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A muddied future for water supply

R.Ramabhadran Pillai
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Multiple operators should be allowed in the water supply segment, as in telecom and satellite television. It will improve supply, feel experts.
Multiple operators should be allowed in the water supply segment, as in telecom and satellite television. It will improve supply, feel experts.

A company — Kerala Drinking Water Supply Company Limited — is in the pipeline. But sputtering protests spurred by fears of privatisation followed the Government Order on the proposed company.

The new company, to be set up on Cochin International Airport Limited (CIAL) model, will have 26 per cent shareholding of the government, 23 per cent of Kerala Water Authority (KWA), while 51 per cent would be distributed among local bodies, beneficiary groups, residence associations, firms, individuals, etc, according to a GO issued on 15{+t}{+h}April this year, which was a revised version of the GO dated December 31 last year.

The government had no intentions of privatising drinking water supply system in the State, the GO said. “The government of Kerala would reiterate that the role of KWA in the supply of drinking water will not be minimized; rather enhanced to ensure that the piped water supply reaches every household in the State by 2021 and 75 per cent of households by 2018,” it said.

Experts warn of a danger in allowing an entity to usurp the people’s right to drinking water. “This is the first step toward privatisation,” said a representative of an employees’ body of KWA, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The government will be a minority stakeholder in the proposed project. Managing Director and at least one senior engineer appointed by KWA Board shall be members of the Director Board of the new company, according to the GO. “But this is not enough; there is lack of clarity on the formation as well as constitution of the new company,” he said.

The National Water Policy, 2012, refers to private participation in water supply schemes. Private entrepreneurs function for profit; a situation whereby drinking water is provided only to those who can afford high cost will be deplorable, he said. The government claims to be losing Rs. 200 crore annually by way of water distribution; but the benefits accrued on the health front would be many times higher. About 50 per cent of hospitalisation cases arise out of water-related diseases, he said. Nevertheless, there is a logical need to increase water tariff. Thousand litres of piped water was being supplied at Rs. 4. How could a sustainable model evolve from low tariff, he asked.

Multiple operators should be allowed in the water supply segment, as in telecom and satellite television. It would improve supply, said P.Ramachandran, the Director of a water management services company GR Tech Services and chairman of Kerala Chapter of Indian Plumbing Association.

“Water is a right, but it is not reaching everybody. There is 30-40 per cent loss at the distribution level. Privatisation will work if proper safeguards are adopted. Today, there are many families spending Rs.1,000-Rs.2,000 per month on water made available through tankers. What is the harm if they get potable water at much cheaper rates?” he said.

The GO says the proposed company shall draw raw water from sources like abandoned quarries, ponds, brackish water sources, etc. after obtaining approvals from competent agencies. But a reasonable question is whether there are enough sources of the kind and whether it would provide a sustainable model. In fact, the original GO spoke about desalination plants as one of the means to supply water, but it has been carefully omitted in the latter. The company will cater to the demand of the public, housing colonies, commercial establishments, industries, etc., for supply of quality drinking water through water tankers. The company will also produce and supply packaged drinking water at reasonable price, as per the latest government order. These too have given rise to a host of unanswered questions.

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