Thursday, 19 October 2017

Public or Private 'Rain-to-Drain'

Public or Private 'Rain-to-Drain'

Come hell or high water!

The ‘privatisation of water’ debate has shown that it can ignite a war of words. If only it could ignite minds, hearts and hands into RWH action!
By A R Shivakumar
Global, National, Regional etc. Water Summits are part of our dialogues, a lot of steam is generated over privatisation of water supply. By definition, privatisation of a service is the transfer of responsibility from the government (or the public sector) to private players.
Will privatisation bring to heel wastrels who let their sumps overflow every single day?
Will it stop water tankers from leaking the precious water as they rattle their way across the parched city?
Will it stop us from leaving the bathroom tap on while we brush our teeth?
Will it stop precious rainwater flowing away from our homes (facilitating rainwater harvesting - RWH)?
If the answer to each of these questions is yes, then ‘hurray’ for privatisation!
However, things are not that simple.

Critics of privatisation talk of the real fear that resources - in this case, water - will be taken away from the public and put in private contract. Private players’ interest in water will purely be their shareholders’ interest. Their main focus will not be on water supply but on return of investment and risk involved. The threat of exploitation of resources - and of the poor - looms large. Water MNCs across the world have said: “We cannot service/ provide to the poor.” 

Interestingly, this what the United Nations has to say about water.
a)    Access to water is a basic human right
b)    Water comes under social and cultural goods
c)    Water is not merely an economic commodity

But if read this carefully, you will realise that the UN does recognise that water is a commodity!
Now consider this startling truth:
·         Global water consumption for domestic use has been doubling every 20  years.
·         This growth in demand is more than twice the rate of human population growth, which doubles once in 40-50 years.
Every water supply project, anywhere in the world, must take this staggering truth into consideration. But they don't and end paying a heavy price.

BOOT or reboot?
Privatisation of water is of many types:
  • a)    Contracting/ outsourcing part of services in the water sector. For example, meter reading can be contracted to a private player. The overall responsibility of service delivery would remain with the government.
  • b)   BOOT model: BOOT stands for Build-Own-Operate-Transfer, which means that the private player envisages the project/ service, delivers it, owns it and transfers it as per the agreement signed with the government. This model concentrates on creation of infrastructure. It can work in new housing layouts and new cities.
  • c)    Total privatisation: Infrastructure is created and owned by private players. This is what I call the ‘rain-to-drain’ model, where the private player even owns the rights to rain! Let’s not forget natural resources can be leased, not given in ownership to anyone. The government needs to be a regulator. It must put guidelines in place. In the case of water supply, it can make rules regarding availability, quality and quantity of water supply. It may not be able to control pricing or regulate technology. When it functions as a regulator, it can meet some of its social obligations.
Those arguing in favour of privatisation list the following advantages:

v  Efficiency of services
v  Infusion of large investment or capital
v  Modernisation of infrastructure. Private players have quick access to path-breaking technology
v  Creation of healthy competition

But, this is what privatization has done across the world:
v  Monopoly in the water domain
v  Increase in tariff
v  Gradual reduction of investment
v  Increasing public health concerns
v  Marginalisation of various categories of services. For example, fire fighting services need water but they are a cost centre, so may not get priority.

v  Unsustainable water mining. Lakes, tanks, dams, borewells could be drained
v  Export or bulk transfer of water
v  Water trading or a situation where water is totally commodified
There could be misuse of the government’s water subsidy. Too many regulations may come in. Operational costs will go up, pushing tariff up and making water unaffordable.
However, here is a 'success story'
v  Hubli-Dharwad in Karnataka privatised part of their water supply services a couple of years ago.
v  They now have 24/7 water supply.
v  Per capita water consumption in the twin cities has actually come down
So, where does the truth lie? Think about it.
Who got there first?
v  The first instance of privatisation of water supply happened in 1984 in the United Kingdom
v  In India, privatisation of water supply first happened in 2008 in Maharashtra, for irrigation only. The Maharashtra Govt also immediately set up the Water Resource Regulatory Authority.
v  Today, the world’s water business is dominated by 2 French water companies: Suez and Vivendi.
Did you know?
v  In Bangalore, the Cauvery water that most of us drink is treated by a private player in Torekadanahalli, 95 km from Bangalore

v  The Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB) outsourced Cauvery water treatment to an MNC over a decade ago.