Home / Opinion / The dry taps of urban India

If the mention of water supply evokes memories of soiled hands under dry taps, of people in long queues jostling to get their buckets to the fast-emptying tanker, you’re not alone, for more than 70% of India’s urban population is not connected to water-supplying government agencies. Among the rest, those who receive a daily two-hour water supply consider themselves lucky.

Rapid urbanization has brought urban water supply in India under increasing pressure. With just 320 million people in cities, the edifice is already creaking. By 2050, the number of people living in cities is expected to go up to 840 million, according to UN projections. As with food and land, politics over price of water imperils this precious commodity. Pollution is an added menace.

India’s biggest cities find it difficult to meet the minimum norm of 135 litres per capita daily (lpcd) recommended by the Union government. According to Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM), the non-slum areas of the city get 4-5 times more supply than slum areas—92% of non-slum households have access to piped water provided by the municipal corporation. MCGM says this share is “substantially lower" in slums, where more than half of Mumbai’s residents live.

Daily water supply

Piped share

Mispricing of water has meant that the better-off residents in Indian cities have access to subsidized water, while the poor need to purchase water from private agencies at a steep price. Among those connected by piped water supply, the usually flat pricing structures mean that those using more water avail more subsidies.

Political interference in urban water administration has ensured that there has never been a serious effort to rationalize water tariffs. This has led to under-recovery of costs, leaving municipal bodies bereft of funds to modernize or expand water networks. To make things worse, political interference also allows households with dysfunctional meters to continue receiving water at cheap rates. This leaves little incentive for them to install new meters, dealing a big blow to municipal finances.

The limited financial resources of municipal bodies force them to rely on a dilapidated network of decades-old pipelines to meet even the current supply, leading to high leakage rates.

A 2006 research paper by UNDP says that since water is an essential commodity, its consumption in lower quantities is unaffected by price. However, at higher quantities, its consumption changes sharply with price. Thus, rectifying pricing mechanisms and penalizing households without meters will help realign subsidies, check profligacy, and boost municipalities’ finances, thereby enabling expansion.

If rationalizing price of water is one big challenge, tackling water pollution is another. Delhi is dependent on distant water sources in Haryana because pollution has rendered the Yamuna unusable. In most cities, more than half the toxic waste water emanating from households and industries is allowed to pass into clean water sources, with little or no treatment, rendering local water streams unfit for use. A 2005 report by IDFC Ltd estimates a threefold increase in urban waste water generation by 2051. Clearly, treatment and reusability of waste water must be a top priority for Indian cities in the 21st century.

This is the final part of a four-part data journalism series on India’s water crisis.

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