Relook free-water policy: Delhi must charge for water, get wastewater treatment right

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October 24, 2020 5:50 AM

It generated an estimated 2,730 million litres of wastewater per day in 2019, while it could treat only 66% of this, as per an ORF paper published in June this year; its full treatment capacity is just 80% of the wastewater generated.

Yet, the government continues to provide 5.3 lakh households 20,000 litres of water per month free of charge; consumption above this will invite charges per usual for the full consumption.Yet, the government continues to provide 5.3 lakh households 20,000 litres of water per month free of charge; consumption above this will invite charges per usual for the full consumption.

Delhi is set to face acute water shortage this festive season, since the supply from the Yamuna is low and the Ganga canal is undergoing repairs. Delhi’s present water-stress should wake the government of the National Capital Territory (NCT) up to the wastefulness of its free water policy as well the national capital’s crying need for water conservation. It is not as if the NCT government has been caught unawares; a 2018 study by NITI Aayog had put Delhi among 21 cities that faced severe water-stress risks. Yet, the government continues to provide 5.3 lakh households 20,000 litres of water per month free of charge; consumption above this will invite charges per usual for the full consumption. Some argue that this is a good way to ensure a cap on consumption while treating water as a basic public good and a governance right. But, free water capped at 20 kilolitres, with tariff-policy discouraging consumption above this, hasn’t really helped limit consumption—indeed, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) had noted in an order last year that housing societies were side-stepping the cap by supplementing consumption with water extracted from illegal borewells; by July this year, the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) had identified over 19,000 illegal borewells and sealed over 7,000.

A 2014 report by the Delhi Parks and Gardens Society had highlighted that at least 200 water bodies in the national capital had been lost to encroachment, thanks to the inaction of, and even possible connivance by, the personnel of multiple agencies. Depletion of natural sources apart, Delhi has fared poorly on wastewater management. It generated an estimated 2,730 million litres of wastewater per day in 2019, while it could treat only 66% of this, as per an ORF paper published in June this year; its full treatment capacity is just 80% of the wastewater generated. Add to this factors such as nearly 40% distribution losses (as reported by DJB), poor rainwater harvesting—less than 10% of 15,706 private buildings and housing societies that had been registered for mandatory harvesting have the requisite infrastructure in place—and Delhi’s water mismanagement becomes stark.

While the Union Jal Shakti ministry has set guidelines for water usage by industry, mandating water audits and requiring NOCs for groundwater extraction, it also needs to come up with guidelines for groups such as households and farmers. The Delhi government needs to seriously reconsider its free water policy. Indeed, correct pricing would induce judicious use, which would free up water that can be supplied to economically vulnerable households, with the water bill eased through direct transfer of benefits. The national capital also needs to make a more concerted effort on recycling/wastewater management—as this newspaper has pointed out before, Israel recycles nearly 90% of its wastewater through water-smart practices ad technology. While the Delhi government had talked of a Singapore-style adoption of wastewater reclamation technology, there is little evidence of this on the ground.

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