More Kids? Then Pay More for Water

For some retrospective entertainment about World Water Day, the U.N.-mandated aqua-celebration each March, read Rule 12 of the World Bank’s “Principled Pragmatism & Rules for Reformers.” It goes: “Reforms must provide returns for the politicians who are willing to make changes.” And the Bank report gives us proof that water reforms “can be good politics.” It holds up two Indian politicians it sees as highly successful with water reforms. Chandrababu Naidu and Digvijay Singh.

Note that this report comes more than a year after Mr. Naidu suffered one of the worst defeats in the electoral history of Andhra Pradesh. And after Digvijay Singh, once a highly popular Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh, was trounced at the hustings there. Both in 2004. Well after such “reforms” were unleashed on the public.

Still the Bank report India’s Water Economy asserts that these reforms have proved to be good politics. “There is evidence that this was indeed the case for Mr. Singh in Madhya Pradesh. And the intensive formation of WUAs [water users associations] in Andhra Pradesh was certainly politically useful to Mr. Chandrababu Naidu, because farmers perceived this to be a reform which moved in the right direction. The bottom line is that … it must be viewed as a `good thing’ by sufficient numbers of people that they will consider voting for the politician who championed the reform.”

This comes well over a year after both champions drowned at the polls. And four years after Andhra Pradesh farmers chased away the Bank’s James Wolfensohn from the inauguration site of a “Confederation of WUAs.” (The efficient Mr. Naidu shifted the ceremonial plaque to an isolated spot free of protesters. There, the Bank chief could cut his ribbon in peace.) Today, Mr. Naidu is reduced to attacking the present State Government for “yielding to World Bank pressure.” And he could be right, too. But now we know how popular those reforms were.

So the errors in the Bank report are funny but, at one level, quite easy to understand. The propaganda for the water “reforms” was cooked up long before any results could be seen. Economic or electoral. It projects a vision so cynical that it brooks no evidence to the contrary. A good example of this exists in the so-called “pani panchayats” of Angul in Orissa. This was one of the biggest frauds in the water sector of this country. It has done huge damage to poor farmers in that region. Yet, it was held up as “a model.” The propaganda part of India’s Water Economy was clearly drafted well before the 2004 elections. It just had to be stuck into whatever was to be published later. The Bank and the International Monetary Fund seem to follow Richard Ingram’s great dictum in Private Eye: “Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story.”

In the next 24-36 months, India will witness the most major thrust yet towards water privatization. The process is now on. All of it, of course, in the name of “reforms.” Some of the world’s biggest water multinationals have already bought their way into the country. Quite a few of these figure in the Fortune Global 500 List. Some of these corporations have been thrown out of Latin America. They will now — by their own claim — sharpen their efforts and focus here.

They leave in their wake a trail of wounded nations. But nations that have still tossed them out. For instance, Suez, one of the biggest water MNCs, is in retreat. The Guardian reported that the company “said it was now almost impossible for it to work in Latin America or Africa.” And that it would “be concentrating on China, India and eastern Europe.”

Barely 15 months ago, Uruguay made history with its referendum on the issue of water. The outcome was a first-ever in the world. Close to two-thirds of voters came out in favour of an amendment to their Constitution (now Article 47). One that would assert: “water is a natural resource essential to life.” Also that access to water and sanitation are “fundamental human rights.” And that “public service of water supply for human consumption will be served exclusively and directly by state legal persons.” (Which rules out a private takeover of water.)

There’s a basis to that. In Bolivia, lack of clean water plays a role in the death of children under the age of five. Yet when the Bechtel took over the water supply of Cochabamba city in that nation, it raised prices by 200 per cent. Whether people lived or died was of no concern. In Peru, as Sarah Grutsky found, “poor residents in Lima paid as much as $3 per cubic metre of water.” After World Bank and IMF policies were enforced in Ghana, she pointed out, “three buckets of water cost a family almost half of the minimum wage.”

In Chile’s central valley region, as even The New York Times reported, “99.2 per cent of voters in a plebiscite in 2000 rejected privatization of the state-run water company. (The government privatized it anyway.)” In many Latin American nations, people did not stop at throwing out water and other utility MNCs. They also voted left-wing governments in. Yet, India is being shoved down the path of water privatization. By deceit and in stealth. Because there are millions to be made by a corrupt elite. And by top government officials pushing this agenda for direct personal gain. In India, water-borne diseases are amongst the most major causes of sickness and ill-health. Converting water to a commercial good to be sold for profit invites disaster. Most of all for poor people whose already pathetic access to water will shrink swiftly.

The games have begun. “Pilot projects” on water are on in Mumbai and other cities. All a prelude to privatizing water distribution. Consultants and contractors are lining up for the hundreds of thousands of dollars to be spent on just the `studies’ to be done. Yet, there is worldwide evidence on what will happen. The logic is that water flows from poorer to richer localities. This is already clear in Chandrapur town in Vidharbha.

Poorer people simply won’t get water. Their misery will nourish corporate profits. Even upper-middle class residents of Delhi have joined a fight against a process they rightly see as corrupt and unjust. Imagine what will happen to those in poor neighbourhoods elsewhere.

With inequality growing across the globe — not least in India — the scale of what will unfold is hard to imagine. Already a third of all urban dwellers in the world live in slums. By 2030, a third of all humanity could be doing that, according to U.N. Habitat. (The Challenge of Slums. Global Report on Human Settlements 2003.) What access will these over two billion human beings have to the most life-giving of things? Note that the overwhelming numbers of those slum dwellers will be in India and Africa.

Meanwhile, 2005 saw a barrage of pro-privatization plugs and plants in sections of our media. Some of which involved plain fabrication.

Take this line from one of these pieces: “India has recently seen an important development on the water entitlement issue, with the state of Maharashtra passing, after years of study and extensive consultations with civil society, local communities and all political parties, the Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority Act, 2005, the heart of which is the creation and management of a water entitlement system.” This is authored by John Briscoe, described as “senior water advisor, World Bank.”

This is the Act that enshrines the notorious two-child norm. Under which those with more than two children will have to pay one and a half times the new rates for irrigation. No other State in the country did this. Extensive consultation? Most farmers in the State remain clueless that such a law has been passed. Most MLAs have never read it. The bill was brought to the State Assembly in the last hours of the last day of the session on April 13, 2005.

As one legislator, Narasiah Adam, put it: “They brought in perhaps 16 bills on the last day. And this one came in around 6 p.m.” It was chaotic. “This did not allow the bills to be read, let alone debated.” It was rammed through in a voice vote. The Maharashtra Government was duly rewarded. The Bank announced Rs.1,700 crore towards water projects in the State days after it passed the law.

Trying to enforce it though is quite another matter. If done, this kind of law simply begs for local civil wars. And it will get that and more. Maybe India needs to learn something from little Uruguay on World Water Day. We too, could do with a constitutional amendment banning water privatization. Maude Barlow, one of the world’s leading activists on water issues, was present in that country at the time of the referendum. As she put it: “We are all Uruguayans now.

P. SAINATH is the rural affairs editor of The Hindu and the author of Everybody Loves a Good Drought. He can be reached at: psainath@vsnl.com.






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P Sainath is the founder and editor of the People’s Archive of Rural India. He has been a rural reporter for decades and is the author of ‘Everybody Loves a Good Drought.’ You can contact the author here: @PSainath_org

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