Saturday, June 27, 2009

SAFE DRINKING WATER: THE FLAWED REDDY SOLUTION

Governments in India love to get into more and more areas where they should not be in the first place, and where historically they have failed to deliver without cost and time overruns, if at all. The compulsions of competitive politics aimed at attracting more voters is the ready excuse justifying many such schemes, but does it have to be the government which should take upon itself, in the 21st century, the task of putting up and running plants to provide safe drinking water to people in the villages?

In Andhra Pradesh, the Byrraju Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation had launched Project SWEET(Safe Water for Everyone using Effective Technology) in 2004, to provide safe drinking water as per WHO standards to people on payment of a nominal charge of 12.5 paise a liter to ensure sustainability of the project. So far, access to safe water has been provided to 8,50,000 people in 171 villages through 57 plants. In addition, livelihood has also been given to 450 persons for operating the plants and distributing water within villages.

Possibly inspired by the success of this project, Andhra CM YSR Reddy believes that this is one fail-safe scheme that will help his government connect with the masses in the same way as the the free TV set and subsidised rice schemes have done for other politicians.

Notwithstanding the fact that it is votes, and not people, that have inspired one more politician to launch one more scheme, one has to welcome the basic idea because water borne diseases afflict a large number of people in the country. The same, however, cannot be said about the manner in which YSR Reddy plans to go about implementing this scheme. That reeks not only of some sort of a scandal in the making but is also likely to see poor delivery and needless waste of taxpayer's money due to inefficient and corrupt management of the project.

As per the scheme, Andhra government will install water treatment plants to cater to about 72,000 villages at a cost of Rs 200,000 per plant, to provide five liters of safe drinking water per person per day. This will involve a capital expenditure of over Rs 1500 crores. Thereafter, going by the operating costs worked put by the Byrraju foundation on each plant with an output of 7,500 liters of water per day, there will be an additional recurring expenditure of Rs 21,000 per plant per month, or over Rs 1800 crores per year.

It is possibly because of the large sums involved that the government plans to buy, install and run so many small plants in all villages with a population of 1500 and above. As per the news report, it is only "over time" that these will be handed over to women's self-help groups whose members will be trained for the purpose. This means that for an unknown period of time it will be the state government that will in this business.

There is little doubt that there is a crying need for a safe drinking water project to be launched nationally. It is not a matter to be left to the whims and fancies of politicians who want to make small political capital out of it, if not anything else. With poor or no government healthcare facilities available to a large section of the rural population, availability of such water will drastically cut down on incidences of water borne diseases.

The real question that needs to be answered in the context of what Byrraju has achieved in Andhra Pradesh and what the state government there plans to do is whether the government should become the manufacturer and supplier of such water to the common man. At a time where more and more public service utilities are being privatised because the state has failed to do what it was never meant to in a non-communist society, this step can only be considered regressive and one which will lead to massive corruption at every single stage, not to mention the real possibility that people will probably never get their full quota of water without fail. If they still are forced to drink contaminated water even once a week, the incidence of disease is not likely to register the kind of drop that is desired, defeating the very purpose of the scheme altogether.

It is, therefore, time for the Centre to step in and lay down a national policy on the provision of safe drinking water to all Indians. This appears to be one area where public private partnership involving the panchayats can make a dramatic difference in quick time. In any case, there is no case for either the central or state governments to get into the business and operating end of what is clearly a national mission whose time for implementation on a war footing has come.

Byrraju has been able to provide water at just 12.5 paise a liter, with its small plants. With the economies of scale that will kick in with bigger plants, it may be perhaps possible to provide it at much lesser cost despite the additional cost of transportation to a group of villages that will be dependant on one plant. Providing safe drinking water free when consumers have to pay for even ordinary tap water makes neither economic nor social sense. However, should the government decide to subsidise it and make it free, it must go in for the option that costs the exchequer the least since there is going to be a substantial recurring expenditure to the state for a long time.

What the Andhra Pradesh government is planning to implement in a fit of populism is going to do the exact opposite. This flawed Reddy solution, therefore, needs to be dropped and replaced by a more sensible and transparent national one that puts the tax payers' money to better use, and delivers too.


Photo source: The Hindu