Water integrity?

Talk of corruption (or integrity) has some complicated facets, often directed from North to South, or rich to poor – as Malini Ranganathan, Sapana Doshi, Katie Meehan and others have pointed out. Rita Abrahamsen argues that the international good governance agenda can be seen as a key part of this process. Meanwhile, public assets and positions used for private gain also seems to capture pretty well the financial engineering raising water bills in London to benefit private investors that Alex Loftus and Hug March describe, and the ongoing crony capitalist outsourcing in Westminster (see any Private Eye). These things would normally be called ‘business’ though, rather than corruption. Calling a practice ‘corruption’ often seems to reflect power imbalances – this itself is an interesting thing to study.

Given the above, I was interested to read about the LA Dept of Water and Power case in Water Integrity Global Outlook 2021. India, has of course been witness to much anti-corruption talk in recent years. Not even scratching the surface of this phenomenon, I wrote a short case study on Delhi water for the WIGO21 report, trying to highlight the ambivalence of sharp practices in water supply and use, as well as recent government reforms. You can read the unedited version below.

Case Study: Delhi

A large proportion of people in Delhi rely on water delivered in municipal tankers. A government study found 24.8% of the Delhi population receive 3.82 litres of water per day against a prescribed norm of 172 litres (CAG 2009, p5). This problem is common in areas like Sangam Vihar, a large group of low-income neighbourhoods, built without planning permission, and home to around a million people. Despite the presence of government pipes in some areas, until very recently, many unauthorised areas like this, in Delhi did not get piped water supply from the state water utility. Many still do not. Government supply to these colonies is often groundwater through tubewells or water tanker trucks, both of questionable quality and frequency. Amongst residents, political and social influence allows better access to tubewell and tanker water – and the ability to ‘capture’ both (Birkinshaw, 2019).

Delhi’s water authority, the Delhi Jal Board (DJB), operates a fleet of around 1,000 tankers but the service is unpredictable and inadequate. Waiting, fighting and jostling for water can be a problem, especially for women and children. Not all tankers are owned by the DJB, and tanker staff are not necessarily DJB employees, leading to problems of accountability and regulation within and beyond the public sector. Requests for additional water in tankers can be made as a one-off ’emergency’ supplement to inadequate supply through the Member of the Legislative Assembly’s (MLA) office. Regular tanker delivery requests must be submitted directly to the DJB. Very often, without support, both types of tankers will not arrive. For some unauthorised areas, additional limited water supply is provided by government tubewell networks. These can serve between 200-600 households, which in the worst case might mean 20-30 mins of water every two to six weeks. Some government tubewells get captured by locally powerful people who collect extra payments for water or sell it privately. Illegal private tubewells also supply water at a similar frequency or on demand. Monthly payments for private tubewell supply can be around Rs600-700. Applications for new government tubewells, or for re-boring, must be submitted by a written petition to the MLAs office. For both tankers and tubewells, there is a direct relationship between voters and their political representatives. Generally, residents in unauthorized colonies have to continually lobby for all kinds of public works and water and are dependent on politicians to arrange, authorize and fund work as well as ensure that it actually happens. Residents characteristically say that before elections the politicians promise them water (‘vote do aur panni de denge’) as well as other civic services, but that after elections nothing is heard from them.

This case highlights that inequality exists in water access modes, as well as quality and quantity. Government is not absent, although services may be formally or informally outsourced, but many of these forms of intervention share discretionary and personalised tendencies. In unauthorised areas, as in Delhi’s official water network as a whole, better connected and richer people are supplied more water at more convenient times. Even in formalised areas, the complex social and material factors determining timings, quality and quantity of water supply leave the variation in government water supply apparently arbitrary and hard to explain (Biswas 2015). In the official network, although water meters have been introduced in many areas, most residents of formal areas pay ‘average bills’, which are cheaper than paying by volume. Billing too is haphazard and billing inaccuracies are, according to the Chief Minister, ‘impossible to sit and resolve’[i]. A major integrity challenge for Delhi is realising a universal right to water and protecting this from powerful groups in society. Limited public and private sector accountability and significant overlaps and gaps in water governance jurisdictions make regulation difficult. In India, as elsewhere, private sector involvement in public services is increasingly seen as improving transparency and accountability. However empirically, outsourcing rarely demonstrates better outcomes and can introduce new transparency issues, as in the controversies over Delhi’s water tanker contracts and water network privatisation.

Delhi’s ruling party, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), is led by a former water and anti-corruption campaigner.  Since coming to power in 2015, the now Chief Minister, has made improved access and reduced corruption in water a major political platform and policy target. One of the new government’s most significant changes was to legalise piped network water connections in unauthorized areas. However, at ground level though, progress is mixed; some residents have needed to fund work themselves and if land tenure is disputed, work is not possible. Other early initiatives to reduce mismanagement of tubewells and water tankers in areas like Sangam Vihar had limited success. For several years, AAP made the data from water tanker GPS systems publicly available online. Although GPS tankers do not operate in many areas, this was a step towards greater transparency. In line with this trend towards technology, automated water dispensers (ATMS) have been piloted in four unauthorised areas. Means-tested payment cards are possible but don’t currently exist; affordability and sustainable cost recovery are issues, and water ATMS are rarely used as a primary water source (Sarkar 2019). AAP has increased the number of water ATMS elsewhere in Delhi, primarily at transport hubs to reduce purchase of bottled water or as a paid alternative to traditional pioas (free drinking-water stands).

A major AAP change was to allow 20,000 litres a month of free ‘lifeline’ drinking water for every household. One issue with the 20,000 litres of free water is that it is only available through a metered Delhi Jal Board connection and does not consider household income, allowing wealthy households using under the threshold to benefit from free water, while free water is unavailable for the large number of households which do not have their own meter. Residential water charges in Delhi follow a progressive block tariff structure, so lower volume users are cross-subsidies by higher charges for higher-use consumers. The final area where AAP has introduced changes, which, like their water focus generally, has now become an object of Central Government policy, is the groundwater sustainability crisis. Unsustainable, unregulated groundwater use is both symptom and cause of urban water misgovernance. Groundwater accounts for around 50% of India’s urban water supply, supplementing unequal, unreliable government network supply, and providing a virtually free input for unregulated grey-market businesses in tankers, tubewells and bottled water. The Delhi government has introduced a range of new regulations and initiatives on groundwater use since coming to power, rejuvenation of 159 lakes across Delhi, construction of two new reservoirs and in 2019, starting a major groundwater recharge project in collaboration with the central government. For India, heavily reliant on groundwater, with 20% of the world’s population and only 4% of the global water resources, sustainable and accountable progress in this area is desperately needed.  

Birkinshaw, M. (2019). ‘Water mafia’ politics and unruly informality in Delhi’s unauthorised colonies. In L. Roberts & K. Phillips (Eds.), Water, Creativity and Meaning: Multidisciplinary Understandings of Human–Water Relationships (1st ed., pp. 188–203). Routledge. DOI: 10.4324/9781315110356-12

Biswas, S. P. (2015). Assorted City: Equity, Justice, and Politics in Urban Services Delivery. SAGE Publications India.

Comptroller and Auditor General. (2013). Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India on Social Sector (Non-PSU) for the year ended 31 March 2012 Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi Report No. 2 of the Year 2013 (Social Sector (Non-PSU) NCT No. 2; p. 240). Comptroller and Auditor General. http://www.cag.gov.in/sites/default/files/audit_report_files/Delhi_Revenu_Social_nonPSUs_report_2_2013.pdf

Sarkar, A. (2019). The role of new ‘Smart technology’ to provide water to the urban poor: A case study of water ATMs in Delhi, India. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40974-019-00119-4

[i] https://www.ndtv.com/delhi-news/aap-anniversary-delhi-government-waives-water-bills-pending-till-november-2015-1277296

Photo: Los Angeles Department of Water and Power in Downtown Los Angeles, Kevin Case https://www.flickr.com/photos/kevdia/

Matt Birkinshaw 2021