How to quench smart cities’ thirst

The Asian Age, May 18, 2015

By Pradeep S Mehta

Round the clock water supply is one of the indicators for the highly ambitious smart cities programme launched by the government. Consequently, it is absolutely essential that the government treats this as a top priority area

With the objective of providing 24×7 power supply to consumers by 2019, the Modi government has pushed for regulatory and consumer-oriented reforms through the Electricity (Amendment) Bill, 2014. Perhaps, the government may want to consider a similar initiative for a more critical basic need — water.

For all purposes, water is something which a person cannot live without. Thirty per cent villages in India do not have access to electricity, while the same number still lack access to tapped water.

Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) greatly emphasised the need for sustainable access to safe drinking water. Issues of poverty, education, health and disease are all directly or indirectly related to water according to the United Nations World Water Development Report, 2015. Unfortunately, though poor people pay money to access safe drinking water, more than 40 per cent still lack access to water supply in their premises while more than 50 per cent have to move out of their homes to fetch clean drinking water.

The National Water Policy, 2012, states “safe water for drinking and sanitation should be considered as pre-emptive needs, followed by high priority allocation for other basic domestic needs (including needs of animals)…” Around 70 per cent of India’s water withdrawal is for agriculture and livestock, with the remainder to municipalities (19 per cent) and industries (11 per cent), according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation in 2014. Thus, availability of limited water resource makes service delivery by utilities challenging to quench thirst of the world’s 17 per cent population, living in India, with just four per cent of global water resources, of which only around 20 per cent is available for drinking. Coupled with this, issues such as bad groundwater, increasing urbanisation, deteriorating pipeline structures, high operation and management cost, lack of demand side management, etc. results in a big challenge for utilities to ensure availability of 24×7 water supply.

Going forward, the demand for water is expected to rise exponentially due to growth in population, urbanisation and economic development. Round the clock water supply is one of the indicators for the highly ambitious smart cities programme launched by the government. Consequently, it is absolutely essential that the government treats this as a top priority area.

There are some similarities between Singapore of the late-1970s and the current situation in India. Polluted rivers and streams, unmanaged catchments and discharged pollutants from industries were the order of the day in Singapore 40 years ago. The transformation of Singapore from such a state to a prosperous city is a result of vision and will among the policymakers. It embarked upon painful, long-term, structural reforms to reach where it is today.

While the Government of India has introduced schemes like “Swachch Bharat Abhiyan” and Clean Ganga Mission, amongst others, much more comprehensive, concrete and robust steps are required, especially in the areas of ensuring accountability, transparency and financial stability in water supply. Else, what Singapore achieved in four decades, India might not be able to achieve in 40.

One of the ways to achieve this is to separate policy-making from operation and promote deregulation in private participation in water supply. This would increase competition, improve quality of service and enhance the accountability of service providers. However, this cannot be achieved without setting up independent regulators.

It must be realised that effective regulation of water supply services is beyond the capacity of Central and state governments. The governments must seize this opportunity to establish independent, expert and professionally managed regulatory authorities to regulate the sector by fixing accountability, transparency and ensuring appropriate management of the supply. Water is a community resource, thus, ensuring community level participation is important. Furthermore, the involvement of community-based institutions is essential through water user committees.

Considering availability and access to drinking water as basic indicators for human development, the National Water Policy has called for establishing a core mechanism within each state to amicably resolve differences in competing demands for water amongst different users of water.

Some of the states have already taken a lead in this regard. Andhra Pradesh was the first state to espouse the idea of water regulation in 1997 by establishing Andhra Pradesh Water Resources Development Corporation. Maharashtra has also established an independent water regulatory authority. Other states to follow suit by introducing similar legislations include Arunachal Pradesh (2006), Uttar Pradesh (2008), Jammu and Kashmir (2010), Kerala and Gujarat (2012).

The Rajasthan Water Resources Regulatory Authority Act, adopted in 2012, mandates establishment of the Rajasthan Water Resources Regulatory Authority within a period of three months after the bill was passed in 2013. Ironically, the regulatory body is yet to be established.

This is despite the fact that 13th Finance Commission had incentivised states to set up a regulator to deal with the pricing and management of water resources. It recommended a grant-in-aid of Rs 5,000 crore to states for the maintenance of irrigation networks. The release of grants were subject to certain conditions, such as setting up of a water regulatory authority by 2011-12 and achievement of state-specific recovery rates, as normatively projected by it for the period 2011-12 to 2014-15. Failure to establish the regulatory authorities could have presumably resulted in losing the grant.
It is time that the governments in the states and at the Centre start taking the issue seriously and put appropriate independent regulatory structures in place, to ensure access to clean drinking water before it is too late.

Pradeep S. Mehta is the secretary-general and Mamta Nayak is programme officer of CUTS International.

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