August 20, 2003
Recently the Economist carried a news item regarding a town in Bolivia where the water supply had been handed over to an American company in a round of Fund/Bank inspired privatisation. The people of the city created such a stink that the decision was reversed.
The basic fear of the people, especially those living in shanty towns, was that water would become prohibitively expensive. The Economist had its own take: the state could not afford the investment needed to provide clean water. While private operators would ensure a realistic user fee, the poor would benefit since the real subsidy of cheap water is taken by the affluent class.
I was reminded of this piece during a recent visit to the neighbourhood electricity office. Electricity transmission and distribution was recently privatised in Delhi. I want to point out a small but crucial implication of this. Some years ago, I received a huge bill. It turned out that the meter reader had noted 19700 instead of 18220. At various times, the clerk dealing with the matter was not available or the docket that contained my bill information was out or the computer operator was on leave, and so on. The long and the short of it is that 11 working mornings, roughly a couple of hours each time, I spent getting the error rectified.
It was not a unique experience. Living in Delhi, or maybe in most parts of India, a visit to a government office is an exercise in patience and humility! But recently I again got a bill which seemed inflated in that it included arrears which I thought I had paid off. So off I went, against the advice of friends, to sort out the matter. As I reached the office, I noticed a change. Where previously the whole entrance was taken over by touts writing applications and filling forms to get the work done, now there was not a soul outside. The counters were clearly marked and when I asked the guard where I needed to go, I was guided politely.
But what was most surprising was the office itself. The person who deals with these sorts of problems was there at his desk and when my turn came, he patiently listened to me and then told me what the problem was. To convince me, he took out the docket and showed me the readings, etc. The bottomline was that I was out of the place in 10 minutes, with my problem sorted out. What is more, I was not demeaned or made to feel that I was a supplicant and the clerk was doing me a favour. And surprisingly, the docket, the office, the clerk, all of them were exactly the same as in my previous trip!
Before I am branded as an ardent privatisation type, I would like to clarify that I really don’t know whether privatisation is good in the overall sense. I understand that in a terribly unequal and polarised society such as ours, privatisation of public utilities needs to be thought through carefully, lest it worsens inequalities. But I think my two experiences do force one to ponder over at least one aspect, namely a consumer being treated like a human being.
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