I really have no problem with the World Bank

By Sunita Narain
Published: Tuesday 15 November 2005

I write this because of the continued ineptness of its policies. It makes us lose time and direction again and again. Just look at the latest so-called water privatisation programme of the Bank and the Delhi government.

It is a 24x7 water distribution scheme. Parts of the city will be hived off to private contractors, who will ensure water supplied by public utility Delhi Jal Board (djb) is distributed to homes 24x7. The contractor will be paid for these services, will collect water bills and bring "efficiency" to the system. That is, the contractor will reduce distribution losses -- currently between 40-50 per cent of all water supplied. The plan was developed by the World Bank and its consultants for the Delhi government, which has been struggling to reform djb. The reasoning is impeccable: supply constant water so that pressure in the pipes will reduce leakage from sewage pipes and, in turn, contamination of household water supply.

All was well until an intrepid non-government group, Parivartan, got its hands on the contracts of the deal. It cried foul, finding huge monies were paid to Bank consultants and even fatter contracts were on the cards with multinational water distribution companies. If signed, Parivartan alleged, the contracts would deny water to slums, for there would be no more free water. The bottomline it said: water tariffs were set to increase 6 times as a result of these contracts.

The campaign has hit home: resident welfare organisations, political parities of all hues, have joined the resistance against the World Bank-private takeover of the city's water supply. The city government is diving for cover; it is said the plan is 'temporarily' shelved. The Bank, it is said, is committed to an idea it has tried out in other poor cities of the world. Unsuccessfully. But persistence, clearly, is the name of the game.

The fact is the plan is not worth the time being spent on it -- on proposing it or on opposing it. It is not designed to even work.

Let us understand it better. First: how much water is needed? The consultant's report makes this mess evident. In one water distribution zone, the djb estimated the consumption was 139 million litres daily (mld). Then supply was measured, and found to be 223 mld, a huge difference of over 100 million litres of water a day. Unable to explain this, the consultant simply advises the Bank/government combine to neglect the difference and go by djb figures. In other words, as expected, little is known of the water situation in this zone.

The outcome is that little is also known of the current demand (based on water received once a day or even lesser) as compared to what it will be when water is supplied 24x7. The consultant's monitoring estimates say it should be 189 litres per capita daily (lpcd). But in the project's calculations, water demand is estimated by taking into account a much lesser quantum of daily consumption -- 130 lpcd for just 13 per cent of the rich and 30 lpcd for 32 per cent of the poor. The result is that total demand for this zone is predicted to be just 66 lpcd, or 48 mld. This is jugglery. The purpose: project proponents can say there is a water surplus in the area and so their scheme is viable.

The fact is water is scarce and little has been done to change that. There is absolutely no estimation of how much additional water will be needed if the scheme does indeed supply water for 24 hours. The workplan simply is that the private company will reduce the 50 per cent distribution losses, and that this recovered water will make good the difference.

But again, there is no understanding of what these "losses" are. Surely 50 per cent of Delhi's water supply is not being siphoned off by thieves? From what little is known, it seems water losses are about leakages from underground connections -- water supply points. Which company, however efficient, will be able to retrofit all the underground connections?

Then there is the tariff question. It is estimated it costs the government Rs 8-9 to supply 1,000 litres of water; for this, it charges roughly Rs 2. Nobody knows what collection and disposal of sewage costs, but it is estimated it is normally five times higher than water distribution costs. The new scheme reproduces these two travesties. The government will be in charge of water tariffs, which it promises not to raise even if households use much more water. Also, the scheme does not include the collection of sewage. In other words, more water will be supplied, which will not be paid for. More sewage will be generated, which will not be paid for. A public water utility that is inefficient also because it does not get paid will become even more burdened, poorer.

In sum, this is nothing but selective subsidisation, for the richer people of the city, in which the distributor will collect a little from those who can pay. This is not privatisation. This is certainly not reform.

Currently, people whom water reaches use it 24x7, because they store it in tanks and can afford household devices to clean it. The real issue is to ensure supply to all, on an equitable basis. Meter the richer people, recover fuller costs from them and reform the sewage system.

This is the reform agenda this poorly conceived programme will jeopardise. As opinions sharply polarise -- between those who support water 'reform' (read privatisation and the World Bank) and those who want state control to continue -- crucial time will be lost. An opportunity for serious change will be missed.

Maybe the World Bank should be transformed into a debating society. That would be less wasteful: of their ideas and our time.

-- Sunita Narain

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