1 Dec 2010

Failure as usual in India

I've told many audiences that California has the worst groundwater governance in the US (with Texas in a close second place), but India is surely on the short list for the worst governance in the world. (China is also on that list, but the Chinese government doesn't subsidize groundwater extraction as Indian state governments do.)

And so we have these two pieces of news:*

In Uttar Pradesh -- home to nearly 200 million (!) Indians -- groundwater levels are dropping dramatically, by 0.7 to 1.7m per year, for example. Unless something changes, "the entire state would have its ground water used to an extent of 80 per cent by 2014."

Meanwhile, the World Bank has, in principle, pledged $1 billion to move towards 24/7 water service in 10 Indian cities. Although assistance is linked to "levying user charges, installing metering system and creating a water management system," I wonder why the WB is necessary at all. A system that generates revenue can cover the operating and capital costs needed to reach 24/7 service.

Bottom Line: Water issues are local, and India can fix its issues with groundwater (by slowing withdrawals and ending subsidies for pumping) and urban water (by charging customers for use) without outside help or interference. It's a political problem, sure, but one caused by populist politicians promising painless prosperity to a population aParently preferring free water now+none tomorrow to cheap water forever.**

* I found these articles in the Aquanexus Daily Briefing. Subscriptions are $1200/year, but you can get a 20% discount for mentioning "aguanomics" if you subscribe through Rob before Dec 31. Along similar lines, you can subscribe to The Water Report for $250/year if you want to get more news about water in the Western US. [These are unpaid mentions, you decide if you want to subscribe; I don't get paid anything if you do.]

** sorry that I lapsed my alliteration; can anyone finish it?


  1. David:

    How does this work for you?

    It's a political problem, sure, but one caused by populist politicians promising painless prosperity to a population aParently preferring price-less partakings presently + pitances post-present to plausable prices perennially.

    (hope I got all the spellings correct)

  2. OK, so I misspelled two of the 3 words - Should be pittances and plausible. Can't win them all!

  3. DZ: the promise of painless prosperity is one of the big reasons I profoundly disagree with your idea of a free base water ration. Once the government starts telling people that a service is free, there will always be the next populist in line willing to give away a little more.

    It's far far wiser to be honest, and demand that everyone pay their fair share of the fixed costs. If some members of the community are too poor to pay, they can open up their tax returns and get relief.

  4. @Wayne -- excellent!

    @Francis -- service is NOT free in my proposal. Please read the details here (which I also put in my book): http://aguanomics.com/2009/05/fixed-and-variable-costs-redux.html

  5. David,

    I find that your post makes certain assumptions about India which I am afraid reflects your incomplete understanding of the Indian context and governance. More specifically about "failure as usual" and "India is surely on the short list for the worst governance...". No, please don't conclude that I've taken an offense to the way you describe it. Whether it is India or China, they certainly merit a more neutral assessment if you were to appraise their water governance. There are contexts much different than what you are used to or understand, especially the expansive geography and equally expansive governance.

    While I agree with your the opinion that water issues are local, and India can fix its issues with groundwater without outside help or interference, I beg to differ from the the idea that it is caused by populist politicians. There is more to it which needs to be explored.

    I took an objection to your usage here because it is increasingly seen that loose observations and usage like the ones in this post tend to distort public opinion. We as professionals from this sector need to be more careful about it.

    Praveena Sridhar

  6. @Praveena -- please do tell me about some Indian states that have good groundwater management or sustainable urban supplies. (As you know, I was referring to water governance, not general governance.) In my experience, not a single large (eg, Dehli) or medium (Bangalore) Indian city has 24/7 provision of potable water. I have never heard of any Indian groundwater basin successfully dealing with scarcity (i.e., preventing shortage), but I have heard multiple examples of populist policies (free electricity) and or corruption (bribing water managers) causing scarcity and shortages.

    Regards, David

  7. David,

    1. There is a big difference in providing for a population of 300 million people and for a population of 1.2 billion. On a GDP of USD 14.2 trillion (USA) things are done differently than what you are allowed to do with a GDP of USD 1.3 trillion (India).

    2. Large cities in India usually exploit surface water resources to supply water and as the city size gets smaller there is an increase in groundwater usage to meet water demands. Now, using surface water tends to be more expensive (in terms of infrastructure cost) than using groundwater. This pattern is often missed by experts analyzing water situation in Indian cities. Poor planning and forecasting is endemic to Indian context and cities have not been able to keep up with the rapidly growing urban population. This could perhaps explain why you may not find cities with a 100% coverage or with 24X7 potable water supply!

    3. You might want to have a look at these stats(2007). (Source: http://www.adb.org/documents/reports/Benchmarking-DataBook/Part1.pdf)
    Two of the 20 utilities (Chandigarh and Mumbai)have 100% coverage. Four others—Rajkot(98.1%),Bangalore (92.9%),Nashik (92.6%), and Nagpur (91.5%)—have more than 90%. Visakhapatnam (49.2%) has the lowest followed by Mathura (70%), Vijayawada (70.5%), Jamshedpur
    (74.4%), and Ahmedabad (74.5). The average is 81.2%, with 12 utilities falling below 80% coverage.

    4. Agree with your observation on governments pushing populist policies which have led to widespread inefficiencies, corruption and shortages. Fundamentally, these populist measures have delivered on some other front while causing harm on the resource front. Lets face it, such is the way of democracy. Free electricity was necessary at a time when small landholdings and high input costs left nothing for the Indian farmer to survive on. That is when the populist measures made a difference. Their prolonged leverage in politics was ofcourse taken and which could have been checked.

    5. On groundwater governance you might want to check out this interesting study by Tushaar Shah et.al from the Indian state of Gujarat. (http://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&q=cache:ftL4-kfCUPYJ:nrlp.iwmi.org/PDocs/pubs/GG%2520through%2520Electricity%2520Supply.pdf+gujarat%27s+ground+water+reforms&hl=en&gl=in&pid=bl&srcid=ADGEEShDhoGdqclDp6wqsRTWWAjy-HT2mx1DrDAz7E92DIwlFc6hyUEClzijfwd7Q2j5COhx2RFd2cthotYIdB2WhlUVK5ePz-zjiJRNtLgADT4rvQ0v-UzvYfuQXLN0AydV1fDbXsLm&sig=AHIEtbRDapkBPZ2pTLbHWCCYFAYpL0ACSA)

    6. India is a work in progress and my points are to highlight the economic and political context of the country. This in my opinion is important before any analysis is attempted. Miss the context and you run the danger of making a wrong assessment of the situation.

  8. @Praveena -- thanks for the additional comments. On (6), we certainly agree, as India is on its own unique path (like every country).

    (1) $/capita is not required for good water management. The US has poor management in several RICH places...

    (2) Of course.

    (3) These cities average 81% coverage in terms of pipes but 4 hrs/day of service. Fail.

    (4) No, it's NOT the way of democracy. Plenty of democracies do not have dysfunctional policies (the US DOES), and the early gift was a mistake. It would have been better to support the poor, but I am sure that you will find that support, from the beginning, went mostly to the rich (with pumps, then deeper wells, etc.)

    (5) Yes, a good paper. I've heard of it, and applaud Gujarat's departure from an open-ended failure to restrict demand. 27 states to go....

  9. David,

    Appreciate the fact that the missing 'background' in this post is now coming forth and being discussed.

    (1)US having poor management in many RICH places does not make it, as a reason to your assertion- $/capita not required for good water management.

    (3) Point(2) partly explains the 4hrs/day of service. Number of hours could certainly go up if distribution and household level losses are contained. Agree that demand management needs a serious attention in almost all the Indian cities.

    (4)In retrospect you could certainly be more assertive about the 'early gift' being a mistake! In that period(1950-1990)policy makers didn't have the benefit of hindsight and neither was there any major program studying water resources consumption/management. There was a heavy emphasis on irrigation and large storage projects. On where the support went (rich/poor) is an argument for another day.

    (5) Just as you got to know of 1 state (Gujarat) now, if explored you would know of more programs from other states.

  10. @Praveena --

    (1) I am saying that money is neither necessary nor sufficient for good water management. There are plenty of small community systems that are sustainable and affordable.

    (3) Losses are due to poor maintenance and lack of funds from unpaid bills or rates that are too low.

    (4) Of course we know that it was a mistake, and a populist mistake. That's b/c it was a SUBSIDY for a commodity, and those ALWAYS encourage too much consumption.

    (5) I'll leave that to you; you're the expert on India, right?

  11. David,

    (1)I find your observation absolutely relevant. There are numerous small community systems that are sustainable and affordable. For instance the one from Rajasthan, described by Anupam Mishra in his TED talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/anupam_mishra_the_ancient_ingenuity_of_water_harvesting.html

    But,my point was directed towards urban areas. Community systems largely exist in rural areas. Implementing similar approaches in urban areas does require significant capital expenditure, not undermining the fact that it could also be done with innovative & economical approaches. The demands of urban areas do not often match up with what the community systems can deliver (this is my experience, which may change as I explore and study further).

    (2) Agree. Reasons are more systemic.

    (4) Agree with your observation that free electricity etc was a subsidy for a commodity which encouraged excessive consumption. It has been widely observed in India.

    (5)This was meant to be a reply to your comment "27 states to go." :-)
    (Expert - No.. I am not. Just begun I'd say and exploring. Trying to understand the progression of water management practice in post Independence India and the tipping point from where the "integrated" approach to water management & planning set in.)

  12. @Praveena -- I do not think that heavy capital expenditures are the problem -- even in a poor country. The problem is corruption in sourcing and construction that leads to limited service area and tariffs ("to help the poor") that end up giving cheap service to the rich and no service at all to the poor. So, again, we are back to corruption.


Read this first!

Make sure you copy your comment before submitting because sometimes the system will malfunction and you will lose your comment.

Spam will be deleted.

Comments on older posts must be approved (do not submit twice).

If you're having problems posting, email your comment to me