The dangers of letting MNCs sell 'our' water

 The project claims to provide 24/7 water supply in 16 cities across the state. Though the name of this project may sound progressive, the documents reveal a secret plan by the state and private companies to privatise water in the whole of the state.

 Does any government have the right to privatise water? Supporters of privatisation of water say that it has a great track record of success, increasing the efficiency, quality, reliability and affordability of services to the population. But those who oppose have stronger reasons. Water should be free for sustenance needs.

Since nature gives water free of cost, buying and selling it for profit violates our inherent right to nature’s gift and denies the poor of their human rights. When private companies try to make large profits through high water prices, it denies the poor the inalienable right to the most necessary substance for life.

 Since water is common and public, it cannot be owned as private property and sold as a commodity. No one can justify claiming water as their own through contractual agreements while letting human beings go thirsty. Water is the basis of all life and water rights are natural rights. Water can be used, but not owned. Issues of fairness or equity are being systematically sidelined in the water privatisation plan.

 Water is so fundamental to life that we cannot let private companies, Indian or foreign take over water or let them make profit out of it. In fact, privatisation of water is a threat to national sovereignty. The corporates have their designs in privatising water. According to some studies, water companies are making more profits than oil, gas and mining companies. That would mean that selling water is even more profitable than selling petrol.

 Companies know that they can control the world if they can control waters. ‘Kannada Ganga’ therefore is the deadliest assault on people’s right over water in Karnataka. What is tragic to note in all these decisions to privatise water is that the elected representatives and the people are completely kept in the dark.

Privatisation woes

In 1998, the water in Sydney was contaminated with high levels of giardia and cryptosporidium shortly after its water was taken over by Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux, a private company. At least seven people died as a result of E. coli bacteria in Walkerton, Ontario, after water testing had been privatised by A&L Labs in Canada. The company treated the test results as ‘confidential intellectual property’ and did not make them public.

 Consumers saw the price of water increase threefold after the water service was privatised in Casablanca. When a Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux subsidiary purchased the state-run water company Obras Sanitarias de la Nacion in Argentina, water rates doubled but water quality deteriorated. The company was forced to leave the country when residents refused to pay their bills.

 Food & Water Watch cites dozens of examples from across the country where water privatisation has gone woefully bad. High rates and bad service plague communities who transfer control of their water service to the hands of corporations. Common complaints include skyrocketing rates, sewage flooded basements, broken pipes, bad water quality, and cost overruns. The water barons prioritise stockholder returns over public wellbeing and leave municipalities to clean up the mess. Many of these examples of the failures of water privatisation are occurring in developed countries. The most severe effects surely will be on the developing world.

 The World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) are pushing for the privatisation of water services by European and US-based companies through stipulations in trade agreements and loan conditions to developing countries. Countries faced with large debts are forced by the World Bank and IMF to privatise water.

 In 2000, out of 40 IMF loans distributed through the International Finance Corporation, 12 had requirements of partial or full privatisation of water supplies. They also insisted on the creation of policies to stimulate ‘full cost recovery’ and the elimination of subsidies. African governments, such as Ghana, increasingly gave in to pressures for water privatisation. In Ghana, the World Bank and IMF policies forced the sale of water at market rate, requiring the poor to spend up to 50 per cent of their earnings on water purchases. There is an effort to replace collective ownership of water sources with corporate control. Given the ill-effects of privatisation of water, should we in Karnataka allow water to be privatised? The citizens in Karnataka are aware that the current state of water supply in the state is gravely inadequate. The situation of water especially in smaller towns and villages is dismal. Instead of being accountable to the people, the state government has decided to privatise the state’s waters.

 Water supply in parts of Hubli, Dharwad, Gulbarga and Belgaum have been given to Veolia -- a French company, while JUSCO and a TATA company have taken over its supply in Mysore. We are yet to know other secretive deals by the state.

There is an immediate and urgent need for the people of the state to come together to start a movement and  give a clear message to the government that its very stability would be at stake if it does not  reverse its decisions to privatise water. The least we expect from governments is to provide access to water to all citizens. If the state fails to do that, do we need a government at all?  

(The writer is the principal of St Joseph’s College, Bangalore)

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