior quality but may also exceed the amount initially withdrawn.
Add to this the treatment capacity woes. Despite Delhi Jal Board (DJB) having a capacity to treat 543.3 million gallons per day (MGD) of sewage, only 53 % of the 680 MGD of reported sewage generation is currently treated. Without adequate treatment prior to disposal, the generated wastewater ends up in surface water bodies. The challenge for the AAP government would be in balancing the need to augment water supply and sewerage connectivity without sacrificing treatment capacity.
With respect to wastewater, the whitepaper indicates more continuity than change. Expanding the sewerage system and increasing the capacity of treatment facilities. Let us take a glimpse at the present initiatives. The recently inaugurated 59 kilometre long interceptor sewers, aim to reduce the amount of raw sewage flowing into the Yamuna by tapping drains and nullahs that pass by settlements not connected to city sewers. Apart from being capital and time intensive, such measures tend to lag demand – remember, the 1,950 crore worth project was initiated in 2007. The draft ‘Sewerage Master Plan 2031’, proposes 9,807 km of lines and 75 new treatment plants at 38 locations. The whitepaper’s plan of increasing the capacities of the sewerage system as the only way to address the pollution from domestic water use needs a more pragmatic rethink. Without this, its well-intentioned efforts in providing increased access to piped water would lead to more untreated waste water in the Yamuna[ii].
Delhi’s new water tariff; Sustainable Subsidy or Careless Populism?
The AAP government has taken a decision to supply free water up to 20 KL per month per household connection. Among the policy targets listed in the whitepaper, this is an item that has attracted considerable attention of the commentariat. Can the utility afford to provide the subsidy? The AAP estimates this subsidy amount to be close to 250 crores for 2015-2016. For the three years shown in the chart 1 below, this amount is between 25 and 17 per cent of the revenue earned from sale of services. In chart 2, if the reader selects items new construction and purchase of goods and services, she will notice that for the three years shown, there has been an outlay of over 2000 crore. If the AAP led utility can bring down the costs by 10-12 per centage through preventing corrupt practices and improving efficiency it will offset the subsidy. So, in the short term AAP can find the room to provide this subsidy.
What about medium to long term? Let us assume the water distribution system in Delhi develops much like how the AAP desires it to. Almost all households would have legal piped water connection, water loss is minimized and the connected houses consume within 20KL per month that is freely available. In this scenario the share of revenue earned by supplying water (and collecting sewerage) for domestic use would become minimal. The result could be that the Delhi Jal Board which was carved out of the Municipal Body in the late 90s in an effort to help it attain functional and financial autonomy, would now increasingly become dependent on the state government. The new tariff has the potential to change the rules of the game with respect to water supply in Delhi, but would the tariff motivate households who are not connected to connect to the network?
There are a few important issues that do not feature in the whitepaper – the groundwater pollution in Delhi, managing the peak demand during summer months, mechanisms for more inclusive water governance etc. (We would discuss these in another post). But, the more interesting and important aspect of the AAP whitepaper also does not feature within its pages—it is the story of how the whitepaper was drafted. During this exercise, party members reportedly spent considerable time and held extensive consultations to understand issues on water from different perspectives. Why is this important? The rules and regulations that the government introduces only enable change, but to actually effect change on ground require tremendous energies; like pushing a large water utility to reorient its focus, reaching out to every water tanker and tube-well operator etc. Leaders who understand the importance and necessity of this change are likely to be more committed to drive this difficult process. The whitepaper clearly indicates the party’s commitment to taking this difficult path. At this point we would offer a small unsolicited advice to the AAP. They should think about undertaking the exercise of producing a whitepaper on water governance annually. This would not only help to broaden the range of issues and generate more interest but also be an assessment of the performance of their government. Meanwhile, in this space we would keep a close and eager watch.
[i] The WP does not articulate what constitutes the ‘right to water’, but the AAP may do so with relative ease going forward as they have plenty of external references (including the UN Factsheet 35) to draw from that are consistent with their vision of providing piped water supply to every household at affordable rates.
[ii] According to the 2013 Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, almost 82% of the population served by the Nangloi WTP had a per capita supply of less than 100 litres per day. Increased access to piped water would bring with it a greater sense of water security and incentives to use water-intensive appliances such as the cistern flush-toilet. With more waste water produced at each household and no arrangements for treatment, it is more waste water flowing into the river – an undesired consequence of a well intentioned policy.