Amid glass facades of software companies and glitzy restaurants, quietly stands a rather oddly shaped, mustard-coloured building named Jal Bhavan, barely hinting at the magnitude of work it performs.

It houses the Karnataka Urban Water Supply and Drainage Board (KUWSDB), which designs and implements water supply projects for over 200 urban local bodies (ULBs), 44 city municipal councils, 74 town municipal councils and 68 town panchayats in Karnataka. It also functions to provide an effective sanitation system to these areas.

Bulk sourcing

“We have to cater to a population of 2.5 crore,” says N.C. Muniyappa, managing director of KUWSDB. Mysore, Hubli-Dharwad, Gulbarga, Bijapur and Mandya are some cities this board has taken under its wing.

“Our scheme is usually to draw water from a source to a centrally located ‘bulk point' from where it is distributed to the town. We also conduct investigations, surveys and reports in order to determine the amount of bulk supply needed.”

According to Muniyappa, one of the biggest challenges faced by the KUWSDB is timely availability of required resources, the most crucial being land. Another hurdle is clearance for pipelines from the Forest Department, and National Highway or Railway authorities of India, which is a time-consuming process.

Scale of disturbance

But, says Kshithij Urs of the People's Campaign for Right to Water, there is a problem with such a technological approach, where water supply is seen as an infrastructure project. “An aggregation model is followed for water supply, applying the principle of economies of scale. This is an ecological disaster, for water supply needs to be far more decentralised, involving lesser construction, like the lake and canal systems of the past.”

Muniyappa says, “We don't interlink rivers or rely on dams, so there is no major environmental hazard.”

Vinay Baindur, who researches on governance in water supply, points out that an ambitious project like the Kannada Ganga, which aims to provide continuous water supply by using surface water resources, is bound to disturb existing river basins.

“These schemes are made centrally and implemented through KUWSDB, [though] it is the ULBs that are responsible to the people of the city and have to take loans from international funding agencies [to fund these projects],” he says. “Left to themselves, they might look for a combination of water resources, from ground as well as surface, to service their towns.”

Spectre of privatisation

Besides, Vinay adds, “Funding from international agencies automatically forces the private sector into such projects.”

“Pricing is not the only issue,” argues Vicky Walters, a New Zealand-based researcher who studied water supply in Karnataka three years ago. “It is the idea of commoditisation of this natural resource, thereby creating a water market that is a problem. The government becomes an instrument through which this product is sold.”

However, S. Vishwanath of the Rain Water Club, discounts the paranoia about privatisation, saying the government is simply trying to do what people in cities want. “Of course, if they had better hydro-geologists at their disposal, they could make their schemes environmentally more sustainable,” he says.

To Kshithij, it matters little whether water resources are handled by the government or a private party. “Water is a commons. When it is managed centrally as a bulk product, people tend to not feel any sense of ownership towards it and neglect this resource,” he says. “Instead of this, the government has introduced a cultural connotation to its project by naming it Kannada Ganga.”

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