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The Need for the Commercialization of Water in India

Posted on Sunday, Aug 9th 2009

By Guest Author Rohit P. Singh

India, in spite of being surrounded by bodies of water on three sides, being crossed by 13 major rivers, and being home to the place with the world’s highest rainfall (Cherapunji) and largest river island (Majuli), is suffering from an acute water crisis. Even as there have been great advances in the fields of science and technology, people in India are still exposed to health hazards because of water, which itself is the reason for life on our planet.

It is time that we start looking for answers rather than stating the problems and waiting for someone else to solve them. The solution to water scarcity does not lie in making policies and agendas with no intention of executing them. Each person in every community across India needs to start playing a specific role in alleviating the current and future suffering caused by lack of access to clean water.

Apart from the issue of water not being available where and when we need it, there is also the severe problem of managing the available resources. The water supply and sanitation sector in India is currently suffering from a large demand-supply gap, inadequate sanitization processes and poor financial management. Talking of the right to drinking water, which essentially is the right to a “dignified life,” the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) puts an obligation on India, which is one of its member states, to gradually realize this right. The Tenth Plan, which was in force from 2002 to 2007, outlined the measures that need to be taken to improve the drinking water scenario in the country. They are: participation by all people, awareness of the need to use water economically, the involvement of the private sector, the integration of the drinking water supply with sanitation programs, and the promotion of traditional methods of water conservation.

It is both alarming and unfortunate that although India receives an average of 4,000 billion cubic meters of rainfall every year, only 48 per cent of this rainfall ends up in the country’s rivers and, due to lack of storage, only 18 per cent of it is used. These figures surely are cause for ignominy for any country and should exhort everyone to turn to better ways of rainwater harvesting and clean water storage. Doing so will also combat the food scarcity that is also prevalent in India; what’s more, these are methods that can be implemented at a household level.

Another important issue that should be addressed here is the involvement of the private sector in order to ease the burden of responsibility on India’s government. The notion that water is the private property of the individuals using it must be dispelled. The majority of people feel that water is a common resource and that anyone can dig a bore at the back of their house to pull out as much underground water as they feel like. Policies need to be formulated to restrict this unchecked appropriation of water. The division of responsibilities between the state and the private sector should be clearly defined, and the state should seek the help of the private sector both in terms of resources and technology which execution of such a scale requires. In a nutshell, there should be a mutual understanding between the two in order to cope with the management and financial implications of such a step towards progress.

People in general are interested in receiving clean water and sanitary services but are extremely reluctant to pay for such services. There is a negative attitude towards the recycling of waste water, and, for political reasons, towards the involvement of private parties; therefore, the public sector refrains from imposing any regulations on water use or increasing its prices. It is only through the so-called “commercialization” of water and its resources that we will be able to attract private sector investment, not only from those in India but from players across the globe, as India is today one of the most sought-after markets. So the time has come for people to start thinking of the water supply, sanitation services and waste water management in a structured and integrated manner. There is a need to develop an effective institutional framework which can develop and manage services that the country both expects and deserves from the government.

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Commercialization of water is not the only option. This is what has led to India’s shortsighted, unplanned dam policies that have displaced millions and made corrupt politicians and corporations run amok.

Rainwater harvesting must be explored more. It is already being adopted willingly in many parts of India, and some organizations in Bangalore are at the forefront of the movement.

Genevieve Sunday, August 9, 2009 at 6:34 AM PT

Yes, agreed. But this seems to be the only method to stop people wasting unlimited water at their will. Once it becomes a commodity under the control of the govt. people will start giving importance to underground water and will eventually start using it economically. Rainwater harvesting is on the move in many parts of India now. According to a very recent news article, all buildings, including residential, built on 60×40 and above dimension sites and new ones planned on 30×40 and above dimension sites in Bangalore, will have to adopt rainwater harvesting, if the Legislative Council approves a bill in this regard.

Rohit P. Singh Monday, August 10, 2009 at 10:12 AM PT

Rohit, nice article and nice to see someone from my alma mater taking up the crucial water scarcity issue. Is it true that the state of Gujarat has made a lot of progress in water management in the current decade and that has significantly improved agricultural production and output in that state? If yes, does that have to do with the Narmada dam or other techniques?

Rakesh Monday, August 10, 2009 at 9:35 PM PT

Thanks for the appreciation. Yes, Gujrat has indeed done a commendable job in the field of water management, sanitation and safe water supply. Looking at the changes in the last decade, there has been a substantial decline in the water-borne diseases like fluorosis, which was once a severe problem in a large part of Gujrat. Govt., aided by NGOs and communities, has succeeded in combating these diseases by water quality monitoring and new technologies.
Waste water, gray water and bio-degradables are recycled using user-friendly and cost-effective technologies. Storm water in both rural and urban areas gets recharged into underground aquifers. This has helped small and marginal farmers and urban agriculturists. In urban areas, water charges are now at a progressive rate. They reflect growing ability to pay and consumption levels. Cross subsidies are at work to protect poorer groups. A regulatory framework has been developed to encourage and control private operators for water and sanitation service.
Gujrat is seeing massive investments from many MNCs in the form of desalination plants due to its coastal location. These plants not only have the potential to supply clean water to thousands of people but can also alleviate the conflicts with Pakistan on the Indus valley treaty. Narmada river which has a mean annual flow of more than the combined flow of Ravi, Beas and Sutlej rivers has a potential of taking Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and southern part of Rajasthan onto a path of green revolution. The Sardar Sarovar Project aims to meet the imperative of making best use of this water.

Rohit P. Singh Thursday, August 13, 2009 at 8:52 AM PT


I have been researching for a sustainable, scalable & economic model to manage not only water but also MSW that gets generated in the urban societies.
The idea is to make these societies self sustainable on these aspects.
Let me know in case you have certain things that I can use/ work on.

Amol Pawar Friday, August 14, 2009 at 6:17 AM PT

In India managing the municipal waste has been a problem, majorly because of financial constraints, lack of awareness, inadequate knowledge on technology and proper methods. Govt. has taken certain vital steps under the National Action Plan for Climate Change (NAPCC) to come up with a sustainable solution for managing the waste in urban societies. As far as methods are concerned there are some, like composting, piling, bio-methanation etc. MSW usually is 40-45% bio-degradable and 50% inert or non-biodegradable. Firstly the societies need to straighten the mindset of people, for eg., replacing polythene bags by jute bags. Then we can have adequate technology to carry out important process like collection, segregation, storage, transportation, processing and disposal.

Rohit P. Singh Sunday, August 23, 2009 at 5:22 AM PT