A couple of years back, as part of an academic project (which I had also blogged about in my personal blog), I’d talked about water privatization. I had said that it is a good thing even if it pushes up costs, because it now offers people the option to get piped water supply. The analysis went something like:
1. People who don’t currently have connections will now get connected. And once they are on the network, they have an option to get clean piped water.
2. For people who already have connections, their monthly costs will shoot up. Maybe double. However, given that the average water bill amount is quite low, and is an extremely small proportion of monthly expenditure. So small that even a 100% increase won’t have much of an impact.
It’s time to revisit that case, given that Kundapur, a coastal town in Karnataka has decided to privatize it’s water supply. To summarize, so far, this town was dependent on ground water. Now, they are getting water from the river Varahi. Residents have to pay Rs. 4000 for the connection (half of that refundable), and the monthly bill will come within Rs. 100, they’ve said.
There are two points to note here. Firstly, this is the first time that Kundapur is getting piped water supply. The second is that there is a huge up-front cost. When I had talked about privatization giving the option of water supply to everyone, I had said that the costs should be structured such that the fixed charge is low or non-existent, and only usage is charged. This way, I had said, there won’t be any adverse impact on the poor (who are outside the system in the first place).
In this context, a financial restructuring of the Kundapur plan might be necessary. The TMC and the water supply firm will have to work out a scheme where they heavily subsidize the up front fee (to say about Rs. 500) in exchange for a higher per-unit charge for water. That kind of a structure would have several benefits.
Firstly, it would be far more inclusive and more people would be brought into the safe water plan. More people would be able to buy the option to get safe drinking water. Secondly, a higher variable charge will also result in more judicious consumption, which is critical for a limited resource such as fresh water. Thirdly, due to the changed payment structure, the heavy users of water (more likely to be the rich and upper middle classes) will end up cross-subsidizing the low volume users (usually the poor). Thus, the adverse impact on the poor can be brought down, and the people who wil have to pay more would be those who won’t mind paying a bit extra.
Of course, there is still a long way to go. The private partner who will handle the operation and maintenance is yet to be selected. There are also bound to be a large number of protests against the privatization itself. The TMC needs to get past that. Also, it seems to be the first time when such an exercise is being conducted in the country. So, other hurdles also can’t be ruled out.
Nevertheless, this outsourcing of operation and maintenance of water supply is a welcome concept, and if implemented and priced in the right way, might become a model to emulate in the rest of the country.