We are in Mahal, a congested, residential area in old Nagpur. It is a typical mix of old and new money. Shobha Mohite, 50, lives in a two-room house with an asbestos roof in a narrow lane. There is a tap fixed low on the outer wall of her house. All around it are buckets of various sizes filled with water. Shobha is visibly agitated when I ask her about the water supply.
“We get hardly 15 minutes of water at 8.00 p.m. every day, and the water pressure is very weak. This is a daily affair. The company guys come to collect payments regularly, but they never respond to our complaints,” she says, gesturing to the buckets.
Shobha’s house is just a few hundred metres from the residence of Union Minister and senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Nitin Gadkari, one of the old-time residents of the area. Even closer to the ministerial residence lives Noor Jahan Begum Azad, whose house is clearly more upmarket. It is three stories high, all concrete, and Noor Jahan has two company taps—one outside and one in the bathroom. The pipeline outside has a water meter fixed to it.
Noor Jahan is livid. “My family has seven members and I get water for three hours a day. They charge us ₹1,900 for three months. This is exorbitant; it is not worth the services we are getting. Every 15 days, the water supply is interrupted for a couple of days,” she says.
It was in 2012 that water supply in Nagpur was privatised under a PPP (public-private partnership) model. The ‘company’ the people refer to is Orange City Water Pvt. Ltd. or OCW. In the five years since Nagpur Municipal Corporation (NMC) tied up with it to supply 24X7 water to the city, the company has become a source of annoyance in most households.
Set up as a joint venture between Veolia Water India and Vishwaraj Environment, OCW was created to execute NMC’s ambitious Uninterrupted Water Supply Scheme or 24×7 water supply scheme, and was part of JNNURM, the central government’s Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission.
Hardly a model
At that time, OCW was also tasked with upgrading the city’s water distribution network. It had to rehabilitate existing networks as well as lay new ones and ensure that citizens got clean, on-tap water in their homes in a regular and monitored manner. Nagpur’s water comes from two rivers, Pench and Kanhan. The Gorewada tank is a major catchment area. The PPP project was meant to ensure that water would be equitably distributed across the city.
The Nagpur scheme is often projected as a model urban water supply solution. But five years on, there are doubts about the way it is working on ground. There is growing resentment among local residents, opposition parties and even among ruling BJP members.
Noor Jahan’s neighbour Shahin Begum’s house is a modest affair, but 15 people live there. “Water comes only for half an hour each day, and most of the time there’s not enough pressure. But the bills are definitely more than the water we use.”
Inflated billing is something all residents complain of. Vijay Suryawanshi, a resident of Shivaji Nagar, a slum adjoining Mahal, said he received a bill for ₹36,000. “We have no idea why the bill is so massive—our water supply is irregular. How are we supposed to pay it,” asked Vijay’s father Shamlal Suryawanshi. Vijay is a daily wage labourer in the cotton market. Their family has six members. As we walked around Mahal, households complained of the same things—infrequent supply, contaminated water, exorbitant bills and apathy on the part of “the company”.
Interestingly, even the Demo Zone, Dharampeth, which boasts 24/7 water, gets full-pressure water only between 10.00 am and 2.00 pm.
There’s so much resentment against the PPP scheme that Nagpur’s recent municipal corporation elections found many political parties making manifesto promises to cancel the OCW contract if elected to power.
This cut across party lines. Local BJP MLA Vikas Kumbhare recently threatened an agitation against OCW for the city’s “worst water shortage and contamination” in 10 years. “Many parts of the city are receiving contaminated water. OCW is not working at the speed with which it should. I am constantly after them,” Kumbhare told us.
An hour’s supply
Congress party corporator Prafulla Gudadhe Patil, one of three councillors who had voted against the project, said, “No one opposes 24X 7 water supply, but you should not leave water in the hands of private players. The equal distribution principle is not being followed. Some areas get more supply and some hardly an hour’s supply.”
We asked OCW about these complaints. K.M.P. Singh, director of PR & HR, conceded there was resentment in Nagpur against his company. “This is because of misconceptions, which need to be cleared,” he said. “All sovereign rights in this contract are with NMC and the quality of water has definitely improved.”
Another OCW spokesperson, Sachin Dravekar, said that roughly 600 kilometres of pipelines had been replaced in the city and water connections given to 3.25 lakh homes.
“We have successfully converted no-water areas into water areas, infrequent water areas into regular water areas, and contaminated water areas into clean water areas in five years,” said Dravekar.
He also said that Nagpur’s water is 96% clean now. And what about complaints of low-pressure supply? He attributed those to the “small water pumps” used by some consumers, but added that OCW was “trying to resolve the issue”. Dravekar’s response to all complaints was merely to reiterate that the company had a toll-free number and consumers should register complaints there.
Against OCW’s claims, Sanjay Gaikwad, NMC’s executive engineer in charge of water works, said that as of today, only around 45,000 consumers get 24X7 water supply. Nagpur’s population is 28 lakh, so this works out to less than 2% of people covered. That seems rather meagre for a project that’s five years old.
However irregular the water supply, one achievement is perhaps the fact that taps and pipelines have been laid in 68% of the city, with homes even in slums getting pipelines. This means the long queues at public taps, once a common sight in Nagpur, have become rare.
As for inflated bills, they could be due to extra-sensitive water meters, which detect water use even when it’s just a drip. Critics say consumers on an average are being billed for 20% more water than what they actually use. When asked, Dravekar said his company had nothing to do with billing and it was NMC’s concern. NMC corporator and BJP leader Sandip Joshi disagreed, saying that it’s the company that processes and collects payments.
According to the original contract, OCW can increase tariffs by 5% every year, regardless of how the scheme works, said Gaikwad.
“The tariff increase is not excessive, but the arrears must be making the bills look exorbitant. Before 2012, people got rounded-off bills, so they didn’t know their actual usage. Now, bills are coming as per usage, so it will take some time to get used to it.”
Dravekar said that OCW “distributes 715 MLD and covers all areas of Nagpur,” but Patil pointed out that large areas of Nagpur continue to get water from tankers. Gaikwad and Rajesh Ghodpage, who heads NMC’s water works committee, admitted that around 350 tankers still supply water to many areas.
One argument for the project’s slow progress is a funds crunch. According to Gaikwad, from March 2014 to April of this year, the project hasn’t received money from the Central or State governments, thus holding up work. “We have yet to receive ₹67 crore,” he said.
Ghodpage says it will take a year or so for all the problems to be fixed. “We will try to complete it in the next year,” he said. Dravekar pointed out that “no system is 100% fool proof”. Which is fine, but it would be ironical if a scheme meant to ensure equitable, affordable and clean water distribution achieved just the opposite.