The Delhi High Court (HC), in its oral observations on the Delhi government’s ‘free water to households’ scheme, captures a principle that should guide politics in India. Delhi gives each household 20,000 litres of water free every month, beyond which, usage is charged. The HC said that while free water for people living in slums could still be understood, there was no reason why those who can afford to pay should still be given free water. “Charge one paisa or 10 paisa, but don’t give free, except where people need it, ” it told the Delhi Jal Board (DJB). While DJB argued that the 20,000 cap incentivised people against wasting water, the fact is that such populist politics breeds a culture of entitlement, where even the wealthy think of freebies as a matter of right. Also, summary freebies/subsidies have fostered massive corruption, while the economically vulnerable don’t benefit to the extent they should.
The #giveitup campaign saw over 1.5 crore households give up subsidised LPG after being nudged by the Centre. That helped the government give subsidised connections to poor households that had no connections thus far. With better targeting, apart from financial respite for the government, came health and environmental gains for families that were still burning firewood, dung cakes, and very low calorific value coal. Surely the Delhi government could take a cue from this? With water getting scarce—90% of the capital is already classified as being in a semi-critical or critical state when it comes to groundwater availability—rational usage can only be achieved if the water is priced right, even if usage and user-class become the lodestone for this. The Delhi government, and indeed all governments and political parties, need to pay heed to the Delhi HC’s words.