Civic Amenities

Trickle of change

Print edition : February 07, 2014

Water supply in Delhi has been marked by inequitable distribution and gross unavailibility. Here, a 2012 picture. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

Arvind Kejriwal’s offer of free water will provide some relief to Delhi’s population, but only an overhaul of the water management policy can cure the systemic ills of the Delhi Jal Board.

THE Delhi government’s recent announcement that it would provide 20 kilolitres of potable water a month to all metered households was met with a mixed response. While the supporters of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) predictably cheered the decision, the opposition and corporate groups dismissed it as a populist measure taken without fiscal considerations. Water experts, too, raised doubts about the feasibility of the scheme in terms of cost-benefit analyses and factors such as conservation and equitable access. However, none of them negated the fact that urban water management in India is an area that needs constant attention and refurbishment.

Delhi, perhaps, is one of the worst cities when it comes to the supply of potable water. Rampant corruption in the Delhi Jal Board (DJB), the nodal body for water and sewage management in Delhi; poorly maintained infrastructure; inadequate sewage treatment; and a burgeoning tanker mafia have all led to problems of gigantic proportions. These problems finally reflect in escalated water bills, inequitable distribution or gross unavailability of water. So, when Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal announced his decision to provide free water, it raised great hopes among the common people despite the apprehensions cited by experts.

Kejriwal mentioned that it was the duty of every government to provide it citizens with “lifeline water”. For many observers, the “free water” decision is an intelligent scheme. A note on the AAP’s website says: “First, it would make 20,000 litres of water available free of charge to every household of Delhi with a water meter. Second, to a household that exceeds the 20,000 litre figure by even one litre, it would charge them for every litre they use, not just the water used over and above the 20,000 litre mark.” This decision to provide free water is tempered with an overall 10 per cent hike in water costs. This means the scheme will subsidise water for the poor and other low-income groups and tax the rich, who can afford to pay for water.

Sources in the DJB claim that the scheme will benefit at least nine lakh households, which consume below 20 kL a month. According to the last count done by the DJB in March 2012, the total number of metered households in Delhi is just 15.93 lakhs in a city with more than 220 lakh people.

The AAP followed the calculation of the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) to arrive at the 667-litre-a-day benchmark. The BIS figure suggests that every person in an urban area consumes 145 L of water a day. For a family of five, this amounts to 725 L a day. Of the 145 L, according to the BIS, 45 litres are marked as water used for flushing, mostly considered as excess. Therefore, the AAP deemed it fit to allow only 20 kL of water free of charge.

Ever since the DJB was constituted in 1998, Delhi has had a system of telescopic pricing for water. This means the fares are divided into different consumption slabs. The more you use, the more you pay. Kejriwal decided to make the first two slabs, that is up to 20 kL a month, or 667 L a day, free of charge. The scheme will cost the government Rs.140 crore a year, which, according to the Delhi government, will be neutralised through cross-subsidies. The 10 per cent hike in water costs is expected to minimise the DJB’s revenue losses.

The 10 per cent hike in water charges is an annual affair and in accordance with a DJB order issued a few years ago to account for inflation and to create a pool of resources for infrastructure maintenance. Before the elections, Kejriwal had promised that this order would be revoked as the DJB had hardly spent any money on maintenance. He had asked for a complete overhaul of the present system because of its corrupt nature.

However, fiscal considerations prevented him from revoking the order, an AAP member told Frontline. He said the current slabs would not only encourage people to go for metered connections but also lead them to conserve water. He also added that the Delhi government was focussed on rooting out corruption at an institutional level, and it was with this understanding that the Kejriwal government had transferred at least 800 officials of the DJB, apart from replacing its Chief Executive Officer.

Conservationists, however, are apprehensive. They believe that “free water” undermines the value of water, a resource that is fast deteriorating. Suresh Kumar Rohilla, water management expert at the New Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment, told Frontline: “Seven hundred litres of water is a bit too much for use. Most of the new projects that have taken shape in India in recent times follow the standards prescribed by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). The Ministry has clearly said the average use of water is only 86 litres per person. Yet, the AAP decided to go for the BIS standard. Long-term infrastructural change, better governance, and transparency are needed to streamline water management in urban areas, not such extravagant measures.”

Undoubtedly, the problems afflicting water management in Delhi are alarming. According to the DJB’s statistics, around 40 per cent of the water is lost during distribution owing mostly to poor infrastructure, leakages and theft. Considering that the Yamuna is polluted beyond use and that there is no major local source of water in Delhi except groundwater, the loss is almost criminal.

The DJB receives and distributes around 845 million gallons a day (mgd), or 3,200 million litres (one gallon is 3.79 litres), of water. Of this, only 32 per cent is counted as revenue water. As much as 68 per cent of the water the DJB distributes is unaccounted for. This figure does not take into consideration the private use of groundwater in colonies, where water pipelines are either non-existent or non-functional.

“In addition, there are only around 16 lakh water meters, almost half of which are non-functional,” said Himanshu Thakkar of the New Delhi-based advocacy organisation South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers, and People (SANDRP). Kejriwal has instructed the DJB to provide tankers in areas where there are no water pipelines, but this seems impractical as the DJB does not have enough tankers to meet this demand.

Thakkar said the amount of water Delhi receives is much more than many European cities. “If we assume that all the water the DJB distributes is fully consumed, the per capita consumption of water in Delhi is much more than in many European cities like Amsterdam, Paris and Bonn. The problem lies in the inefficient, non-participatory governance of the DJB. The DJB is one of the most opaque and corrupt institutions of Delhi. The Delhi government should look into these pertinent problems in the long run.”

Water in Delhi is from three major sources: the Western Yamuna and Upper Ganga canals and the Bhakra Nangal reservoir in Punjab. This water is diverted to the seven water treatment plants in Delhi, from which it is taken to underground reservoirs in different parts of the city. From these reservoirs, the water is pumped out to DJB pipelines and eventually reaches residential colonies and commercial spaces.

The system requires extensive water and sewage pipelines and adequate electricity. As much as 80 per cent of the 100 litres of water used by every household is discharged as sewage, according to available statistics. The bulk of the water tariff paid by consumers is divided between water volume and sewage treatment. Despite the high bills, water experts say, pipelines have not been maintained at all. “In most places, water and sewage pipes run in parallel lines. Since they have not been maintained, leakage contaminates the potable water. There is no system of ensuring water quality once water leaves the treatment plants,” Thakkar said.

Moreover, there is tremendous inequity in water distribution. The areas in outer and rural Delhi either do not have DJB pipelines or receive inadequate water. In contrast, the per capita consumption of water in posh colonies in south and central Delhi is around 500 litres, according to the SANDRP. Consequently, people in outer and rural Delhi have to rely on groundwater, which they pump out by using boosters, a practice that is illegal in Delhi. People also connect these suction pumps to the DJB pipelines. This leads to distortions in the pressure level inside the pipelines, which, in turn, lead to further contamination of water. Moreover, despite the over-consumption of groundwater, there is no system for groundwater recharge.

Delhi has the highest installed capacity of sewage treatment plants in India. But, according to the DJB itself, they are underperforming because of high costs and poor infrastructure. Sewage pipelines, more often than not, flow into drains, clogging them, or into the Yamuna. Experts have pointed out many times that sewage could be a useful resource provided the sewage plants are fully operational. Despite such glaring failures, the DJB has remained unaccountable. “There are hardly any bulk water meters installed at the water treatment plants or at the sewage treatment plants. Most of them do not work. Thus, the DJB has no account of the water distributed or wasted. The figures the DJB gives are all estimates. It could not bring itself to do even this much,” said Thakkar. “If you do not know where the losses are, how will you fix it?”

Instead of an internal scrutiny, the DJB, in the last few years, has claimed that the water Delhi receives is insufficient and has demanded that the government allot it at least 1,100 mgd of water. The previous Congress government had signed memorandums of understanding (MoUs) with Haryana and Uttarakhand to supply more water to the city.

Similarly, claiming that its infrastructure is not adequate, the DJB has advocated the privatisation of some of its essential facilities like distribution. It has also been demanding many new projects from the government to streamline water management in the capital. The most recent one is a plan to construct an interceptor channel which would tap 80 per cent of the sewage from three major drains of Delhi. This would then be diverted to the sewage treatment plants. However, experts say that such big plants are unsustainable as they involve high costs and huge infrastructure to facilitate long-distance transport of sewage, a concept that has been discounted in many countries.


More often than not, the DJB indulges in tokenisms. For instance, during the monsoon, the DJB advertises incentives for households to harvest rainwater. “However, in reality, there is no assistance from it if one wants to do rainwater harvesting. The facilities are inaccessible. Why can’t the DJB do something that encourages commercial and government buildings in Delhi to use rainwater harvesting systems first and explore its potential instead of targeting individuals? Is it not mere tokenism?” asked Thakkar.

In 2007, Kejriwal, who then worked with a non-governmental organisation called Parivartan, led a campaign to point out the glaring lapses in the DJB, which was then trying to rope in the World Bank for a loan to initiate its own privatisation. The Delhi government had to withdraw the project as a result of this. Officials of the DJB refused to answer Frontline’squestions. Most of them, however, said that the questions raised by Frontline were being addressed by the DJB under the present government.

Water audit necessary

The root of Delhi’s water management problems is the institutional laxity of the DJB. Water experts, therefore, believe that only democratisation of the whole process, a more participatory governance model that goes down to the mohalla (colony) level, and a transparent functioning of the DJB could resolve such complicated problems of water in Delhi. To begin with, a detailed water audit to locate the loopholes will be necessary. Fixing these problems will require not just streamlining of the present water management system but a complete overhaul of the water management policy.

Figures from the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) show that the previous Delhi government utilised 83 per cent of the total funds for the expansion of roads and the construction of flyovers and 15 per cent on parking projects. At a time when the urban population is struggling over basic issues such as water and affordable living, such misplaced priorities of a government only reek of its elitist smugness. Therefore, the AAP’s focus on addressing issues such as water and power is a pleasant change. However, unless it addresses the core problems of these sectors, measures such as tariff cuts will only serve as temporary relief.

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