Event ReportsPublished on Jun 04, 2010
The seminar held in ORF Delhi called for a paradigm shift in understanding the various dimensions of the water crisis facing India
Water for Indian cities

A seminar on “Water for Indian cities”, held on Tuesday, April 6, 2010, at the ORF campus, called for a paradigm shift in understanding the various dimensions of the water crisis facing the country. This includes how water is being defined as a commodity, a symbol of pride and national identity, and as an aspect of a nation’s internal politics.

The discussion, a part of a wider initiative by ORF and the Rosa-Luxemburg Stiftung (RLS), Germany, was chaired by Mr. Surendra Singh, President ORF Center for Politics and Governance.

The main objective behind the seminar was to develop a perspective on the growing problems of urban water supply in India and evolve appropriate policy directions for the policy makers and planners. The seminar covered four topics, namely policy and regulatory framework, experiences of service providers, status of urban water supply, and improving urban water efficiency.

The first session included presentations by Mr. A.K. Mehta, Joint Secretary, Ministry of Urban Development and Dr. D.D. Basu, Senior Scientist at the Central Pollution Control Board. Mr. Mehta in his presentation touched upon numerous issues faced in managing urban water systems, including lack of capacity, lack of a proper system of tariff collection and problems of providing metered water supply. He admitted that increasing urban population since 2001 had placed an enormous amount of stress on cities. He outlined the need for increased operational efficiency and rationalizing tariffs. He also called for a paradigm shift in the idea of delivery of services, making it a social responsibility, a right of the citizens.

Dr. D.D Basu in his presentation gave a broad overview of the significant environmental issues that India’s river systems faced today. According to Dr. Basu, a frequent problem cited by the Central Pollution Control Board was the lack of water flow in India’s river systems. This is particularly evident from December to May when much of the water was diverted for irrigation and industrial purposes. Dr. Basu also highlighted the inadequate sewage treatment facilities in the country. This he said was a significant factor in the rise of water-borne diseases as reported by the Ministry of Health. He also raised the issue of our current water intensive agricultural practices and called for a massive rethink on our current policies. Dr. Basu also stressed the importance of sewage recycling for which enormous potential existed in India.

The second session saw presentations from representatives of service providers operating in Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi. The presenters were Mr. T.V. Shah (Former Hydraulic Engineer, Greater Mumbai Municipal Corporation), Mr. Amitava Pal (Executive Engineer-Water Supply, Kolkata Municipal Corporation), and Mr. R.K. Garg (Member-Water Supply, Delhi Jal Board). During his presentation, Mr. Shah highlighted the large infrastructure problems Mumbai was facing as the slum population had grown exponentially. While the problem of water metering and unaccounted water supplies was low in Mumbai, they still faced significant bottlenecks in distribution and governance. Mr. Shah also highlighted how until 1990, Mumbai was forced to depend upon shoddy building materials to rebuild their water infrastructure. He however indicated that Mumbai water board had a budget surplus and was using it for modernization.

In stark contrast, both Mr. Pal and Mr. Garg indicated that Kolkata and Delhi were facing significant budget deficits. Unlike Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata were only able to provide 54 % and 0.08 % of water metering respectively. Mr. Pal indicated that Kolkata faced the unique problem of an ageing water infrastructure that had yet to be altered significantly for almost 140 years. Kolkata’s water supply also faced the threat of arsenic poisoning to its groundwater supply and high levels of unaccounted water supplies. As for Delhi, Mr. Garg indicated how Delhi’s main problem was its over dependence on other States for its water supplies. He also indicated that Delhi was unable to retain much of the water it received during the monsoon season, and highlighted the necessity of water reservoirs and dams. 

The third session dealt with both the status of urban water supplies and the steps that were needed to improve urban water efficiency. The presenters during this session were Mr. Anshuman from TERI, Mr. Manu Bhatnagar from INTACH, Mr. Tom Thomas from PRAXIS India, Ms. Gita Kavarana from CSE, and Dr. Sanjeev Nayyar from the MCD.

Mr. Anshuman in his presentation highlighted a study conducted by TERI on the water sector in 7 major cities across India. The study examined both the supply side and demand side and recommended that greater emphasis be placed on management based solutions rather than technical solutions for India’s water woes. Mr. Anshuman emphasized this point with an example from Gwalior, where it was found that losses in water used in households varied from 20-40%. He stated that many of the problems of water supply in India were more from the demand side rather than supply side. The TERI study advocated a range of reforms from improving water metering, rationalizing tariff structures, regular water audits and increasing public awareness.

Mr. Bhatnagar from INTACH gave a brief summary of a study carried out by INTACH on holistic water policy for future urban water security – A transition to water sustainability. Utilizing maps and figures of Delhi’s water facilities from the 19th century and comparing it to the present day, he indicated that urban settlements in Delhi have gradually shifted closer to the Yamuna river. He indicated that because of this, groundwater in Delhi has plummeted drastically. Furthermore, the Tehri dam, a chief source of Delhi’s water, is on an active seismic zone. It was added that Delhi’s water database and metering systems were inadequate. He indicated that there was a need for a recycling water plan and a dedicated programme to augment groundwater sources and neutralize water leakages.

Mr. Tom Thomas from PRAXIS India gave his views on the social equity of water. In his presentation giving examples of cities in Europe, he noted that there was a far greater disparity in per capita availability of water and duration of water supply in Indian cities. Using Delhi as his case study, Mr. Thomas noted that even within cities a great degree of interclass inequity was seen in the distribution and availability of water to various sections of societies. He even noted that intra-household inequity also existed, as the female members were given less access to water as compared to the male members. However, Mr. Thomas noted that the ability of poor families to leverage their sheer numbers as a political bargaining tool enabled them to subsist despite grave inequities in water distribution. Mr. Thomas also strongly cautioned against the commoditization and privatization of water supply, as the risks outweighed the benefits.

Ms. Gita Kavarana from CSE gave a general overview of urban water supply in India in her presentation. Ms. Kavarana stated that urban water supply in India is in the midst of a tremendous crisis, with no city in India receiving 24 hour water supply and the pollution and misuse of traditional water sources. She stated that while improving standards of living and industrialization had dramatically increased water use, no significant efforts were made at water management. She also pointed out that the major problem that cities would face in the future would be to not only extend water supply to their existing population, but also plan for the increase in population in the future. This would be compounded by their reliance on water sources far away from cities in rural areas. Pointing to a successful case study in Bangalore, Ms. Kavarana highlighted the need for rainwater harvesting to augment groundwater sources and aquifers in urban centers.

Dr. Sanjeev Nayyar from the MCD shared his views on the political sphere of water management in Indian cities, citing his experiences as a member of the MCD in Delhi. Highlighting the essential value of water for human life, Dr. Nayyar argued against any moves towards privatizing water supply. He then discussed how the high rate of leakages in Delhi’s water distribution system as well as the rampant use of booster pumps, even in posh localities with good water supply was a significant problem. Dr. Nayyar was also critical of Delhi’s current sewerage system stating that it had significant issues which needed to be addressed urgently. He also questioned the idea of rainwater harvesting as a solution to urban water problems saying that there were several problems in its proper implementation and utilization.

Mr. Carsten Krinn from RLS then gave a brief overview of his observations of the seminar, and also briefly discussed the problems Europe currently faced in water supply and distribution. Mr. Sunjoy Joshi, Distinguished Fellow at ORF gave concluding remarks and thanked the distinguished speakers and participants for attending the seminar.

The report was prepared by Hemant Nair, Associate Fellow; and Akhilesh B. Variar, Research Intern at the ORF.

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