Smart cities will Require an Institutional Approach to Address the Water Crisis
Institutional mechanisms have played an important role in determining how cities have coped with the provision of infrastructure – especially with regards to water supply. The state has long been entrusted with the responsibility of actual provision of services as a ‘public good’ – to be offered on a best effort, but largely unaccounted for basis, i.e. as part of a social contract. As a result, State Government entities – such as Public Health Engineering Departments, Water Supply & Sewerage/ Drainage Boards held primary sway over-provision of services, and in very large cities, municipal bodies themselves were assigned the actual responsibility for the provision of services.
India's cities have expanded rapidly as an increasing number of people migrate in search of better economic opportunities. Such rapid urbanization has led to a scarcity of basic resources such as land, water, etc. Meeting the needs of this ever-growing urban population is and will continue to be a critical policy matter for the government. Building smart cities could be the answer to India's urban transformation woes, however, India’s water crisis which is a larger malaise that plagues urban India requires to be addressed at the earliest.
Water scarcity is likely to have far-reaching consequences on economic growth, with a major impact on health, agriculture, and income. According to the Composite Water Management Index (CWMI) report released by the Niti Aayog in 2018, 21 major cities (Delhi, Bengaluru, Chennai, Hyderabad and others) are racing to reach zero groundwater levels by 2020, affecting water access to 100 million people. Lack of established institutional mechanisms in India’s water sector are to a large extent responsible for the current situation of water scarcity, and failure of water governance.
Institutional mechanisms have played an important role in determining how cities have coped with the provision of infrastructure – especially with regards to water supply. The state has long been entrusted with the responsibility of actual provision of services as a ‘public good’ – to be offered on a best effort, but largely unaccounted for basis, i.e. as part of a social contract. As a result, State Government entities – such as Public Health Engineering Departments, Water Supply & Sewerage/ Drainage Boards held primary sway over provision of services, and in very large cities, municipal bodies themselves were assigned the actual responsibility for provision of services. This institutional arrangement has generally been followed by (and still prevails in) most emerging economies in Asia as well as Africa, many of which were former colonies.
However, in 1992, the Government of India enacted the Constitution of India (74th Amendment) Act, which essentially sealed the arrangement that municipal bodies (and Panchayati Raj Institutions in rural areas), would be responsible for provision of services. About three decades later, local bodies are nowhere close to achieving 100 per cent coverage of services; and each successive Finance Commission – that determines the amount of assigned revenues (share of tax receipts), still ends up with a pronounced mismatch between fund, function and functionary.
Corporatisation of water supply – Are we there yet?
A legitimate question to ask therefore would be, ‘what is it with other developed countries in Europe, United Kingdom, United States or even Asian countries such as Japan, Korea and Singapore that allows services universal coverage and standards to be met uniformly?’ Interestingly, most of these countries have moved away from the state being the actual provider of services to being a facilitator and regulator, while actual delivery of services is ensured by specific utilities – which may be privately owned, state-owned, or a mix of both. Essentially – regulation and service delivery are separated. This model applied in India (with respect to electricity and telecommunications) has actually resulted in better coverage, accessibility and a definite appetite for the private sector to partake into service delivery. However, most of urban India remains averse to the idea of the corporatisation of water supply that could bring some degree of commonality with respect to the role of the state and separation of regulatory and delivery roles.
Utilities can ensure better coverage and quality of water service
Water is supplied by utilities can ensure separation of regulatory and delivery functions and may not erode the accountability of the state with respect to how the broad working parameters of a service – coverage, connection policy, tariff (economic regulation) and the rules governing the contract between a service provider and consumer – work. If anything, within a predictable and finite regulatory environment, coverage and quality of service should both improve. Nagpur’s 24x7 scheme and Salt Lake Sector V (Nabadiganta Industrial Township Authority, Bidhannagar, West Bengal) are great examples that clearly indicate that this arrangement has worked well even with respect to the water supply. In both cases, regulatory oversight is maintained by a local authority, while service delivery is managed by private concessions.
Going forward, it will be imperative that India establishes institutions to manage the water supply, to prevent adverse consequences due to mismanagement, its inability to deal with the ecosystem of water resources, water scarcity, water conflicts, floods and droughts and failure in water governance.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house