Water and Politics: Shaping the Political Agenda in Delhi

After the results of recently held elections in Delhi, the new Aam Aadmi Party formed the government with the outside support of the Indian National Congress, which had been in power for past 15 years. One of the key issues on which the party fought the elections was water and sanitation. Its manifesto opposed water privatization and proposed free water, up to 700 litres daily, to everyone, with a revised tariff based on usage above a certain limit. It also promised to end corruption and the dominance of the water tank mafia in poorer localities of Delhi, provide water services to unauthorized colonies and slums in Delhi, and connect sewer lines in the 25 per cent of areas without sewers along with many other pro-people schemes.

Within hours of the swearing in ceremony on December 28, Sh. Arvind Kejriwal, Chief Minister of Delhi removed the CEO of the Delhi Jal Board, as well as eight other ministers on the same board. The reasons for doing this were not officially disclosed, but they were presumably part of Kejriwal's promise to clear out inefficiencies and corruption in the government.

On December 30, the Delhi government announced its decision to supply 20,000 litres of free water per month for every household from January 1, 2014. Since then, various aspects of it have been debated in the print and visual media. The issues of water governance and pricing have come to fore. While the AAP government in Delhi means no major move towards water privatization, many crucial issues related to water demand and supply remain to be addressed. Various groups and people's movements working on water-related issues have welcomed the initiative, but also raised concerns and some points that need to be addressed.

Vimal Bhai of Matu Jan Sangathan wrote a letter to the Chief Minister of Delhi, pointing out various related issues. He wrote, “Keeping in mind approx 40% leakage, water supply in unauthorized colonies, slum areas should be regulated immediately.” He further added that a large part (300 cubic feet per second) of Delhi’s water supply comes from the Tehri Hydro Electric Project reservoir built on the Ganga River, Uttarakhand, but the problems of people affected by the dam has never been truly addressed by the Delhi government nor has it taken any responsibility for them. The displacement initiatives that have been in progress for more than 30 years now have still not been able to provide basic health, education, property rights, transportation, banking facilities, ration shops, roads, sewage systems or livelihood facilities for the around 40 villages that were displaced during the construction of the dam. All of this was promised as part of a rehabilitation policy at the time of displacement, but has still not been able to meet the needs of many amongst the displaced. There are schools but no teachers, negligible health facilities, and almost no basic infrastructure like roads and sewage. People are merely left in the jungles to survive on their own. Nearly 80 villages around the Tehri Dam reservoir are facing enormous problem from landslides, soil erosion and sinking. Around 30 villagers and more than 70 cattle have already died due to drowning in the reservoir. The Delhi government must own up to its responsibilities for the wellbeing of the people; it must not shy away from them.

Lastly, the Delhi government had signed memorandums of understanding with the Uttarakhand government to develop dams like Renuka HEP in Himachal Pradesh and Lakhwar HEP and Kisau HEP in Uttarakhand. Given the real costs of such projects and their consequences, as seen with the Tehri Dam, these dams should not proceed.

Himanshu Thakkar of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers & People and Manoj Mishra of Yamuna Jiye Abhiyaan wrote a joint statement outlining a water agenda for AAP. Apart from the above mentioned issues, they raised the issues of water conservation, corruption and inefficiency in the Delhi Jal Board, democratic governance and many other issues. They have requested very specifically to bring transparency to the functioing of the water board and ensure the reversal of agreements with Degremont, Veolia and other private companies on Sonia Vihar, Rithala and other projects and the three water supply zones.

Many in the water justice and other social movements feel that the people of Delhi’s right to cheap, abundant water cannot come at the cost of the right to life and livelihood of people displaced by dam construction. Delhi has to find ways to be self-sufficient through water conservation, recharging water aquifers, promoting efficient use, limiting wastage, and promoting water recycling and treatment. These and other major changes need to be taken on board in order to herald a new era that can become a model for other cities in India.