A leaky plan

Asit K. Biswas

THE INDIAN EXPRESS | January 14, 2014 

The inhabitants of Delhi are to be pitied — water availability and management in the city are in a shambles. Decades of mismanagement have turned the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) into an overstaffed and inefficient institution, which often does not have enough qualified personnel to achieve the tasks entrusted to it. The last chief minister’s constant complaint was that the DJB had 20,000 “unsackable” employees, but she did not make any attempt to restructure it. The DJB continues to have no long-term vision, no sound planning or implementation capacity. It has a revolving set of CEOs, mostly IAS officers with no knowledge of or expertise on how to run a large and complex utility. The average stint of a DJB CEO is around three years. They are never held accountable for the running of the DJB, unless it is for corruption.

Delhi’s water management has shown a steady deterioration over the decades. In 1960, Delhi and Singapore had similar water and wastewater management services. By 1985, Singapore had become one of the best cases of urban water management and Delhi’s service delivery had worsened. Just when many Delhi residents thought water services could not get any worse, the Aam Aadmi Party made an entrance. Its new diktat means that, over the next few years, water services for the city as a whole can only worsen. The AAP’s water policy was well known before it came to power. When Arvind Kejriwal broke his 15-day fast against high water and power bills last April, he announced that “up to 20,000 litres of free water for all will be available when the AAP comes to power in November”.

The AAP’s policy appears to have been influenced by the South African experience. It uses some of the terms that could be found in the South African law that was passed in 1990, including “lifeline water”. But there are many differences between Delhi and South Africa. The South African law stipulated 6,000 litres of free basic water per household, that is, 25 litres per person per day. In addition, utilities like Rand Water, which supplies water to cities like Johannesburg, are light years ahead of the DJB in terms of efficiency, management practices and the quality of service delivery. Even then, millions of poor South Africans still go without their 20 litres of free clean water.

Let us examine the implementation aspects of 20,000 litres of free water per household. It means each household will receive about 670 litres of free water per day. First, we need to consider how much water is lost in the Delhi system because of losses, leakages and unauthorised connections, mainly facilitated by the corrupt practices of DJB staff. Sadly, the DJB has no clue about how much water it loses. We estimate that its current losses are 45-55 per cent. In contrast, Tokyo loses about 3.7 per cent, Las Vegas 4 per cent, Singapore 5 per cent and Phnom Penh 6.5 per cent.

Assuming the losses are around 50 per cent, the DJB needs to pump 1,005 litres of water into its system daily so that, after losses, each household receives 670 litres. A simple calculation will show that Delhi does not have enough water supply to meet the demands of this scheme. It will entail more inter-state water transfer to Delhi. Realistically, this is not likely to happen.

Second, consider the quality of water that is supplied by the DJB. The overall perception is that it has steadily declined over the years. Some 20 years ago, average Delhi households used simple carbon filters to treat their water before drinking. This is no longer enough. Households are now mostly using membranes and reverse osmosis, at significant cost, so that water can be safely drunk.

Third, many of the poor in Delhi live in squatter settlements, on lands that are illegally occupied. There is a reluctance to provide them with services like water, because such connections may give them land rights. Without metered connections, there is no way the AAP can provide them with their share of free water.

Fourth, nearly all the water that comes to a household is returned later as wastewater. With increased water consumption, many parts of Delhi do not have enough sewer capacity to drain away the wastewater. Also, Delhi’s current wastewater treatment is a national disgrace. How will it handle the extra wastewater?

Finally, the only way Delhi can pay for free water is through taxes and revenue transfers. If the DJB were a private institution and had to account for all costs for water and wastewater provisioning, as in Singapore, it would emerge as a loss-making institution. The so-called profits of the DJB are more accounting tricks than real gains.

The experience from all over India shows that there is strong political pressure to provide free water and limit tariff increases. This translates into an income squeeze, leading to insufficient investment and under-maintenance. The AAP’s water policy could prove to be a medium- to long-term disaster for Delhi. It could be said the AAP’s heart is in the right place, though its policies are not. But that is a most dangerous combination.

Asit K. Biswas The is distinguished visiting professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore, and co-founder of the Third World Centre for Water Management, Mexico.

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