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New Delhi: The inability of the poor to pay is the primary reason politicians give against privatization of water supply services. But in India’s capital, it is the poor that sometimes pay more, with government inertia spawning a massive private water supply operation. This is the last in a three-part series on the politics of water in the country.

The sound of water falling into a bucket is the signal for 37-year-old Ramhet and his neighbours to wake up at night and rush to join the queue to collect water.

Also Read Earlier parts of the water series

Ramhet, who uses only one name, is a resident of Sangam Vihar, a sprawling, mostly low-income, south Delhi neighbourhood that city officials call unauthorized; it means it is not sanctioned by the city’s planners or the state government.

Listen to a resident talk about the water supply problem in Sangam Vihar

d91c9908-36f7-11de-a53d-000b5dabf636.flvAnd because it is deemed unauthorized, most households of this locality aren’t connected to the network of state water utility Delhi Jal Board (DJB). Result: growth of illegal, private water supply operations.

Rashid Khan, another Sangam Vihar resident, says he and his family depend on water piped twice a week by “a private contractor" into his small home. The contractor charges between Rs300 and Rs500 a month from a family, depending on its size, he says.

Hefty bills: Slum children queue up to fill water from a Delhi Jal Board tanker. Most households in New Delhi’s Sangam Vihar spend Rs300-500 a month for buying water from private suppliers. Ramesh Pathania / Mint

In Delhi, plans to privatize the government-run water utility have met with widespread protests from non-governmental organizations and local leaders.

The water situation in Sangam Vihar is clearly an example of a paradox in urban water supply in India—the government subsidizes water supply but these are extended only to those that have metered connections, something that the poorest of the poor in cities do not have. This means, people such as Ramhet, who earn about Rs5,000 a month, pay Rs350 a month for water, while people in affluent localities pay as low as Rs100 per month.

“It is a fact that it is the poor that are paying the most. But the payment is in distress, not by choice. In Delhi, there is no democratic distribution. There is no need-based distribution," admits Delhi Jal Board chief executive officer Ramesh Negi.

Some of the so-called private contractors in Sangam Vihar have dug borewells and connected them to several houses in the locality through water-supply pipes, according to residents.

One side effect of the borewells is a depleting water table. Across Delhi, the water table has fallen by some 2-8m in the past one decade, according to Centre for Science and Environment, or CSE, a city-based non-profit organization. Around 236 sq. km area of south Delhi has seen the water table falling 1.10m every year, CSE says.

According to Usha P. Raghupathi, a professor at National Institute for Urban Affairs, a New Delhi-based think tank, until two years ago, her water bill was in the range of Rs20-Rs30 a month. “I spend Rs100 on petrol a day. We don’t need the subsidy."

Raghupathi currently pays between Rs200 and Rs250 a month for water for a household of three people, less than Ramhet and his family of four.

Raghupathi says most of the noise to increase water tariffs is made by people who can afford to pay. “Willingness to pay depends on how acute the need is. It is not the capacity to pay," says Raghupathi.

Most arguments against the privatization of water revolve around two central themes: water is a common resource that should be with the state, and privatizing a monopoly will lead to sharp increase in user charges.

For Ramhet and his neighbours, the lack of metered water connections is emblematic of a deeper malaise. As increased immigration forces people like him to move to the cities, it is creating a floating population with little or no papers and, therefore, little voice.

Gesturing to the motley vessels, Ramhet says, “These are all the vessels we have...." Most of them held paint or engine oil in an earlier avatar. “Ye bartan hi nibhate hain (These vessels are what sustain us)," says Pradeep Kumar, Ramhet’s neighbour. “Sometimes, they stay empty. And in the summers, don’t even ask," Ramhet adds.

When asked whether he had ever voted, Pradeep Kumar says, “(Once) my name came on the voters’ list... They even sent me the voting slip. I thought, ‘this time, let’s go vote’. But I didn’t have an identity card. They said, if you don’t have an identity card, then go back."

After all, officially, Sangam Vihar doesn’t even exist.

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