Delhi’s water supply: Going, going, gone?

Asit K. Biswas and Cecilia Tortajada

BUSINESS STANDARD | February 10, 2014 

In the early 1950s, the quality of urban water services in Delhi was similar to the best of other major urban centres of Asia. In fact, in 1950, shortly after the second World War, water provisioning in Delhi was better than Tokyo or Osaka. At that time, Tokyo was losing nearly 85 per cent of its water through leakages and poor maintenance. Even at the beginning of the 1960s, Delhi’s water supply was similar to that of Singapore and better than Bangkok, Manila or Phnom Penh.

Many Asian cities such as Bandar Seri Begawan, Bangkok, Colombo, Manila, Phnom Penh and Singapore have improved their water services significantly in the post-1970 period. Sadly, Delhi’s services have been on a downward spiral. Currently, all the above cities are providing their inhabitants with 24 hours of clean water that can be drunk straight from the taps. In contrast, less than two-thirds of the Delhi households are lucky to receive even one to three hours of water that is not even drinkable without additional treatment at home.

Slightly more than a decade ago, Delhi residents used simple carbon filters to purify city water before drinking. Currently, the quality has so worsened that an average Delhi household uses membranes and reverse osmosis before they can dare to drink city water.

Let us compare Singapore and Delhi, which had similar levels of water and drainage services for monsoon rains around 1960. When Singapore became independent in 1965, the then Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew realised that water was a strategic resource for national development. Singapore formulated long-term urban water management plans, and Prime Minister Lee insisted on getting a monthly report on the progress of the water situation until he retired in 1990. In a private discussion, he told us that he had three experts in his office who regularly assessed all major development decisions through the lens of water before they could be approved.

Not surprisingly, with such high-level continuous political support, within 20 years Singapore become one of the best examples of urban water and wastewater management in the world.

In contrast, since independence, India has never had a prime minister or even a single chief minister of any province who was interested in water on a regular basis, and appreciated its importance for the country’s development. They become interested in water only when there was a major flood, drought or natural disaster. As soon as the problem disappeared from the media, the interest of the senior Indian politicians in water evaporated.

A good example is Sheila Dikshit, who served as chief minister of Delhi from 1998 to 2013. She complained that the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) had “20,000 unsackable employees.” However, during nearly the 15 years she was in power, neither she nor her party had the desire, courage or vision to restructure an incompetent and inefficient DJB.

They were no doubt aware of the resistance they will face from the vested interests that have flourished under the existing mismanagement. Delhi’s water woes were the direct consequence of political paralysis and absence of any attempt to seriously reform DJB. However, preserving status quo has longed ceased to be a viable option.

Part of this lack of interest is public apathy in India towards water-related issues. For example, the public in Singapore is incensed if its streets are flooded. Currently, an average flood in Singapore lasts 26 minutes and the main disruption is primarily intensive traffic jams in the flooded areas, which cover less than five sq km.

In contrast, the drainage system in Delhi is badly designed and its operation and maintenance records are even worse. Thus, every year, when there are heavy monsoon rains, parts of the city, or even the entire city, are paralysed for hours and sometimes for days. While the Delhi residents suffer such indignities stoically, year after year, the Singaporeans let their politicians and water institutions know their views forcefully, directly and through mainstream and social media when in odd years few streets are flooded for an average of 26 minutes.

Unless the Delhi citizens are truly outraged and then channel their trust frustrations in a public way, like the Singaporeans, by the bungling performance of the politicians, bureaucrats, and a non-performing DJB, urban water management is unlikely to improve.

To start with, take the case of CEOs of DJB. Their only qualification is that they must be Indian Administrative Services officers. None of them, when they arrive at the Board, have any idea as to how to run a large water utility efficiently, or any experience in managing a complex multidimensional business. Their average stay is about three years. They are neither responsible nor accountable for the performance of the utility.

Each CEO talks big about how the situation would improve in the future, knowing fully well that they would be long gone when the time to deliver the results arrives.

Until and unless the Board is radically restructured with a CEO specifically selected for expertise to run a multi-billion dollar modern water utility, there is unlikely to be any improvement. The CEO must also be held accountable for the performance of the Board regularly.

The situation has been so bad in Delhi for decades that each household receiving water had to become a mini-DJB. Each household is forced to construct an underground tank that collects water when it arrives for two to four hours each day.

They have to invest in an overhead tank as well as a pump and piping system to connect both the tanks. The underground tank is filled when water comes for a few hours each day. It is then pumped to overhead tanks so that they have 24 hours water supply at their houses. Since the water they receive is undrinkable, they have to install membranes and reverse osmosis to improve its quality. Water that the lucky households receive may be free, but the coping costs for its 24 hour supply in individual households and making it drinkable are substantial. The Third World Centre for Water Management has estimated that had DJB been doing its tasks properly, each Delhi household would be spending 30 to 40 per cent less than what they are spending now.

Delhi politicians and bureaucrats have long forgotten that the main reason for DJB to exist is to provide the people of Delhi with good water and wastewater services. A utility does not exist for the benefit of its employees, or for the vested interests that profit from the ongoing highly unsatisfactory situation.

When the long-suffering residents of Delhi thought their water situation could not get any worse, the newly elected Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) came with a policy that would significantly worsen the situation over the medium-term. It will be a disaster over the long-term.

DJB is now mandated by AAP to provide each household that is connected with 670 litres of water per day. Since the Board now loses 45 to 55 per cent of its water from the system, this means it has to pump 1,005 litres per household. The average water consumption for a person in a European city like Hamburg is about 100 litres per capita per day. This means Delhi must plan to provide free water that would sustain a 10-member household in several European cities like Hamburg.

Equally, this free water will be provided only to existing customers who are connected. Sadly, around a third of the households which are poor do not have connections. Under the AAP plan, the really poor will see no benefits, which will go primarily to the rich and middle-class families.

Had AAP done a simple calculation as to how much water will be needed to pump 1,005 litres of free water for each household of Delhi, it would have found out that this supply is not even available. The only way an inefficient DJB can get extra water will be through inter-state water transfer. Chances of this happening any time soon is near zero.

Bad though Delhi’s water supply is, the performance of DJB to manage its wastewater is one of the worst of any cities in the world. It basically discharges nearly all its wastewater untreated into the Yamuna river. Consequently, this river has become an open sewer near Delhi. As a bench of the Indian Supreme court noted in October 2012, “It seems the Government and functionaries have failed in their public duty towards the citizens of Delhi all these years as they have not been able to provide even C- category of water in the Yamuna.” It then went on the say “Though about Rs 9 billion (since 1994) have been spend under the Yamuna Action Plan I and II, the net result is zero.”

Provision of clean water and management of wastewater to all the households of Delhi is not rocket science. We have known for decades what needs to be done. Knowledge and technology have been long available. Equally, availability of investment funds is not an issue, assuming funds are used effectively and efficiently. What is missing in Delhi, as in all major Indian urban centres, is political will and competent leadership for a reasonable period of five to seven years who would be held accountable for the performance of the utility. The problem is further worsened by overstaffed and poorly trained employees of DJB, bungling bureaucrats, pervasive corruption, and an apathetic public that has lost trust in all levels of government to provide a half-decent water service.

Conceptually, technically and economically, there is absolutely no reason why an average Delhi household cannot receive clean water on a 24-hour basis, which can be drunk straight from the tap. There is no conceivable reason as to why Delhi’s wastewater cannot be properly treated and then reused. To ensure a good sustainable model in financial and water conservation terms, each household must pay for water which should not exceed two per cent of the household income. Any subsidy must be specifically targeted only to the poor. All this can be achieved within seven to 10 years, provided the politicians and the bureaucrats can summon enough courage to take some tough decisions, including radical restructuring of the DJB and an affordable water tariff. For this to happen, the public and the media must become incensed for receiving a third-grade service at premium prices. India is becoming an important economic power but its urban water and wastewater management are approaching that of a banana republic.

Asit K. Biswas is the Distinguished Visiting Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Singapore. Cecilia Tortajada is the President of the Third World Centre for Water Management, Mexico. One of their latest books is The Singapore Water Story (Routledge, 2013) which is being translated into four languages.