Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan. (Ramesh Pathania/Mint)
Kerala chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan. (Ramesh Pathania/Mint)

What does the World Bank’s $500 million ‘partnership’ mean for Kerala?

  • Pinarayi Vijayan shook hands with Junaid Ahmad, World Bank’s India Director, to push the partnership, called as ‘Resilient Kerala Initiative’, into its deployment phase
  • State partnership, according to the bank, is an instrument to have long term investment in the Indian state

Bengaluru: When World Bank’s team first met Kerala’s communist chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan in New York last year, not long after the state faced massive rains and floods in August as a result of which five million people were displaced, the CM expressed the view that it is not reconstruction that Kerala needs the bank’s support, but bringing fundamental changes to reduce the risk of future disasters.

Over the next few months, about 45 members from the bank camped in Kerala and in Delhi to make a plan for the state to do that, and on 12 July, the World Bank said it is signing up Kerala as its first ‘state partner’ in India. On Monday, Vijayan shook hands with Junaid Ahmad, World Bank’s India Director, to push the partnership, called as ‘Resilient Kerala Initiative’, into its deployment phase, and also received the first tranche of $250 million of the $500 million funds towards this.

State partnership, according to the bank, is an instrument to have long term investment in the Indian state. The details of what is discussed, people involved in the discussion told Mint requesting not to be named, has the potential to be a gamechanger for the way water is governed in an Indian state, provided Kerala acts on these.

The recommendations include drafting a River Basin Management Act and establishing a River Basin Management Authority, instead of the existing practise, not just in Kerala but across India, where several agencies pool together and control parts of how water moves from the basins, often leading to inefficiency and even conflict of interest. The Kerala State Electricity Board, for instance, has the mandate to ensure maximum power generation during monsoon, for which it has to maintain the reservoir levels close to full, as opposed to lowering water levels and prevent a massive flood situation.

“More than a project partner, World Bank will be our development partner now," the CM said on Monday, detailing some of the projects in the works: reorganising the entire farmland into five agro-ecological zones and establish crop patterns that fits to each one’s water capacity, strengthening water supply and sanitation services and their resilience to disasters and impacts of climate change, reorganising core roads networks and awarding performance-based contracts to insure roads against damage, establishing a committee to revise the master plans of cities, opening green corridors across the state, among others.

“The focus is not on financing but on helping extend the state its institutional capabilities," said a person who was involved in the talks, requesting not to be named. “We were surprised about some of the things our study in Kerala showed up: No single city in Kerala has a major waste-water treatment plant, except very small ones for Trivandrum and Kochi (the administrative and the financial capital). How can we claim to be 21st-century country, when water treatment plants and waste-water treatment plants go missing? Even in places like Dhaka, I can drink from the (public) pipe in Dhaka. There is no need to take bottled water. Likewise, Kerala has the highest per-capita road network, but nearly 15 major roads shoulder 70% of the traffic. It is not sustainable," the person said.

“The question that is debated now is what needs to be done. Who should be in charge of water delivery? Who will set up water treatment plants? Who will set up distribution? Who will do the maintenance? How will it be financed? All of these needs to be unpacked and thought through. Now, all of this is technically supposed to be done by KWA (Kerala Water Authority), but KWA is hardly equipped to do these. The idea is that going ahead, it should not be business as usual, and agencies should have open borders."

The reconstruction ideas would be easier said than done. Junaid, appearing on a Facebook live on the sidelines of his visit to Kerala on Monday, touched upon what would be one of the hardest parts to do. “In South Korea," he said, “There was one room that was managing all the dams. That has made some of the departments giving up their rights on the dams."


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