City of freebies: Promises that the Delhi government must deliver on

Water, electricity, wifi, bus rides for women -- promises of free or heavily subsidised services for the citizens of Delhi flow freely and frequently from the AAP government. We take a look at the details of some recent announcements and where they stand.

With assembly elections due next February, the Arvind Kejriwal government is on a spree doling out freebies to Delhi voters. The freebies range from free electricity, free water and free WiFi to free bus rides for women.

They all come with a catch, though. For instance, electricity will be free only for those consuming a maximum of 200 units every month. For those consuming 201 to 400 units, the subsidy was revised to a maximum discount of Rs 800 on the bill. Similarly, with regard to water subsidy, the limit is 20 kilolitres per month, with the consumer having to pay the full billed amount if he crosses this limit by even one litre.

“We have been in election mode for all five years and this is how elected representatives should be,” said Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia, who is also Delhi’s finance minister, while strongly defending these subsidies. “The intention of the scheme is to provide free electricity so that the poor can use bare minimum items such as two fans, a fridge, lights and maybe a television at their homes. Those who have received less from nature ought to get more from the law,” was his response to the severe criticism that the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has been facing over what the opposition parties have dubbed as “election sops”.

AAP currently holds 62 of the 70 Assembly seats with four seats with the BJP and four vacant.

Power savings

Sisodia has argued that the scheme will lead to power savings and reduce Delhi’s peak demand load, which at 7,400 MW this summer, was the highest ever for the national capital. “If people start saving electricity to keep consumption within 200 units a month, the government too will have power in surplus. Right now, the purchase cost of power is higher than the cost of distribution.”

“The declaration claiming electric consumption up to 200 units free is misleading,” said Delhi BJP President Manoj Tiwari, “Kejriwal will have to refund Rs 8,500 crore recovered as fixed charge and load charge to the consumers of Delhi first.” The Congress echoed the BJP charge, alleging that discoms had looted Delhi’s citizens on fixed charges and pension fund heads.

Notes from the water experiment

On the free water scheme too, Sisodia said a similar experiment some years back had yielded positive results. Under the Delhi government’s water subsidy, households using up to 20,000 litres of water a month don’t have to pay anything. “In the first year of the launch, the government’s collection from water bills went up by Rs 176 crore,” said Sisodia, adding those who were earlier using water through illegal means applied for metered connections to avail of the bill waiver. “At the same time, those who had connections started saving water to get into the free water net. We hope for similar results in power too”.

Jyoti Sharma, water conservationist and president of NGO, Force, said the impact of the water subsidy scheme could be seen in the slums. “The free water scheme, despite its negatives, takes care of the availability issue,” said Jyoti. “Rainwater harvesting and reviving water bodies are good initiatives but need to be sustained.” According to available figures, water supply increased by 60 million gallons per day on average, and 205 colonies have been added to the network. Of the 1,639 unauthorised colonies in Delhi, 1,105 colonies have piped water now.

According to available figures, Delhi needs 3,324 million litres of water per day while it gets 2,034 million litres per day with the average water consumption in the capital estimated at 240 litres per capita per day (LPCD) which is the highest in the country. Groundwater is the major source which supplements the surface water supply. Delhi Jal Board (DJB) supplies groundwater through 2488 tubewells and 21 Ranney Wells (a patented type of radial well used to extract water from an aquifer with direct connection to a surface water source like a river or lake) in the floodplains, amounting to 90 Million Gallons per day (MGD).

Yamuna storage project

Meanwhile, with water crisis a continuously looming threat in Delhi, Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has taken steps to make the national capital self-sufficient for its water needs. He recently announced the ambitious Yamuna floodplain natural water storage project. The government aims to encourage rainwater harvesting by digging small ponds. On paper, the plan appears feasible. The newly-dug ponds will store water from an overflowing Yamuna during monsoon. The Kejriwal administration hopes that the exercise will lead to a significant rise in Delhi’s water table.

Meanwhile, Union Jal Shakti minister Gajendra Singh Shekhawat has pulled out all stops to ensure that the Centre provides quick approval to the Delhi government for its Yamuna project. Now, plans are on to conserve water by constructing reservoirs in the 22-kilometre Yamuna floodplain stretch — starting from Palla, where the river enters Delhi, to the other end in Wazirabad. No concrete would be used in the construction of these reservoirs, to enable normal flow of the river.

The Delhi government recently announced it will pay Rs 77,000 annually to farmers who rent out their lands on the Yamuna floodplains to facilitate construction of these reservoirs and ponds. The government has formed a five-member committee to negotiate rentals with the farmers and claims that this project is the first of its kind in the country.

To roll out the project, Delhi government requires the concurrence of central government agencies such as Central Ground Water Board, Central Water Commission and Upper Yamuna River Board. Most approvals have been received for the pilot project, barring two from the National Green Tribunal (NGT) committees, which is expected soon.

Free Internet services

The other freebie announced recently was free WiFi access for all. On August 23rd, the Delhi government floated tenders to provide free WiFi facility, estimated to cost the state government over Rs 550 crore, with month-wise targets for execution.

The tendering process is likely to take a month and once an agency is selected, the government has set a target of setting up 11,000 hotspots to provide free internet facility across the city in 90 days.

The government plan is to set up 2,000 hotspots within 30 days in the first phase. According to the tender documents, 2,200 hotspots will be set up in 45 days in the second phase while in the next 60 days, another 2,200 hotspots will be created. In all, 11,000 hotspots will be set up across Delhi’s public places .– ranging from bus stops, parks to mohalla clinics – in five phases, which are expected to be completed by November-December.

The Chief Minister’s ambitious plan envisages that all 70 assembly constituencies will have 1,000 hotspots each. An OTP based access system, will enable every user to use up to 15 GB of data a month. At each hotspot zone, up to 200 users will be able to simultaneously access WiFi at a speed of 200 mbps. The hotspots will have a range of 50 metres each.

The Opposition has, of course, termed the announcement a poll gimmick, citing the delay since 2015, when the AAP had taken office, promising to make Delhi a WiFi city.

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