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Free (for all) water

Freebies harm especially when they concern basic services. In the case of Delhi, the newly-exited Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) pledge to give up to 20,000 litres of water free each day to each household is just such a freebee. Not only will it harm the provider and the environment but also not reach the intended poor. The notification dated January 1, 2014 says it is only for households with working meters and excess consumption will mean paying for the full amount. This works out rather poorly for Delhi’s households with eight lakh out of 27 lakh piped water connections in households unmetered or having dysfunctional meters. Delhi Jal Board (DJB) admitted their metering records is poor so even these figures are guestimates.  Another 4.61 lakh households get water from tubewells which DJB is taking over; the initial experience from two large colonies, Sangam Vihar and Mahipalpur in South Delhi suggests the situation has worsened since.

DJB earlier supplied 6,000 litres a month free (till this notification) to poor households, though again poor distribution meant the really needy never got any of this. People in Rangpuri for example pay a monthly charge of Rs 60 for supply from a local tubewell owned and operated by a local goon and a connection charge of Rs 2,000. Water comes for an hour a day usually at low pressure so each house barely gets enough. This works out to about 100 litres per person per day, well above the 40 litres of free water DJB was giving till last year. The water is not drinkable and forces people to spend extra on buying drinking water or treatment systems. Similarly, 37 per cent people living slums are out of the purview of AAP’s freebee either because there are no pipes to supply water or they do not have meters.

Where did this 20,000 litre figure come from? Taking an average of five people per household, it works out to about 135 litres per person per capita (lpcd) that is the minimum recommended supply for an urbanite by the Ministry of Urban Development. But it does not reflect the quantity of water a person really needs and is instead the volume of water needed to keep modern sewage systems functional. Studies have found the actual per capita water use is just 78 lpcd, half the amount promised. It is lower than the 172 lpcd suggested in a draft water master plan for Delhi.

There is not enough water to supply the freebee. DJB provides about 3900 million litres of water every day (MLD). This is 215 lpcd. By its admission, leakages are 45 per cent to 50 per cent. The end-of-pipe supply is therefore 110 lpcd, much lower than AAP has promised. For AAP to fulfil its promise, it will have to supply 270 lpcd that works out to 4860 MLD assuming leakages remain the same. The total water available to Delhi under various agreements is 4186 MLD, including from the Yamuna, Ganga, Bhakra and DJB-owned Ranney wells. This is a shortfall of 674 MLD at the moment, not factoring in the growth in population.

Delhiites make up the shortfall by pumping groundwater that is about 2,100 MLD of which DJB supplies around 100 MLD; the other 2,000 MLD is from privately owned tubewells. Of the nine groundwater blocks in the city, seven are over-exploited and one is on the borderline. Therefore, this source is unavailable for practical purposes to augment supply to meet the current promised supply. Other attempts to increase local water availability such as rainwater harvesting have barely gained traction in the city.

The freebee will push DJB into the red again. Its budget is Rs 3952 crores with an Rs 234 crore surplus. A rough calculation puts its cost of producing a kilo litre of water at Rs 10 including sewage treatment. If it is to supply 20,000 litres free a month to each household, it will have to spend an additional Rs 115 crore. The additional free amount DJB will provide is actually 14,000 litres a month that will mean foregoing a revenue of Rs 33 per house per month at the lowest consumption slab billed at Rs 2.42 per kilo litre. This totals about Rs 10 crore a month or Rs 120 crore a year. In effect, the freebee will wipe out DJB’s modest surplus in a year and put it back on Delhi government support. In turn, this will affect its plans for upgrading and modernizing its supply network that is absolutely necessary to bring down water losses.

This calculation does not take into account the increased sewage generation. Delhi’s existing sewage treatment plants have an installed capacity of about 2,400 MLD and work at about 66 per cent capacity. This means they treat about 1,600 MLD sewage, the rest entering drains and Yamuna River untreated. If everybody gets the promised water sewage generation will jump to about 3,900 MLD. That means we will compound the problem of water pollution by discharging about 2,300 MLD of raw sewage into the city’s drains and river. This is not at all desirable.

What is possible is a step-by-step approach starting with fixing a very leaky system. Modern technology makes it possible to find and plug leaks to bring DJB’s losses down to an acceptable 15 per cent. Once this is done, the city will have adequate water to provide an acceptable amount to all. The second is to reduce the quantity of water but provide it in assured quantities and of certified quality. Again, studies indicate supply in the region of 100 lpcd is good enough for domestic purposes without cramping ‘modern’ lifestyles; this means a household supply of 500 litres, or 15,000 litres per month. The third is to expand the water and sewage network from the 75 per cent and 55 per cent, respectively, so everybody is covered in order to supply the water and collect the sewage. The fourth is to fix meters to ensure people are billed for water consumed, especially those who can afford to pay. If a Delhiite pays Rs 4.96 for a unit of electricity he/she can afford to pay for water. A cross-subsidy can help keep DJB in the black. AAP’s objectives maybe laudable but counter-intuitive since in countless surveys (and not all by the World Bank) people have said they are willing for an assured supply of good quality water.

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