The private eye

Saturday 31 December 2005

Water privatisation in IT capital is taking citizens for a long ride

-- a debate is going on in Bangalore over distribution of water to its adjoining eight municipal councils. The popular understanding of the debate focuses on 'privatisation of water' -- operation and maintenance of a project called Greater Banglaore Water Supply and Sewerage Project, fondly called gbwasp. The government is responding to poor water supply with inadequate funds to implement the Rs 1,000-crore project. A host of consultants and international aid agencies are in the scene. Some of them have a track record of promoting private businesses in public utility services. There are protests from a new coalition against privatisation and an attempt to generate citizens' participation to give the project a human face. But a lot of issues get blurred by rhetoric. Privatisation today is a fact of life -- pretty much. But the big problem is monopolists are calling the shots. That's where Bangalore has a problem.

The project is also half-baked. Water is on board, but sanitation will be dealt with 'at a later stage'. More water will increase the already heavy sewage load. Moreover, we have calculated this project will not supply enough water, for which people are being forced to pay 'beneficiary capital contributions'. So people will be forced to fall back on groundwater, negating the whole purpose of the project. For private players, it makes sense -- supply handled by the state operation and maintenance responsibilities for an assured fee. Shortfalls will be blamed on the state. Consumers won't know who to complain to.

The urban poor will be neglected, but the benefits of state subsidy in these important public utilities -- in the name of the poor -- will probably be enjoyed by relatively richer people. Don't fall off your chair in surprise: whoever imagined that the assurance of basic public facilities for the poor was policy priority in a non-welfare state.

It is, however, interesting to note that the rhetoric of public participation in decision-making is being used to give the private sector leeway. The state is insidiously using people's dissatisfaction with government-run utilities to give the corporate sector a free run, instead of focusing the debate on how to make the state sector more accountable and functional -- in the process giving the public value for money collected as taxes. There's no point in blaming the private sector -- they are not accountable to the general public. But the government is. And it had better come to heel.

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