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Water down the drain? Put Mr Citizen in charge

india Updated: Jul 29, 2009 23:24 IST
Gargi Gupta

People in Hubli-Dharwad, Karnataka, still joke about how priests would run off in the middle of a wedding ceremony to rush home and fill up drums of water.

Soon, the jokes will have to stop.

The twin cities are all set to get the ultimate in urban Indian luxury — 24x7 water supply.

Just a year ago, the residents of Hubli-Dharwad got a few hours of water once every four days. The story of how they have roped in foreign experts — and re-engineered water tariffs to cross-subsidise the system — is a lesson other Indian cities could learn from.

In 2004, the Karnataka government launched a water supply improvement project, with funding from the World Bank. Three cities in north Karnataka, including Hubli-Dharwad, were picked, and a foreign agency with extensive experience in the field roped in.

Over the years, the capacity of the twin cities’ reservoirs was increased by deepening and desilting them, and a new pipeline built to Hubli.

A French firm was engaged to replace over 70 per cent of the rusty iron pipes in Hubli-Dharwad with leak-proof PVC. Finally, a water meter was attached to each residence, and citizens charged according to usage.

Today, eight wards have 24x7 water supply, based on a model that will soon be expanded to cover the rest of the twin cities’ 7.86 lakh citizens. And, contrary to the popular conception that privatising water supply would mean the poor dying of thirst in their homes, the lowest slab in the new rate structure (Rs 48 per month) is actually lower than the flat rate of Rs 90 that the municipality was charging before.

Another surprising outcome: Rather than needing more water than before to meet the 24x7 demand, wastage fell — and overall consumption dipped as residents became more conscious of how much money was going down the drain.

“Initially, consumption in the 24X7 demo zones was about 5.9 million litres daily,” says J. Jayaram, executive engineer of the state water board. “Now it has come down to 5.5 to 5.8 million litres.”

The new pipes helped too: The twin cities had been losing a whopping 50 per cent of their water to leaky pipelines. Across the country, in fact, leakages claim 30 per cent to 50 per cent of daily water supply.

Wastage is now at 5 to 6 per cent in Hubli-Dharwad. Meanwhile, tariff collections have doubled, from about Rs 5 lakh per month before to Rs 10 lakh.

So here’s what we suggest: Empower urban local bodies to manage water distribution within cities, rather than the faraway state governments. Even the 74th (Panchayati Raj) amendment to the Constitution recommended that water be a civic subject.

Then, the Centre must make water meters compulsory in all homes in all states — just as electricity meters are now. And create incremental slabs, so those consuming more of this precious resource pay accordingly. The poor could actually end up paying less. And, as wastage dips, many cities may find they had enough water to begin with.

“Volumetric tariffs are the way forward,” says Joint Secretary (Urban Development) A.K. Mehta. “Slabs are a sensible way of managing tariffs, and have been adopted by many cities.”

The people of Hubli-Dharwad say they’re glad to pay if it means better service. “We didn’t get water earlier, so we did not pay,” says Gangubai Navalur (40), a domestic help who lives in the Janata Quarters slums in Hubli. “Now, we pay every month.”

The eventual aim, of course, would be 24X7 water supply.

Today, as many as 43 cities — including Mysore, Nagpur, Dhanbad and Hyderabad —have either taken up 24X7 water projects or are on the verge of doing so. But that’s just a fraction of the total of 5,161 cities, towns and urban agglomerations in India.

Empowered urban local bodies could use revenue from the water tariffs — and tie up with private companies — to manage distribution better, cracking down on theft and reducing wastage by replacing leaking pipes.

“All it would take, really, is a hydraulic model — a computer simulation or satellite map of the pipelines water supply network,” says Sanjay Dahasahasra, winner of the 2008 National Urban Water Award.

A hydraulic model is vital to 24X7 water supply, which requires constant monitoring of pressure in the water system to prevent leakages.

“Once the hydraulic model is ready, all you need to do is replace all the old, leaking pipelines and install meters to record bulk supply and individual consumption,” says Dahasahasra.

The cost: About Rs 8,000 per connection. Back in Hubli-Dharwad, Hubli businessman Nivin Thakker (45) has no qualms paying Rs 750 in water charges. Now that he has water all day and all night, he can wash his three cars daily and keep the lawn in front of his house fresh and green.

At the other end of the social spectrum, slumdweller Veerbhadra Kammar (55), an out-of-work mill worker, severely regulates his family’s usage to ensure his bills don’t go too high. “But it’s water in our homes… a total luxury,” he says.

“What the bleeding hearts who protest any raise in water charges don’t realise,” says Magsaysay Award winner B.G. Verghese, who has written numerous books on water issues, “is that, when the system breaks down, the rich are not affected — they get their water through tankers. It’s the poor who are forced to consume contaminated water.”

Water, Water everywhere

The Problem

On average, 30 per cent to 50 per cent of daily urban water supply is wasted. Leaking pipes and theft are the main culprits. Meanwhile, wastage is chronic because people are not paying per use. And sporadic supply is affecting the standard of life in urban India — and public health, as empty and leaking pipes are prime breeding grounds for bacteria.

HT’s Fix

n Let urban local bodies manage water distribution in cities. Many of the problems in urban water supply could be solved if local governance were in charge, rather than the faraway state governments.

n Even the 74th (Panchayati Raj) amendment to the Constitution, when it laid down the framework for the ideal municipal corporation, recommended that water be a civic subject.

n Then, the Centre must make water meters compulsory in all homes in all states — just as electricity meters are now. And create incremental slabs, so those consuming more of this precious resource pay accordingly.

n As wastage dips, and resource management improves, cities might even find they have enough water for 24X7 supply.

Govt speak: M Ramachandran

Expert Speak: Srinivas Chary

Water, water everywhere

Figure conscious