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Water as Commodity and Weapon
The Corporate Hijack of India’s Water
by P. SAINATH

2001: The old man shuffled his feet, acutely embarrassed. No matter which part of India you’re in, the first thing you do is offer your guests a glass of water. And this was one part of Nallamada in Andhra Pradesh blessed with that element. Things had changed, though. "Please don’t drink it," he said, finally. "See how it is?" he asked, showing us a tumbler. Tiny blobs of thingummy floated atop a liquid more brown than transparent. But then he brightened up. "Will you have Coca-Cola instead? That, this village has." And so it did. As in the Aamir Khan ad. The smaller bottle for Rs. 5.

It’s also there in countless other villages where a glass of clean water is now hard to find. And Coca Cola’s impact on both drinking and irrigation water sparks revolts across the country. From Plachimada in Kerala to Kaladera in Rajasthan. From Gangaikondan in Tamil Nadu to Mehdiganj in Uttar Pradesh. From Thane in Maharashtra to Khammam in Andhra Pradesh.

2002: M.P. Veerendrakumar, chairman of the Mathrubhumi group of publications, is startled to discover that the Malapuzha river and dam in his native Kerala are "for lease or sale to private parties. "I did not know you could sell and buy dams and rivers." He learns this from a tender he sees in an American daily while on a trip overseas. "This had not appeared in any of our local newspapers."

It had already begun in Andhra Pradesh There, two years earlier, farmers chased away the World Bank’s James Wolfensohn. He had come to unveil the confederation of "Water Users Associations" in the state. "Water Users." Oh, what a lovely word! It denotes that special group of folks who use water. The rest of us are non-users, a type of dryland bacteria.

But non-users, being a touchy, irritable lot, showed up in large numbers at the Koelsagar dam in Mahbubnagar. Pitched battles were fought and hundreds arrested. The government shifted the plaque of the dam to a safe haven miles away so the Bank Boss could cut his ribbon in peace.

2003: Private theme and water parks in and around Mumbai are found to be using 50 billion litres of water daily. This, while countless women in the slums and chawls of the city wait hours in queues for 20 litres. Meanwhile, anti-Coke battles are hotting up again. Kerala’s pollution control board confirms the toxic nature of the sludge spewed out by Coke’s plant in Plachimada. The panchayat revokes the plant’s licence.

2004: The polls to parliament — and in some states — see the rout of the biggest ‘water reformers.’ Of course, there are many reasons for their defeat. But water is on that list. Sadly for the World Bank, its puff job is already done. So its report "India’s Water Economy: Bracing for a Turbulent Future" appears as it is — a year later. It sings the praises of Digvijay Singh in Madhya Pradesh and N. Chandrababu Naidu in Andhra. And it claims they gained politically from the reforms. It says the water users associations were particularly good for Naidu. Because "farmers perceived this to be a reform which moved in the right direction." That is in 2005, a year after farmers in both states hand out some of the worst electoral defeats ever seen to the Bank’s heroes.

2005: Bazargaon is a scarcity-hit Vidharbha village that has one sarkari well and gets tanker water once in ten days. It is also host to the giant ‘Fun & Food Village.’ An elite park which offers 18 kinds of water slides and uses millions of litres as a matter of course. All Bazargaon’s water flows towards this ‘village.’ It’s a story repeated in different ways in many places, across many states. Water as a commodity, flows from poor to rich areas.

In Yavatmal, a Maharashtra minister asks farmers at a meeting to "diversify into dairying." The crowd jeers. (Vidharbha has seen over 425 farm suicides in ten months.) The problems of water and irrigation loom large here. "You want us to take up milk production?" scoffs a farmer, rising to his feet. ‘When you pay us a price of Rs. 6 for a litre of milk, but pay Rs. 12 for a litre of your bottled water?" The meeting ends early.

People pay more for water than corporates do. The bottled water brigade got treated and cleaned water in Hyderabad for 25 paise a litre for years. This goes into that bottle costing Rs. 12. In many parts of the country soft-drink giants get it almost free. Whole communities lose out as heavyweights like Coke step in. That company used 283 billion litres of water worldwide in 2004. Enough, points out the India Resource Centre, to "meet the drinking needs of the entire world’s population for ten days." And the billions of litres it guzzles in India could meet the needs of whole districts. in Orissa or Rajasthan for a year.

Yet Coca Cola was the leading sponsor of the "World Water Forum" in Mexico this year. But Coke is not alone in the devastation it inflicts in India. Meet the Real Thing. Central and state governments in this country are privatising water. Coke is just one of the beneficiaries. Oddly, those selling out India’s water almost never use the word ‘privatisation.’ They know how discredited that is. So the buzzword is ‘efficiency.’ Or ‘public-private partnerships.’ The real questions are never raised. Should anyone own water? How must it be shared? Who gets to decide? Is water a commodity to profiteer in or is it a human right? Is it more than a ‘human’ right? Countless other species also need it to survive.

The bazaar is large. And top water corporations figure in the Fortune 500 Global list. As Maude Barlow, one of the world’s leading water activists, points out, the business "is already considered to be worth U.S. $400 billion annually". And there is lots more to be made. In her stunning book, Blue Gold, Barlow cites the Bank’s own estimate of the market size. "In 1998, the World Bank predicted that the global trade in water would soon be a U.S. $800 billion industry, and by 2001, this projection had been jacked up to one trillion dollars." And these revenues are "based on the fact that only five per cent of the world’s population are now receiving their water supply from corporations". So as the corporate grip on water tightens, "water could become a multi-trillion-dollar industry in the future. What if city after city privatises its water services?"

Now you know why our planners, Ministers and bureaucrats are eager to privatise. There’s big bucks in it. Major `studies’ and contracts are being awarded to private groups. As this deepens, people and governments will suffer huge losses. But government officials and private corporations will make giant gains.

The corporate hijack of water is on worldwide and one of the most important processes of our time. The World Bank and the IMF help ram it through. Water privatisation has often been shoved into their loan conditionalities in the past decade.

In few nations will the damage be as terrible and complex as in India. Here water use is already very unequal. Most irrigation and drinking water in India, for instance, has a clear caste geography. Even the layout of our villages reflects that. The dalit basti is always on the outskirts, where there is least access to water. Barring dalits from the main water sources of the village are not just about the ‘social’ horror of untouchability. It is also about curbing their access to this vital resource.

It is also closely tied to the framework of class. About 118 million households — 62 per cent of the total — do not have drinking water at home. As census household survey data analysed by Dr. S. L. Rao show, 300 million Indians draw water from community taps or handpumps. (Many World Bank and Asian Development Bank projects, by the way, will end up doing away with those community taps.)

About five million Indian families (roughly the population of Canada) still draw water from ponds, tanks, rivers and springs. This is a stratified society. The big dams that have displaced millions of Indians in the past decades have also narrowed control and access to water. Atop this structured inequity, we now install hyper-inequality.

A huge share of India’s public health problems are linked to water-borne or water-related diseases. Diarrhoea alone claims lakhs of lives each year. Further reducing the access of poor people to clean water will sharply worsen matters. In State after State, the laws are being rewritten. A prelude to handing over control of both drinking and irrigation water to corporations. The Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority Act simply prices farmers out of agriculture. If the rates implied in the act are actually imposed, irrigation costs could be in thousands of rupees per acre. It would in fact be more than what most farmers earn per acre.

At the same time as more and more fields run dry, golf courses dripping pesticides and guzzling over a million litres of water a day come up in regions of high stress. Even in Rajasthan. (In the Philippines, there have been shootouts between farmers affected by golf courses and the hired goons of the course owners.)

India is a nation of subsistence farmers. When you privatise the rivers and the streams, the canals and the dams, you privatise rainfall. And you ask for a social tsunami. This is also the swiftest route to corporatisation of agriculture. In that sector, we are already forcing out millions of small private owners called farmers. The task is to hand it all over to large corporations. This policy-engineered agrarian crisis wracking rural India is also about the greatest planned displacement ever in our history. Water will be a major weapon used against farmers in this process.

Noble terms serve to whitewash the theft of water from the poor. In Angul in Orissa, the World Bank sought to hand over water to the rich. And called the process ‘pani panchayats.’ There, the ‘rotation’ of canal water use saw to it that poor farmers could have a rabi crop only once in two years. With people rebelling, this ‘model’ collapsed. But not before causing much misery. In Andhra Pradesh, too, the Water Users Associations were mostly headed by the biggest landlords and contractors of the region.

Just think of the trouble we’re begging for. Almost every giant political headache in this country is linked to water. The single most explosive issue in South India is the Cauvery waters dispute between Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Then there is the Almatti problem vexing Andhra Pradesh-Karnataka relations. There is the fight over the Kabini waters between Karnataka and Kerala. Even the ‘Khalistan problem’ had a distinct link to the struggle over the Ravi-Beas waters. Water conflicts in India also affect regions of the same state. The Krishna-Godavari water disputes drive conflict within Andhra Pradesh. The list is endless. Further, across the country, water conflicts of many kinds seep right down to intra-village battles and bloodshed .

Some of our worst troubles with neighbours have also been about water. The Kosi barrage with Nepal. The Farakka Barrage with Bangladesh. Indus waters with Pakistan. Over decades, we’ve made things a lot worse. The unregulated spread of borewells was an early form of privatisation. The richer you are, the more wells you can sink, the deeper you can go. It has proved quite disastrous. Many poorer farmers have seen their dug wells sucked dry as neighbours collar all the groundwater. In the end, it can destroy the entire village. Mushampally village in Nalgonda in AP has more borewells than human beings. The damage done to the aquifer has been terrible. Even the richest farmers also went bankrupt as water stress peaked.

In his bid to privatise water when chief minister, Chandrababu. Naidu wound up the irrigation development corporation of Andhra Pradesh. Which meant it was now each farm for itself. That led to lakhs of new borewells being sunk across the state. With disastrous results. Water shortages in many states have also led to the emergence of ‘water lords’ who make a fortune by selling the liquid. In Anantapur, some of these are former farmers who find this more lucrative than agriculture ever was.

In the cities, millions dwell in slums where they might pay the same rates others do for water. But they get far less and spend far more time in getting it. Against this deadly backdrop comes water privatisation. If even the upper middle classes of Delhi loathe it, imagine the plight of poor people in Chandrapur.

And get this. India could be the first nation in the world to nationalise its rivers and privatise their waters. That is if we go ahead with the great river interlining project. Nationalise? And privatise? The linking scheme would demand the former. The latter we are already deep into. Of course you can, like in Chhattisgarh, sell or lease the river itself`Sheonath’s sorrow’.

Those bringing it to you include some of the top corporations in the world. Some of the companies now making a beeline for India have been turfed out of Latin America. Suez, one of the Big Three of water, told the Guardian that "it was almost impossible for it to work in Latin America or Africa. And so, instead, it would "be concentrating on China, India and Eastern Europe." The company did not mention that it had been tossed out of Grenoble in its native France as well. As Maude Barlow points out, that city also jailed its own mayor and a senior Suez executive for bribery.

As she also shows, it’s not just any racket. It’s scale is stunning. "Bottled water costs up to 10,000 times more than tap water in local communities. For the same price as one bottle, 1,000 gallons of water could be delivered to a person’s home."

In Bolivia, when the MNC Bechtel took control of the water supply in the city of Cochabamba, it raised prices by 200 per cent. In cities in Peru, Chile and other nations too, water was priced out of the reach of the poor. All of them saw widespread unrest and political turmoil. Tiny Uruguay has set an example for the rest of the world. It amended its constitution in 2004 to bar private control of water and to declare water "a fundamental human right." This followed a referendum where close to two-thirds of the voters rejected privatisation.

The U.S. Ambassador calls for ‘Public-private partnerships’ (read privatisation) in India. Yet, as a report cited by Public Citizen points out: "About 85 per cent of all the water that comes out of a tap in the U.S. is delivered by a publicly owned and publicly operated system." That was and is the norm. Though the drive for profit will change things there, too.

Meanwhile, in India, the battles have begun. Protests across the country show that people will not take it lying down. Still, with so much money to be made, the privatisers will not just go away. The waters have just begun to get choppy. And we’re in at the deep end.

P. SAINATH is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu and the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought. This piece initially ran in the Indian weekly Frontline. He can be reached at: psainath@vsnl.com.