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Twenty four hours after he came to power, Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal was to resolve the issue of giving the citizens of Delhi free water up to 700 litres per day. Water holds pride of place on the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) manifesto, which says that the party is “committed to ensuring that all households in Delhi get water in their homes, irrespective of whether they are in slums or unauthorised colonies”. Later, Kejriwal qualified his statement by saying that the promise is to make 667 litres of water free for people with water connections. Then the Delhi Jal Board announced that about 667 litres of free water will be given to users with water connections. This is at heart a profoundly populist promise: one that raises serious issues on the way water is to be valued. There is now a need to view the challenge as not just a local government issue, but also one of ecosystem governance. Rather than just bringing water into pipes, this should be seen as an opportunity to co-own water as a valued right, rather than solely a free-for-all commodity.
First, the obvious question: where will the water come from for all households, beyond those with metered connections? Sandwiched between Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, both water hungry states, the Delhi government has traditionally fought mounted — and political — battles on water with its neighbours. Haryana’s Munak canal, built with financial assistance from Delhi, is still not giving the capital the promised “pipe-dream” of 80 million gallons of water per day. The other aspect is the serious question of whether water will be wasted in Delhi with this populist move. Both in the long as well as short term, there is a need to identify new sources of water.
Second, the not-so-obvious question: 667 litres of water per household will also mean an equivalent amount of sewage. If the government is looking at ensuring more water supply, then the seamier, stinkier side of this — the serious scatological question of dealing with more sewage — also comes in. Delhi still does not have sewage treatment plants running at optimum capacity — as per a CAG report tabled this year, just over 50 per cent of Delhi’s sewage is actually treated. The questions of providing more water, as a right more than a resource, and the question of treating greywater, are irretrievably linked.
Several means of creating water sources have already been identified. Active rain water harvesting, through Delhi’s most identifiable icons — its buildings, and the Delhi Ridge — are envisaged as major keystones. As per law, a modification in the building by-laws of the ministry of urban development and poverty alleviation, made in 2001, says that every new building on plots above 100 square metres has to have rooftop rainwater harvesting in Delhi. Flyovers made by Central and state agencies in Delhi are meant to have rainwater run-off channels on their slopes, and rainwater harvesting pits at their bottoms.
Yet, years after these simple schemes were thought of, they remain fringe issues on both the development and local governance agenda. The Central Ground Water Board has found that underground wells in Delhi have seriously depleted over a 10-year period (2001-10), with the posh and busy New Delhi and south and southwest Delhi areas being worst hit. Several studies have shown that as groundwater extraction increases exponentially, the quality of water goes down. In simple words, if we have to continue using groundwater, we need to replenish it with methods already identified but not fully implemented or monitored.
On the question of sewage, the AAP has an interesting proposition: to decentralise sewage treatment and build small sewage-treatment plants “managed by mohalla sabhas”. It is here that privatisation or private-public models can be considered. As sewage lines are planned to be set up for the estimated 40 lakh people who do not have access to sewage lines in Delhi (as per the AAP’s calculations) as well as in other areas, there is scope to set up a transparent and results-based public-private partnership. From the far away, mechanised and intimidating monsters that sewage treatment plants in Delhi (and indeed other cities) are, here is a chance to make sewage a local issue, one that is civic and environmental, and one which sharply increases the chance of reporting system-failure by locals.
In decentralising catching rain where it falls through private residences, mohallas, around 5,000 schools and 10,000 parks in the capital, and in making people think about sewage treatment, the government should now look towards creating a new sense of ownership towards this most precious resource. Clean water is indeed a right. But it is also part of an ecological system that has its own rules. Unlike manufactured goods, water cannot just be a freebie. If we look at clean water as both a right and resource given freely or equitably, it is time to set new standards in environmental benchmarking for our cities with energetic co-ownership.
That is the only way to turn a populist promise into a reality that is more than a pipe dream.