Resisting Reform? Water Profits and Democracy

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Kshithij Urs & Richard Whittell

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    Preface

    One day in early 2006, when we were waiting for a bus at the corner of a busy, dangerous junction in the east of Bangalore, through which hundreds of lorries negotiate their way every day, we noticed a young boy bending down from the footpath. He was sticking his head out into the road so that he could reach down into the gutter to collect water from a leaking pipe. There was no water supply in the slum where he and his family lived. After five minutes, he pulled out a full, half-litre bowl. He had a five-litre bucket next to him that he was filling up so that he and his family would not go thirsty that day.

    This is a depressingly common sight in Bangalore, India, and in much of the rest of the world. Pretty much everyone would say this is unacceptable, although not all for the reasons you may think. Instead of focusing on improving the water supply in the slum in which the boy and his family live, official policy is more geared towards primarily stopping the boy ‘stealing’ water. Making sure the boy and his family have a tap in their slum, let alone their own home, comes a distant second (although that may still be too generous to generate an official policy). In addition, private water companies are being encouraged to move in and profit from this situation. This, it is argued, will also increase the efficiency of the water supply.

    This book has been written keeping in mind three purposes. The first is to debunk the arguments that are used to justify water ‘reforms’, as they are called, that have been brought in by the official policy. Letting a company sell water to people through the formal water supply (water privatisation) is the most notorious of these, and we will give a lot of space to this, but there are more that have been affected without private involvement.

    The second is to describe how these ‘reforms’ have entered government policy in the state of Karnataka. One of us (Kshithij Urs) has been involved in the movement against water privatisation that has so far held up the introduction of the most virulent of them and our account is based on personal experience. Our answer to the question will not be based on analyses of broad historical trends, but on an account of what has been going on in the city over the past few years regarding water, much of it based on first-hand experience and involvement.

    The third purpose is to shed light on how these have been resisted. As already mentioned, there has been much resistance to privatisation in particular, and the whole agenda from which that and other ‘reforms’ emerge. This has principally come from the poor in the city—those who are not included in Bangalore's projected image as the ‘Silicon Valley of India’ that is being presented to the world. But we should not think of these issues as exclusively about or exclusively detrimental to the poor. The way we determine the supply of water, as something that is absolutely fundamental to life, seems an apposite way of assessing the relationship of a society (and you can choose to read that as global, national or just human society according to preference) to the principles and goals it has set itself.

    This book is about Bangalore, but we will touch on the global context of water ‘reforms’, especially privatisation, and we hope that the arguments and accounts will be relevant to other regions in India and parts of the world. It is about water, but we hope it will also be relevant to other issues that are being dealt within a cost-first-rights-second way. Much of the book is about the neutralisation of democracy that these ‘reforms’ (we persist with the inverted commas throughout to hammer home the inappropriateness of the word for the deeds that hide behind it) are part of and help to sustain. In this sense, we are concerned with the politics of water supply rather than the technicalities of it.

    This book has benefited greatly from the inputs of a variety of people involved in the resistance to these ‘reforms’ in Bangalore and other parts of the world. Thanks to Issac Amruthraj, Luke Christie, Sheila Devaraj, Clifton d'Rozario, Eshwarappa M., Matthew Hill, P. Lakshaphati, I.S. Patil, Pushphalatha, Rama Devi, Y.J. Rajendra, Issac Arul Selva, Subramani and Vicky Walters for their helpful comments and suggestions. We are grateful to Sugata Ghosh, Prashant Gupta and all the staff at SAGE. Thanks to both our families for their support.

    KshithijUrs, RichardWhittell
  • Epilogue: Recovering Equitable Reforms

    At the beginning of the book we left a question hanging—if everybody's need for water cannot be reconciled with the desire of some to profit from its sale, which should lose out?

    Clearly, water privatisation prioritises the financial profit of a few people over the need to provide all people with the water they need to survive. The water ‘reforms’ in general make people's basic needs subordinate to running an economically ‘efficient’ service. If we choose privatisation and the other water ‘reforms’, people who need water but cannot pay for it, lose out.

    But policies like these are advocated in both rich and poor countries with the language of reform. None of the ‘reform’ initiatives described in this book are worthy of the word in any positive, social sense; the sense in which we use the word to describe Ram Mohan Roy's efforts to abolish sati, the African National Congress's (ANC) efforts to abolish apartheid or Ambedkar and his supporters’ struggle to abolish the discrimination of the caste system. Nor is it the reform of the miners of the Welsh town of Merther Tydfill who marched holding placards with the word ‘reform’ as part of the wider movement of people demanding the right to vote for their own government, before they were broken up and beaten by the army.

    The wider ‘reform’ agenda is devoid of any sense of struggle and supposedly offers win-win development, unsurprisingly so for it is the policy of the powerful. This is not a new way of presenting policies of course—not many people have ever liked to admit (or accept) that what they are proposing will lead to some people being worse off—but the people pushing the ‘reform’ agenda have certainly mastered the art of presenting win-win scenarios: ‘Low-income consumers’ can benefit from Bangalore becoming a ‘world-class’ city; slum dwellers will benefit if they ‘share’ half their land with real estate developers.

    The publicity given to these ‘reforms’ is seductive and they are presented in such a way as to suggest that if you are against these ‘reforms’, you are against reform itself. This is nonsense, but it seems to be powerful nonetheless. For Bangalore, as a global city, the ‘reforms’ seem to offer development and catching up—Bangalore as ‘the new Singapore’, or the ‘next Shanghai’ or, most famously, ‘India's Silicon Valley’.

    Many people have prospered from Bangalore's tryst with IT of course, and good for them. But many have not; many more have suffered because of this newfound status, millions continue to live in slums, in low-income housing, and the only refuge for displaced families from rural and peri-urban areas are the streets; many remain without secure land to call home; many continue to walk a couple of miles for water in the morning, to crouch over a leaking pipe waiting for their bucket to fill with ‘illegal’ water. These people who have not so far lived the Bangalore dream are those who are being further shut out, not only from the dream, but their city and their livelihoods.

    But it is interesting that the ‘reform’ agenda tries so hard to present itself as a win-win formula. It cannot adopt the language of the somebody-has-to-suffer-for-development man we discussed in the last chapter. It accepts the legitimacy of people's participation; it accepts that everybody should have access to water.

    You could see the tortuous efforts to make non-participatory, anti-poor policies look participatory and pro-poor as a sign that the basic argument for the universality of fundamental rights is over and has been won. You could also see it as one of the achievements of liberal democracy—the fact that all citizens, including the poor now have to at least be seen to be included in, and positively affected by, policy making.

    But this is a distinctly unsatisfactory achievement and the very fact that pro-poor language, rather than policies, could be seen as an achievement of this democracy, shows how little we now expect from it. What is worse is that this language gives a veneer of respectability and common humanity to these policies and provides its protagonists with just enough material to inculcate within themselves the habitual conviction that they need to forge ahead with the policies, even as they undermine the very principles they invoke.

    But there is a limit to this argument and we should not emphasise it too much. Do the CEOs of the water companies honestly believe they are the best people to provide water to the poor? Does the director of Janaagraha honestly believe his organisation was facilitating citizen participation in the GBWASP? Do the ‘global consumers’ of Bangalore really believe that the Bangalore dream is inclusive? Only they can answer that, but as we said at the end of Chapter 3, policies such as water ‘reforms’ are not suggested most of the time because they are locally applicable, coherent, feasible or even equitable. The ‘reform’ agenda is not hegemonic because people really think everybody will win within it, just as the water ‘reforms’ are not being pushed so that the poor will benefit from a good water supply.

    The main incoherency of the Bangalore dream is that while its local avatars, be they politicians, CEOs of IT firms or high level bureaucrats, have stressed its importance for the city; they are advocating for ‘reforms’ that have originated outside Bangalore, which have often been brought to them by people outside Bangalore, be they from the World Bank, a consultancy firm or an NGO, and crucially, make no provision for the local specificities of Bangalore. This is an old argument, but it retains its power and significance so long as generic solutions continue to be offered.

    This is not to say that everything local is great and all outside help is bad, or to encourage any sort of communalism. It is just to say that if we believe in any form of democracy and in the importance of choice, it makes sense for the people who are going to be affected by projects or policies to have the power to choose and direct them. This is obviously a very basic principle, as shown by the constant references to it by all the projects that ignore it, but it is still one that is ignored or subverted all too often.

    So, where does that leave us? Privatisation certainly is not going to stop by itself. Water companies are the darlings of the global financial markets and the targets of investors all over the world. It is still the favoured policy, along with commodification, of the influential actors and organisations in the development policies of Bangalore, India, and much of the rest of the world. If we agree that the ‘reform’ agenda will not bring the required equitable comprehensive reforms then it is time to look elsewhere. Genuine reform will not happen under the aegis of the development agencies, consultancy firms, apolitical or corporate NGOs, corrupt or misguided bureaucrats or politicians peddling gutter issues or playing identity politics. In other words, it will not come from those who currently exercise policy-making political power in these areas.

    If genuine reform is to happen it is most likely to come through sustained political pressure by people. This of course, has to be directed through the government, as the provider of services and so on. But popular pressure is the fuel that can keep genuine reform moving and also the regulator with which to keep the government accountable. This is a difficult, laborious, uphill struggle, and it is difficult to see any of the fundamental needs of life—water, basic amenities, land—being addressed successfully in isolation as a single-issue cause. This involves people deciding that the representative who promises water for all is worth a vote, people putting issues of caste and religion aside and seeing themselves not necessarily as members of a certain caste or class, but as human beings who deserve an equal chance for living a decent life. It involves people in the global North stopping their governmental representatives funding companies to subvert these rights or sanctioning the unaccountable influence of the transnational development industry.

    All the necessary requirements for providing a comprehensive water supply already exist in many areas around the world, and certainly in Bangalore. However, the necessary will to use all the money and technical expertise to do that does not exist. The will required to work towards—not even to achieve, just to work towards—some kind of equitable social justice is not going to come from the ‘reform’ agenda. So its policies must be jettisoned. Seeing and treating water supply first and foremost as the right of all people must be the fundamental cornerstone of any discussion about how to actually design and run that supply. The pressure to make it so has to come from the citizens for whom the supply is intended. Now that sounds like it could bring reform.

    Notes

    1. Video interview provided by Ant's Eye View Media Centre. Interviewees were a group of women around a public tap in Marathalli, a slum in East Bangalore. Eshwarappa, the coordinator of Ant's Eye View Media Centre, interviewed the women.

    2. Estimates from the survey, ‘The Urban Homeless in Bangalore’ by the Bangalore NGOs Forum for Street and Working Children.

    3. Interview with authors.

    1. There is some debate as to whether Bangalore's present high rate of growth is novel. Economic Times journalist Narendar Pani has argued that the city's population was growing quicker in the 1970s than it is currently. Suffice to say for our present purposes that the city is currently growing very quickly, regardless of whether it was growing quicker in the past.

    2. Of the eight urban local bodies (ULBs) that surround the city of Bangalore, seven were City Municipal Councils (CMCs) and one, Kengeri, was a Town Municipal Council (TMC). For the sake of continuity, all the eight ULBs can be called CMCs.

    3. Lok Ayukta institutions are anti-corruption cells set up by the state for redressal of citizens’ grievances by investigating administrative actions taken by or on behalf of the central government or the state government or certain public authorities.

    4. The education department, through the literacy programme of public instructions department, surveyed 700 slums in the late 1990s.

    5. The information and analysis here is based on research done by Issac Amrutharaj and Eshwarappa M, included in their documentary, ‘The Mumbai Model’.

    6. Thinekar, former chief secretary of Maharastra, was the chairperson of the state committee that reviewed the land sharing practice in Mumbai.

    7. The study on the land sharing agreement for slum housing in Mumbai was done by Issac Amrutharaj, a resident of the L.R. Nagar slum in the south of Bangalore's city centre. He was interviewed by the authors on 21 July 2007.

    1. These companies are not only into drinking water supply, which is the focus of this book, but also sanitation programmes, desalination plants, and supplying water for production of other products, which are all part of the ever growing water industry.

    2. See, as one example among many, the Public Services International Research Unit's website for clinical refutations of most of the claims made for privatisation, and descriptions of individual cases.

    1. Participatory Local Area Capital Expenditure document was signed on 21 May 2005.

    2. Proceedings of the meeting with financial institutions and intermediaries held in February 2004 in the board room of KUIDFC.

    3. All this still applies even with the formation of the Greater Bangalore area; it is just transferred to the new zones which correspond to the CMCs.

    4. Proceedings of the Government of Karnataka, GBWASP Steering Committee meeting on 15 December 2003.

    5. Ibid.

    6. BWSSB presentation for Greater Bangalore Water and Sanitation project, the privatisation of which was initiated by IFC of the World Bank. The departmental presentation was made in early 2005 for the different stakeholders of the project in Bangalore. The residents of the GBWASP were not invited.

    7. Right to Information(RTI) request to the Government of Karnataka. The response was received in April 2007.

    8. The authors interviewed the senior engineer of the BWSSB who chose not to have his name mentioned. It was held in May 2007.

    9. BWSSB letter to principal secretary. Subject—‘GBWASP Regarding PSP in O&M of Water Supply and Sewerage System in all 8 ULBs Located Around Bangalore City’. It was written by Ashok Manoli, the then commissioner of the BWSSB in response to the privitisation proposals by the IFI.

    10. Ibid.

    11. Ibid.

    12. Ibid.

    13. I.S. Patil, a slums project coordinator in APSA was involved in the AusAID study in the slums of Bangalore. He was interviewed by the authors in January 2007.

    14. DFID, Freedom of Information Act 2000, Request reference no: F2006/151.

    15. Vinay Baindur of CASSUM was interviewed by the authors in early 2007.

    16. Quoted in Press Note accompanying the letter on behalf of the Civil Society Organisations that were invited to the WSP Consultation in Pune on 22 and 23 May 2006.

    1. DFID, Freedom of Information Act 2000, Request reference no: F2006/151.

    2. Advertisement placed by the Hubli-Dharwad Municipal Corporation in the Deccan Herald in early 2007.

    3. Rama Devi is an activist working with the urban homeless in Bangalore. The authors interviewed her in early 2007.

    4. Proposal of Cities Alliance to BWSSB.

    5. Ibid.

    1. Interview of Ms Nina Naik, Chairperson of the Bangalore Child Welfare Committee for Radio City 91.1 FM.

    2. Quoted by a Hindu priest during a television debate on Udaya TV.

    3. Interview with Campaign members (including Kshithij Urs) in July 2007, when during a week long march for anti-privatisation, campaigners met him in his office.

    4. Demand sheet of the Campaign against Water Privatisation—Karnataka, July 2006.

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    About the Authors

    Kshithij Urs is a medical graduate from the Bangalore University and has a Masters degree in Development Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He has been an activist and a campaigner for the urban poor, the urban homeless and children in difficult circumstances since 1993. He has contributed significantly in building an award winning organisation—APSA (The Association for Promoting Social Action) that works with the poor in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. He is also the director of Ants Eye View, a grassroots media centre. Presently, he heads the Karnataka regional office of ActionAid, an international NGO that works in over 40 countries around the world. He is also a founder member of the Campaign against Water Privatisation in Karnataka and has written various articles for the print media in India.

    Richard Whittell is from the UK. He lived in Bangalore during the bulk of events in the book. He is currently making a film about the UK Government's Department for International Development and the opposition to its work in India.

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