We need to pay for drinking water

It pumps water to a height of 500 metres in stages and then distributes about 800 mld water daily to Bangalore from a distance of about 100 km.

This is truly a mammoth exercise and comes at a huge cost. It costs the BWSSB Rs 33 to treat and distribute every 1,000 litre of water, the major cost being power. We don’t mind paying Rs 12 per litre of bottled water, but when it comes to the government, we protest to pay even a rupee more.

It is high time we pay the price for public delivery with some appropriate exemptions and pricing for the poor. The water tariff in Bangalore was revised last in 2005. One wonders what price has remained the same in the last five years.

The failure of public water supply system has lead to a strong ecosystem for water market with proliferation of players in storage tanks, water filters and purifiers, and finally the so-called treated or mineral water industries. What we have is a proliferation of brands and profiteering by private sector. Besides all these, we have huge pharmaceutical industry thriving on water borne diseases.

Comparison

The government says its charges are on an average Rs 9 per kl with a monthly minimum of Rs 36 per month and a maximum of Rs 700 per household. Rs 36 is equivalent to buying three bottles of water.

When a consumer buys bottled water, he pays for the bottle (plastics), the advertisement using sports and movie stars, packaging, distribution agents, transporters, etc. The NGOs take pride in saying they protect citizen’s interest by stalling hike in water tariff. The moot question is whose interest? The market for bottled water in India is expected to be around Rs 2,000 crore per annum and it is one of the fastest growing industries.

The government should move towards realistic pricing of water provisioning. It should guarantee quality of piped water and adequate supply. It has to ensure metering of water. It has to invest first to upgrade its distribution system, install water meters, and automate its systems, before it asks for a hike.

The 24/7 pilot water distribution system in Hubli has shown the way. It has established that for a marginal hike in tariff the government can ensure continuous supply with tapped water. The collections improved, technical and distribution losses came down. The so called ‘non revenue water’ (NRW) an euphemism for pilferages came down.

There will of course be some inefficiencies with the public system but the trade off is between paying for these inefficiencies and paying for all the water intermediary industries.     

There will be a segment which needs to be subsidised and there will be a segment which will be extravagant and needs to be penalised. Just as it is inhuman to charge BPL people high rates, it is equally unjustifiable not to profit out of the affordable. The commercial segment can be charged cost plus mark up rates as they are only going to pass it on. In the present regime every segment is subsidised and there is leakage from every segment.

There is dire need for a water regulatory authority, especially in urban areas. It is required for regulating both government and market. According to global water intelligence.com, the NRW in Bangalore is about 45 per cent mostly from illegal connections and public pipes in slums. This erodes the credibility of the numbers supplied by the department.

NGOs should ask for a regulator, quality assurances, reliable supply, elimination of NRW, metered non-tariff water in slums, etc. They should ask for monitoring of brands and eliminating rampant unlicensed suppliers.

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