The developments in water sector have empowered the citizens like never before and ensured that the people’s demands are accorded the first priority. But most of these developments have only happened at the consumer level making the entire system more participative but without having significantly impacted the decision making process. Some areas which remain to be addressed are:
- The water bureaucracy remains in control of the decision making process as well as the resources. This is the level at which introducing changes has been difficult.
- Water service departments remain unaccountable to the people and are legendary for their lack of transparency. An obvious offshoot of such institutions is corruption. As soon as corruption sets in, there comes a horde of other ills starting with inequitable distribution of water, irregular water supply, poor service quality and a general apathy in providing a basic civic service.
- Even more challenging has been moving the planners away from the old trick of addressing social problems through engineering solutions.
- An overarching issue is that of a complete absence of city planning. This is illustrated well in this comment on Mumbai’s state of planning:
We cannot jump from our present situation to some ideal condition. The city here is not about grand design but about grand adjustment. --- Rahul Mehrotra, Principal, Rahul Mehrotra Associates, Mumbai
- Finally, the administration has become so enormously complex in India with multiple organizations having overlapping powers that the government finds it difficult to decide where to start reforming the entire system from! The situation is more pronounced at the state level where the capacities and talent remain even more limited.
Pricing is not the only option: The prevailing approach puts a greater emphasis on pricing water in a manner that the utilities should generate revenue and should be able to pay for its operation. While this may be relevant for some countries it doesn’t necessarily has to be appropriate for the Indian context. Theoretically it is easier to suggest that some quantity of water is given free and users pay for the extra. Examples abound which show that this is not how it works in effect.
Entitlement and people’s rights: The more crucial entitlements issue is forgotten by economists and an undue importance is given to pricing alone. In my country, I find entitlements to be a greater issue and very often it is a fight for precisely this, in rural as well as urban areas.
Enough with organizational arrangements, let’s talk behaviour: This receives a lot of attention and little thought is spared for the “instruments” which determine behaviour. Consumer behaviour needs to be understood so that a match between organizations and consumer needs is achieved.
Finally, this only scratches the surface of the numerous issues that need to be discussed and accounted for in achieving good water governance in India. I find that the Asia Water Governance Index [pdf] developed at the Lee Kuan Yew School’s Institute of Water Policy is a great effort towards assessing water governance in Asia.
Bottom Line: Water bureaucracy in the India needs a major reform. Alongside, the planners must move on from pricing (alone) to entitlements, property rights and consumer behaviour for good water governance.