The employees of Delhi Jal Board recently observed a massive sit-in protest to oppose the ‘One Zone-One Operator’ policy, a scheme brought in by the Delhi Government which will lead to the privatisation of water utilities in Delhi and a danger of hikes in water tariffs in the coming days. NewsClick spoke to Virender Gaur, president of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions’ Delhi unit, to know about the policy and their protest.
NC: All the major employees unions of the Delhi Jal Board have come together to oppose the privatisation bid. Could you explain the new measures and the points of contention?
VG: In a recent meeting in the last week of September, the Delhi Jal Board gave its nod to divide the capital into eight zones; subsequently, each zone will be given to one private operator for operation, management and maintenance of water and sewage lines. These private firms will be reportedly engaged for a period of ten years. We, the employees unions, are protesting the move because it will ultimately lead to privatisation of the water utility which has served the people of Delhi with commitment and efficiency from its inception.
NC: How do you think privatisation will affect the people of Delhi?
VG: Well, I think we need to define the term ‘people of Delhi’. Are workers who are currently engaged with the Delhi Jal Board not ‘people of Delhi’? It is the workers who will be subjected to lower wages and no social security if the utility is handed over to private parties. It is the people of Delhi who have been fooled in the name of 24x7 water supply. The Delhi Government under the Sheila Dikshit regime engaged operators like Nangloi Water Services Private limited, Mehrauli Vasant Vihar Water Utility Private Limited and Malviya Nagar Water Services Private Limited for water supply and infrastructure expansion in these areas in 2012.
This was partial privatisation brought in the name of pilot projects under the Public Private Partnership model and the government said that further implementation will be subject to the success of these projects. The reality is that the projects failed miserably. The people of Mehrauli still await water supply after eight years. The biggest downside of the privatisation drive is that the water supply network has been designed in such a way that it only caters to the needs of the rich and the elite. Let me cite an example. Basant Village and Vasant Enclave are adjacent areas divided by a road, but their reality is far different. The people in Basant village wait for three days to get water supply for their households. The same phenomenon is replicated in Anand Niketan, Satya Niketan, West End Enclave and other posh colonies. Interestingly, residents of posh colonies and other middle class areas are paying the same price. I am still not talking about the resettlement colonies and outer Delhi areas known as Dilli Dehat. These areas have been left to the mercy of the gods.
NC: You spoke about private players and their dubious role in the system. Could you cite more examples?
VG: Of course. What I find interesting is that no private player is keen on completing the projects in a time-bound manner, because it hurts their interests. First, the contact is awarded and is later revised with more public money poured into the projects. Secondly, a few water treatment plants, including the Sonia Vihar Water Treatment plant is run by private players. The treatment plants run directly by the Delhi Jal Board are working beyond their maximum capacity whereas the one at Sonia Vihar is not. The only reason I can think of is that private players are cutting costs to maximise profits.
NC: You also spoke of Sheila Dikshit’s tenure and her privatisation plans, although they were discarded after public outrage. Could you elaborate?
VG: The former CM wanted to handover the operation, management and maintenance of water and sewage lines to private players, following a dubious audit by private consultancy firm PricewaterhouseCoopers (PWC) and a loan offer by the World Bank. They first brought in plans for privatisation of water distribution in Greater Kailash and Rohini. It was another example of loot by the private mafia. PWC had valued one of our properties in Malviya Nagar at Rs 50 crore, whereas the property was actually worth more than Rs 200 crore.
Similarly, the conditions of the World Bank loan were one-sided. For example, the workers were placed under private contractors and they had the complete freedom to transfer and rationalise the staff. This was completely anti-labour. The plans were opposed tooth and nail by the resident welfare associations, civil society groups and political parties, especially Left parties. The government had no other option but to withdraw it.
NC: Arvind Kejriwal came to power with his promise of subsidised and cheap water and electricity to the people of Delhi. Yet, his minister comes up with the proposal. How do you see it?
VG: It is perplexing. I think he is not looking beyond the small picture. If he thinks – as has been reported in the media – that the ownership of DJB will be with the government, he is living in a fool’s paradise. We have ample examples to see what really happened with discoms like NDPL and BSES. Technically, the Delhi Government is still a stakeholder in these companies but does it has the capacity to formulate policies? Certainly no. He must understand it if he is being advised by advocates of private lobbies.
NC: You said that the people were being fooled by the promise of 24x7 supply. Why do you say so?
VG: We need to understand that the water cannot be generated. It is given by nature. So, judicious use is also our responsibility. Delhi mainly gets its supply from two major canals – Munak Canal in Haryana and Ganga Canal in western Uttar Pradesh. The water from the latter is diverted to Sonia Vihar and Bhagirathi plants. Similarly, Chandrawal, Nangloi and Haiderpur plants get water from the Munak Canal. Delhi has no other source of water. It currently needs 1,150 million gallons of water per day (MGD) whereas the supply is around 900 MGD per day. How do you cover the deficit? The government may talk about plans but the reality is that you will have bring another Yamuna to Delhi. We know this is not going to happen. I think the answer to water scarcity lies in just distribution of water across Delhi without any discrimination between rich and poor areas.
NC: How do you think the issue will be resolved?
Virender Gaur: We are in consultation with the Delhi Jal Board and the Delhi Government. If they go ahead with the plan, we are ready for a strike. The government has no option but to withdraw it.