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Fighting inequality one city at a time: reclaiming public water and electricity in Delhi

February 12, 2014
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There’s a political earthquake going on in Delhi right now. Biraj Swain (Exfam India, now campaigning and researching on water) Biraj Swain sepialooks at its immediate impact on poor people’s access to water and electricity.

Last month marked the first month in office of the anti-corruption movement turned political party, the Aam Admi ‘Common Man’ Party government in Delhi, India. Two days into office, they had made ‘lifeline water’ free for each household (calculated at 140 litres per capita per day, 20 kilolitres per month). Citing the estimated 24.8% unconnected and un-metered households in Delhi, the corporate media has slammed the decision as misplaced populism since it will only benefit the already-connected rich and result in wastage.

However, by making lifeline water free across class and caste, from the super-elite Lutyens’ zone to the ultra-poor slums, the government established the right to water in principle and practise. This is aimed to stop the poor from being priced out and keep municipal budgets under control, just like Manila-Philippines, Grenoble-France and Argentina etc. And by coupling the 20 kilolitres free water with steep hikes above that threshold, they are tackling wastage. Meanwhile, they are also expanding the piped water network, to make potable water accessible to all.

The government has also come down heavily on corrupt officials of the utility and the water-tanker mafia. It is common knowledge that utilities across the world are among the most corrupt public bodies and their technical nature makes their operations inscrutable to many. So while keeping the utility in the public domain, making it efficient, accountable and pro-poor is also part of the agenda.

Little wonder that the current Delhi Chief Minister, Arvind Kejriwal, is a trained engineer who has already led a successful campaign against the privatisation of Delhi’s water utility in 2005. Using India’s transparency law, he unearthed 9000 pages of proposed reform plans. From overly generous concession contracts to uber-expensive management consultants and exponential tariff hikes, the plans had the potential to trigger a water-war. Debt financed water and sanitation has already resulted in many cities in South Asia defaulting and end-users burdened with expensive loans.

Unlike water, power distribution is already privatised. Thanks to steep domestic tariff hikes, Delhi’s electricity is one of the most expensive in the country. The power supply is managed by the two biggest corporate houses of India, the Tata and the Ambani groups.

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, Photo AP/Guardian

Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, Photo AP/Guardian

As with water, the new Delhi government has unleashed a slew of measures such as sharp tariff cuts (up to 50%) in the first 400 units’ of domestic usage and incremental increases above that.

Last month also saw the power regulator (long since captured by the energy companies) locking horns with the government and hiking electricity tariffs by 8% unilaterally on the back of outage threats from private companies. This is standard corporate bullying 101 in essential sectors like water and electricity.

But the Delhi government is fighting back. By asking the country’s statutory auditor, the Comptroller and Auditor General, to audit the books of private power distribution companies, the government is re-writing the rules of engagement in public-private partnership (PPP). In an era where PPP is touted as the silver bullet for all essential services challenges, the state is often forced to retreat. The chief minister is resisting by re-drawing the boundaries of the state itself, re-introducing citizen-state oversight over utilities and their functioning.

Whether this experiment will succeed in bringing down power bills sustainably while keeping the access equitable, is yet to be seen. But it has already prompted unprecedented public debates and education on the workings of the power and water sectors, hitherto inaccessible to the general public. We can be agnostic about whether public or private provision works best, but there can be no debate on greater accountability and transparency of utilities and their operations.

The next step is to rewrite the remit of utility regulators and bring in greater transparency into their selection process. Stopping the regulators from becoming a dumping ground for unwanted bureaucrats or retired judges with serious conflicts of interest is essential if these regulators are to bark and bite in the public interest, based on the principles of equity and efficiency.

One month is a very short time in a five-year electoral mandate. For a public action movement re-invented as political party hardly a year ago, it is even shorter. But if these experiments of greater transparency, lifeline allocations for all, tariff rationalisation and Delhi waterincreased public scrutiny succeed, then it will be another victory in the glorious tradition of Cochabamba-Bolivia, Recife and Porto Alegre-Brazil etc.

Agitational politics which has been the hallmark of people’s water movements across the world is also the hallmark of this government. The Delhi government is scripting a story with greater public engagement which would be very difficult to roll back. And public-public partnership could be a real counter-narrative, in India, South Asia and globally.

Biraj Swain is a member of the Right to Water Coalition and has just finished a study on small towns’ water sanitation challenges in South Asia and East Africa (under publication). She has led a meta-analysis of Asian Development Bank lending and its impact on water sanitation access to the poor. She can be reached at

Update: Well that didn’t last long. Arvind Kejriwal resigned as chief minister of Delhi on 14th Feb, frustrated by obstacles put in the way of an anti-corruption bill, and immediately proposed fresh elections for the capital. Further update from Economist here.


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