TOPICS: Right to information exposes WB water deal

India’s right-to-information laws have drawn first blood — secret deals involving World Bank funds to privatise water supply and sanitation in the Indian capital. Parliament passed a right to information bill in May but several states had gone ahead with legislations of their own so that the culture of demanding to know what is going on is gradually taking root.

Credit for exposing the water supply and sanitation deal must go to ‘Parivartan’ (change), a voluntary organisation which publicised official documents of the ‘Delhi Water Supply and Sewerage Project’ that records deals between the state utility, Delhi Jal Board (DJB) and the bank. The project’s stated aim is to make available 24-hour water supply but the documents obtained by Parivartan reveal that this does not include removing existing inequities in water supply but offers plenty of scope for super-profits for a few water companies. The management of each of the 21 zones would be handed over to water companies which will collect management fees, engineering consultancy fees and a bonus. Management fees alone, at $24,400 per month to each expert, would work out to over $25 million a year. Each water company has been given a lot of say in deciding its own annual operating budget and there are provisions for upward revision which can be misused to make extravagant demands on the government.

“There is no upper limit on operational expenses,” said Arvind Kesarival, founder of Parivartan. And it will be the consumers who pick up the bill. Parivartan’s calculation is that, if the project is accepted, a typical family may find its water bills increasing five times over. There is a heavy emphasis on reducing non-revenue water. In practical terms, this translates into making water so expensive that poor people’s access to water will be badly affected.

The World Bank is considering a loan of $150 million, spread over six years for this project. The ‘Right to Water Campaign’ (RWC) has demanded that the Delhi Government immediately withdraw its loan application to the World Bank for carrying out reforms in the water sector. Parivartan and RWC organised a public hearing on this project in Delhi on October 17, to which the World bank and DJB were invited but did not send their representatives.

At the hearing, reports of mismanagement from many developing countries where water supply has been handed over to private companies, were aired. Examples from South Africa, Bolivia, Columbia and other countries where water tariffs have risen steeply and where poor people have lost their connection were made available to the public in Delhi. A cholera epidemic which broke out in August 2000 in the province of Kwazulu Natal, infecting 14,000 people and claiming over 250 lives, and linked to the decision of authorities to cut water supplies to people in informal settlements. Pointed out was the fact that public-private partnerships in water and sanitation have grown from almost zero to over 2300 in the last 12 years. — IPS