Ask no questions, just pay the water bill

Published: Tuesday 30 September 2008

Consumers have no say in the bad plans made in their name

mangalore is witnessing fights over water pricing. But beyond politicizing the issue, the protestors themselves are clueless about how the water in their city was priced. The Mangalore Municipal Corporation (mcc) says poor cost recovery is preventing it from delivering the best of services. But facts speak otherwise. An analysis of mcc's monthly expenditure on water supply shows about half the amount is for repayment of a massive loan taken from Asian Development Bank for revamping and upgrading the water supply and sewerage network. Believe it or not, mcc recovers a whopping Rs 8.7 per kilolitre from consumers. While cost recovery is important to inculcate water conservation habits, it is equally important to have transparency in tariff setting. As things stand, the urban consumer is in no way involved in the planning process, but remembered at the time of tariff recovery. While massive hardware plans are drawn up consumers are told nothing about what the big plan is--only that more water will come from our taps. That is hardly ever the case. And without fail we end up paying more each time. Our water engineers, in cities big or small, always think big and at a huge cost. Cutting the costs is never a priority. They seem to be obsessed with long pipelines to bring water from far off places. We then go around looking for donors and loans to fund these inefficient plans. Donors never ask for an optimal plan since a big plan is what makes business sense to them.

Can we not be more efficient and innovative and cut the cost of water supply? Shouldn't the government be protecting the interest of the community? What happens today is that the debt burden is compounded every time the municipality misses its deadline. Even this is passed down to consumers. We must understand that if we do change the way we look at water the inefficiencies and debt burden are bound to increase to unaffordable levels. The World Bank estimates that Indian cities will be spending Rs 695 billion on water supply and sanitation/sewerage projects during 2007-2012. How long can we afford to pay for inefficiencies? Our fights should be to make politicians and planners (water utility or the municipality) more transparent with the projects and the loans they mobilize in our name. We need to make them invest in cutting the costs of water supply, so that water is served in an equitable and affordable manner. Cities will need to innovate and learn to minimize its water use, and work on conservation and reuse so that water becomes affordable to all. This will help us grow efficiently and with less pollution. Let us not miss this logic.

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