Resistance to privatisation of water


The book is about Bangalore, but its importance goes far beyond even the Indian context

RESISTING REFORM? — Water Profits and Democracy: Kshithij Urs, Richard Whittell, Sage Publications India Pvt. Ltd., B 1/I-1, Mohan Cooperative Industrial Area, Mathura Road, New Delhi-110044. Rs. 395.

Having reviewed Maude Barlow’s Blue Covenant in these pages fairly recently, I was initially disinclined to review one more book on a similar theme but, on casually glancing through the book, was instantly captivated. It is not fashionable for reviewers to be enthusiastic, but let me stick my neck out and say that this is one of the best books on the subject of privatisation of water that I have read in a long time.


The main title ‘Resisting Reform?’ might mislead one into thinking that the authors are in favour of what passes for ‘reform’ and critical of resistance to it. In fact, they distance themselves from the prevalent notion of ‘reform’ and put the word into quotation marks to indicate this, and want it to be resisted. One wishes that they had adopted a different title. The argument of the book runs broadly as follows: (i) Water, as essential to life, is a fundamental right. (ii) The state has a responsibility to ensure that this right is not denied to anyone; (iii) water as life-support and as a fundamental right is simply irreconcilable with the neo-liberal economic conception of water as a marketable commodity and the related principle of ‘full cost recovery’, much less with the driving force of the private corporates which is profit; (iv) that irreconcilability applies even in the case of public sector water utilities or ‘parastatals’ if their prime concern is financial profitability; (v) this conflict is not avoided by prescribing social obligations (such as subsidisation of supplies to the poor) to the public or private corporate providers because the imperative of profit will inevitably make them subordinate such subsidised supplies to those from which they derive a profit, namely supplies to the better off sections; (vi) if the public provision of water is inefficient, it should be reformed; ‘reform’ does not mean the transfer of a public responsibility to private providers; and (vii) it is a denial of democracy for the relationship between the people and their elected government to be mediated by corporate bodies, domestic or foreign.

The authors examine the various arguments advanced in justification of privatisation; for example, that (i) public utilities and even ‘parastatals’ are inefficient; the private sector is more efficient and will provide a better service; (ii) under the present dispensation, the poor are in fact paying more for water than the rich; (iii) the poor are willing to pay for a better service; (iv) major investments are needed to upgrade, modernise and extend the services; the necessary resources are not available in the public sector; therefore private sector investments have to be brought in. All these propositions are analysed and shown to be seriously misleading.

In the process, fairly sharp criticisms are directed not merely at corporate giants and dubious NGOs but also at some good, well-meaning and respected NGOs and research institutions. The authors may seem unfair here but their point is that the very association with certain doctrines or organisations tends to compromise these ‘good’ institutions.


The last section of the book gives an account of resistances to the privatisation moves. That bare-bones summary of the book (not seriously inaccurate, one hopes) does not do justice to the thoroughness, rigour and sophistication of the authors’ arguments. The available space does not allow illustrative quotations. Let me merely say that the case for privatisation is comprehensively demolished, leaving not a shred standing. The book is about Bangalore, but its importance and relevance go far beyond the Bangalore (or even the Indian) context. Let me conclude by telling the authors (quoting a remark from a very different context): “You hit the nail on the head bloody hard, bloody right, and bloody often.”

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