Community rights are vital for ecology and democracy

Updated: Mar 22 2005, 05:30am hrs
The language of the price of water has emerged in the context of water privatisation. Ecologically and culturally speaking, water is priceless. When society stops treating it as priceless and stops conserving every drop, society ends up polluting and over-exploiting this precious resource. This is how we have created a water crisis.

Now we are being told that putting a price on water is necessary to overcome the crisis and provide clean drinking water to all. Privatisation of water services, and commodification of water is being offered as a solution by the World Bank, ADB and other donors.

There are a number of flaws and fallacies with the paradigm of water privatisation.

The current push to privatise water is a recipe for destroying our scarce water resources and for excluding the poor from their water share. Parading as the anonymous market, the rich and powerful use the state to appropriate water from nature and people through the prior-appropriation doctrine. Private interest groups systematically ignore the option of community control over water. Because water falls on earth in a dispersed manner, because every living being needs water, decentralised management and democratic ownership are the only efficient, sustainable, and equitable systems for the sustenance of all. Beyond the state and the market lies the power of community participation. Beyond bureaucracies and corporate power lies the promise of water democracy.

Water is a commons because it is the ecological basis of all life and because its sustainability and equitable allocation depend on cooperation among community members. Although it has been managed as a commons throughout human history and across diverse cultures, and although most communities manage water resources as common property, or have access to water as a commonly shared public good even today, privatisation of water resources is gaining momentum.

First, water is a common resource, a public good. Privatisation in effect is enclosure of the water commons, with inevitable consequences of exclusion of those who cannot access the water market, due to lack of purchasing power. Instead of leading to equitable distribution of scarce resources, privatisation rewards the rich waster, and punishes the poor. It creates a hydrological divide, taking water from poor rural regions to rich metropolitan cities and within cities, to rich localities.

The 24x7 project for south Delhi being financed by the World Bank with a $110 million loan, and the Sonia Vihar plant, which will serve south Delhi with commodified Gangajal brought from the Tehri dam is an example of this cherry picking of profitable customers. The Delhi privatisation also exposes the myth of full cost recovery.

According to this myth, prices of water must go up because private investors must get a return on their investments. However, all investments related to the Sonia Vihar plant, being contracted to Suez, the worlds biggest water corporation, have been made by the public. The company has made no investment. It was paid Rs 200 crore by the government, when the Jal Board could have built it for Rs 100 crore. If the full cost recovery argument had to be carried to its logical conclusion, Suez owes the people of India Rs 1 trillion for the public expenditure on Tehri Dam, the Ganga canal, new pipelines from Murad Nagar and the plant at Sonia Vihar.

Increase in rates, does not reflect costs of operations and maintenance either. The rate increase announced by the Delhi government will mop up 10 times more than is needed to run water supply. This 10-fold increase is not necessary for running a public service, but for guaranteeing super profits to greedy corporations, through the pressures of the World Bank.

Creating enclaves of water markets for the privileged, with huge subsides and a huge debt burden, wil not solve the water problem for the poor. We need water democracy, not water privatisation.

Community rights are necessary for both, ecology and democracy. Bureaucratic control by distant and external agencies and market control by commercial interests and corporations create disincentives for conservation. Local communities do not conserve water or maintain water systems if external agenciesbureaucratic or commercial are the only beneficiaries of their efforts and resources.

Higher prices under free-market conditions will not lead to conservation. Given the tremendous economic inequalities, there is a great possibility that the economically powerful will waste water while the poor will pay the price.

The writer is director, Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology, Delhi