AAP's water plan a tough but doable task, say experts

Delhi's problem isn't watger shortage, and providing 20 kilolitres of free water per household per month is an exercise that can, at the least make Delhi Jal Board a more transparent organisation

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Puja Bhattacharjee | January 13, 2014


Confident that AAP’s promise is a workable model, Dharam Pal, principal secretary (revenue) and a former DJB member, says the move will have “very little impact on revenue collection”.
Confident that AAP’s promise is a workable model, Dharam Pal, principal secretary (revenue) and a former DJB member, says the move will have “very little impact on revenue collection”.

The Aam Aadmi Party government’s move to provide 666 litres of water per day to each household with functional water meters has been predictably welcomed by people, even as critics say it will not help 25 percent of Delhi households that lack water pipelines.

The ruling party as well as a section of experts, however, are convinced that ‘water supply to all’, which includes laying out pipelines in one-fourth of the city-state, is a workable idea, even as it may not prove to be a cakewalk for the government. The available water supply could be distributed to all with better management of the existing resources, say experts.   

But let’s first understand what critics say. The detractors have accused the government of giving freebies to people who can afford it, and say it will create a financial burden for the government on top of the existing anomaly. They also point out the absence of a dependable delivery mechanism.

“According to the CAG audit report, about 25 percent of Delhi is not pipelined. So the benefit will not reach the poorest,” says Samit Patra of the BJP. “If you exceed even one litre [beyond 666] you have to pay for the whole amount [667 litres, in this instance]. Every year there will be a 10-percent increase in the rate. The audit report says Delhi has a daily water deficit of 200 million gallons. Unless they increase the supply of water how will they quench this thirst?”

Patra mocks the AAP government for being silent on how it plans to increase the source of water. “They have spoken about taking on the water mafia but have not said how they plan to do so. The mafia controls supply to the neediest. This section of people has to be thought of first.”

Then there is a risk of wastage. Manoj Misra, convenor of the NGO ‘Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan’, says, “When a resource is given away free, it loses its value and tends to be misused and wasted.” He believes AAP’s is neither a sustainable nor a workable model since “it is based on an incorrect understanding of the water supply norms as set by the Central Public Health and Environmental Engineering Organisation (CPHEEO), a ministry of urban development expert centre”.

But Dharam Pal, principal secretary (revenue), is confident that it is a workable model. “In my opinion this will have very little impact on revenue collection,” he says.

Pal, who served as member (administration and finance) of the Delhi Jal Board (DJB), says about 40 percent of water in Delhi is lost as “non-revenue water”, and better management can bring it down to around 10 percent. “Alternative methods such as recycling of water and rainwater harvesting have to be thought of,” he adds.

Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network of Dams, Rivers and People is also hopeful about AAP’s promises. He says Delhi’s problem is not that of shortage. “In response to an RTI filed by us, the DJB said that all families in Delhi, including those in slums, colonies as well as rural and urban villages, are supplied 35 gallons of water per capita per day. The government is offering the same quantity,” he says.

But, he adds, “DJB as an organisation is inefficient in its operations, besides being non-transparent, non-participatory and unaccountable. I am hopeful that AAP will make DJB more transparent and participatory.”

Challenges

Misra points out that almost 25 percent Delhiites do not have water connection, and the government has not yet explained how these people will avail the facility. Most unauthorised colonies and JJ clusters are in areas where providing water through pipes is difficult. The challenge is to take the water to houses located in very narrow lanes and bylanes.

VK Mittal, a retired bureaucrat who leads research at AAP, agrees: “There is a 6-8 feet pathway between two houses. Digging will be required to lay down the (pipeline) network. It will disturb the entry and exit of the houses and completely block the way. People have to cooperate if they want to avail pipe water.”

Mittal defends his party’s move saying providing 20 kilolitres of water free to every household per month will encourage people to install meters and restrict usage below the limit.

He cites the example of Haifa, a historical town in Israel, where laying underground pipelines was not feasible, so the pipelines are placed above ground. “Something similar can be thought of (for Delhi),” Mittal says. “But it is a very expensive philosophy. The population is very limited in that area (and) Delhi has an ever-increasing population. The pipelines have to be taken to houses through the streets beside the sewer lines. It will require major restructuring.”

Mittal says people living in these areas will have to submit the layout plan of their colony and pay development charges. Since the previous Congress government failed to regularise all unauthorised colonies within a span of five years, the AAP government will charge development fees as per 2008 rates. “We cannot pull down the homes, but if they want services they will have to pay for it,” Mittal says.

Pal says that infrastructure can be created with the existing resources. “The cost of production for the first 20 kilolitres is very less; the tariff goes up after that. The tariff has been designed to encourage people to save water,” he contends.

Thakkar says that many needy people are connected neither by DJB’s water distribution system nor by meters. Water will only reach areas where the physical infrastructure is in place, so many would not be able to access the facility, he says.

“The government cannot create the infrastructure overnight. There will definitely be some logistical hurdles,” Thakkar says. “It is necessary to create water pipelines along with sewer lines. There are logistical bottlenecks which will take time to be overcome. They (Kejriwal government) should be given time to work on it and then decide whether it is sustainable or not.”

According to AAP leader Prashant Bhushan, the actual cost of water distribution is Rs 4-5 per kilolitre, which annually comes to around Rs 200 crore. “The expenses can be easily met if the government can cross-subsidise from high-end consumers,” he says. The government, Bhushan feels, is being judged harshly. He is confident that with technological progress the logistics can be worked out.

Mittal says that some plans have already been prepared and they are working to decentralise the distribution of water and treatment of sewage. “If we started working on this now it will take approximately three years to finish the work. Delhi is an ever-expanding city and the water pumped is never adequate. The model has to be tested,” he says.

But can Delhi provide a model which can be replicated elsewhere in India?

“It cannot, and should not, be treated as a replicable model in the interest of resource conservation,” says Misra. Thakkar believes it is too early to say whether the model can be replicated elsewhere. “The basic objective of any government should be that everyone should have access to the minimum basic needs,” he says.

(This story appeared in the January 16-31 issue of the print magazine)

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