Do we need to Discuss ‘Business Models for Rural Private Water Supply Operators’ in India

During March 2010, UN Solution Exchange in India, was seeking inputs on projects and initiatives that have used rural private operators on a large scale, to help the World Bank in provide clients better advice about the appropriate business models for sustainable rural water supply. Following are the thoughts which I shared during this discussion.

“I am wondering to know from this discussion what has persuaded us to talk about the need for a business model, at a juncture where rural India is moving in a comparatively better situation in accessing the sustainable and safe water. I am finding it hard to understand that, on one hand we are advocating for constitutional amendments, ways and means for inclusive self governance at lowest appropriate level, and on another, we are exploring the ways and means for exclusive rights on natural resources. On one hand we want water to be considered as a human right, while on the other we see it as a business commodity.

The results of advocating such business models can also be understood from the perspective of the indiscriminate environmental harm being posed by the mega projects in power, mining and industries, among others. In this context one also needs to understand the ecosystem dysfunctions and livelihood losses due to various business interests in rural India, and the efforts and approaches adopted in this direction. Therefore, before testing any such hypothesis we must consider comprehensive social and environmental processes!

In response to the query, I wish to broaden the scope of the discussion on a few imperative and interlinked issues. Is there a way to discuss the idea of ‘Gram Swaraj’ and notion behind re-defining a number of articles in the Indian constitution? Do we also need to critically review the understanding and efforts of developmental agencies in facilitating the; devolution of functions, functionaries and funds in India’s social development process. Alternatively, can we think about these could be better implemented. Do we essentially need to consider the principle of ‘subsidiarity’, when the results in supplying and managing safe water are not achieved as envisaged? Shouldn’t we consider that, the water sources are the blood vessels of a nation? On a broader frame, can we think about the unrest and damage such initiatives will cause to the ecosystem functions and rural population.

What will happen to the poor and vulnerable, who can’t afford buying water from a private vendor? In my view, such business models will lead to indiscriminate water withdrawal and storage, control and conflict over water sources.   The former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan once mentioned that, “the access to safe water is a fundamental human need and therefore a basic human right”.

The recently modified National Rural Drinking Water Program Guidelines of the Government of India have specified a particular framework for the implementation (2009-2012) of drinking water in rural India. This intends to provide every rural citizen with adequate water for drinking, cooking and other domestic basic needs on a sustainable basis, while adhering certain minimum water quality standards. I wish to quote here the basic principles of the document, as it states that:

  • Water is a public good and every person has the right to demand drinking water.
  • It is the lifeline activity of the Government to ensure that this basic need of the people is met.
  • To increase economic productivity and improve public health, there is an urgent need to immediately enhance access to safe and adequate drinking water and Government should give highest priority to the meeting of this basic need for the most vulnerable and deprived groups in the society.
  • The ethic of fulfillment of drinking water needs to all should not be commercialized and denied to those who cannot afford to pay for such service. Willingness to pay under adverse conditions cannot be interpreted as affordability to pay.
  • Drinking water supply cannot be left to market forces alone as it does not recognize the importance of providing livelihood supply to all, nor does it ascribe an appropriate value to health of the people. The commodification of drinking water will shift the focus to profits to be made from the scarce resource rather than human rights to water for livelihood.
  • As, such the emphasis is more on public-public partnerships rather than commercialization of the drinking water supply programme by the private agencies.
  • Maintenance cost of the water supply system should have an inbuilt component of cross-subsidy to ensure that the economically backward groups are not deprived of this basic minimum needs.

Therefore, from above, there is a very clear message from Government of India on issues like; right to drinking water, water as basic need, drinking water as highest priority, non-commercialization of water, not interpreting willingness to pay as affordability, not leaving water to the market forces, avoiding the commodification of this scarce resource and, emphasize on public-public partnership (so, not Public-Private-Partnership)”.

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