‘Water’ is understood both as natural resource and public good. Based on certain political positions, the later one is debatable. Most importantly, it is debatable also from constraints in implementability. In academic literature, the term ‘resource’ is criticised to have an implication for economic development, as water is also central to one’s livelihood. The argument is for link between Big water (public sector water supply system: dam, Water Treatment Plant, hard infrastructure like pipes) and Everyday water (users’ water management). The former one, that water is a natural resource, still remains valid. This blog discusses the case of small-scale private sector intervention in water supply, mainly in the city of Bengaluru: the Silicon Valley of India, but also in other cities like Chennai and Gurgaon that largely depend on small-scale private sector water supply.
Bengaluru’s water manufacturers, water vendors and water mafias
Bengaluru is the fifth largest metropolitan city in India (Bengaluru Metropolitan Regional Development Authority (BMRDA) covers the geographical area: 8005 sq km) and is the capital of the state of Karnataka. Being developed as one of the initial IT hubs, the city has experienced influx of population and rising demand in terms of real estate. In past, policy makers targeted for ‘Singaporisation’ of Bengaluru, while it drew criticism from the scholars for channeling formal funding from both the central and state governments in building the global image of the city, while bypassing the low incoming communities and hence contributing towards rising inequality (here). In current situation, the local government is able to supply water only to a part of the population (not always based on socio-economic status), using surface water from the Cauvery river. The city largely depends on private sector water manufacturer and water vendors. For instance, the large well-off population in the suburb of the city has to solely depend on the private sector vendors as the public sector water supply does not reach there. As an interviewee from a private sector water vendor company mentions, water is “commercialised” in Bengaluru. With little investment, one can make large profit in the long run. Hence, small scale private sector actors are largely interested in the “business”. Water manufacturers are those who dig bore-well, extract water from ground water table, treat the water for drinking purposes, and do the packaging. Water vendors deliver the package to households. Water vendors develop their mutual trust with the customers regarding the quality of water, as part of their business relationship. The business is obviously territorial in nature. While Bengaluru Bruhat Mahanagar Palike (BBMP) approves license to some of the water manufacturers and vendors, there is a huge number of informal sector operating in this area. Even the approved manufacturers are known to over exploit the sources. The term ‘water mafia’ is common in Bengaluru to denote those who run the business without permission, and backed by political support. However, as put by one of the professionals working with ground water in Bengaluru, would water security mean such water mafias serving water free of cost to low-wage poor migrants? This is a position taken against legitimizing informal sector and hence in the process making such services inaccessible for the low income communities (also indicating that so-called ‘water mafias’ are not making huge money out of it).
Chennai’s packaged water
Chennai is the capital of neighbour state Tamilnadu and the fourth largest metropolitan city in India (geographical area: 1189 sq km). Tamilnadu shares the Cauvery river for surface water with Karnataka. Chennai had a well-designed lake-canal system that has been destroyed over time (like one Bengaluru had). The city very recently faced the worst case of flood (here). Besides the impact of climate change, the demolition of the lake-canal system was pointed out as one of the main contributors. Chennai too largely depend on packaged water as the surface water supply is not enough to meet the demand.
Gurgaon’s private sector water vendors
Gurgaon is a private city in the northern part of India, in proximity to Delhi (geographical area: 732.2 sq km). The uniqueness about Gurgaon is that the city exists without any local government; it’s a private sector delivered city (here and here). Although the city is supplied with water by Haryana Urban Development Authority (HUDA), both the quality and quantity are not enough for the city to survive. Specially during summer days, the city has to largely depend on private sector water tankers. What is mentioned in such reports, is that, the private sector tankers charge unreasonable amount for water supply, and citizens pay as they need access to safe drinking water, and they can afford (here). What is not mentioned clearly anywhere, the private sector water vendors over-exploit the ground water table sources (also in case of Bengaluru), for their personal short-term profit, while threatening the long term sustainability. The difference between Bengaluru, Chennai and Gurgaon is that the first two are old traditional cities that have experienced transformation, real estate pressure, demolition of natural resources, and stand here today in this condition. For Gurgaon, it’s a new privately built cities. Such cities are also called charter cities (here). However, the original concept of charter city is inclusive in character, and the example from African context (and Africa as a continent would see variations, here) on electricity supply for low income communities make sense, as it is discussed here. In case of Gurgaon, the rationale behind developing such cities and the target population are different.
Technological code of water
One way of looking at the problem could be transforming technological code (Freenberg, 1990). Traditionally water availability and supply used to be understood in terms of lake, well and canals (e.g. Jaisalmer a desert town in India). Then through modernisation of infrastructure: construction of dam, canal, water treatment plant, and then supply to houses through pipes and taps. Such combinations also reflect the public sector supplied water and known as ‘Big water’, specially the construction of dam, WTP etc. With privatisation of water, specially in terms of small-scale privatisation, as discussed above, communities’ understanding of water supply is changed: it is about small-scale instruments to dig bore well, water treatment machinaries,and packaging water. It is about water tankers. It is about packaged water in different forms. It is about bottled water. A very recent addition is water ATM as discussed in a previous blog. [See Figure 1]
Lights of hope?!
There was a recent news saying Bengaluru will be unliveable in five years (here). One of the points raised by the report is definitely unregulated urban growth and huge disappearance of parks, lakes, trees and water bodies. The study points out real estate pressure as one point. However, what it does not say is that as Indian cities are largely experiencing climate change and extreme hot days during summer, Bengaluru is one of the cities that still have pleasant weather during summer. From the public sector water supply side, they may be running water shortage in some years to serve the projected population from surface water; from the small-sector private sector side, they may have exploited all the ground water table; there is still light of hope (or the spirit of the city) as the end users have religiously adopted pro-environment behaviour, they are recycling and reusing water, and even some private city models (e.g. Magarpatta in Pune) set the example of training housemaids on using limited water in domestic work. These are great examples of adaptation.
City as a socio-technical system
In the ‘big water’ debate, it is well known that transfer of water from source and treatment plant to the consumers involve a large percentage of wastage, and measures are taken to reduce the wastage in public sector water supply. Where are such debates in private sector water supply? There has to be synchronization between policies adopted by varying sectors, like public, private and third (NGOs) sector; and varying levels like water demand (rising demand due to climate change), water supply (by private sector vendor because surface water does not meet the need), and water usage (recycling and reusing at the users’ end and change in habit to use reduced water). As a result of such inter-linkage at various levels, cities are designated as socio-technical system. In addition, questions should also be raised about such emerging forms of innovative governance. Do such arrangements face democracy deficit due to the shrinking role of the government, or is it otherwise? In what sense are such models called innovation in governance?