Delhi Report Card 3: Enough ‘free lifeline water’ for all, but quality and impact under scanner

In the run up to the Feb 8 polls, the impact of the AAP government's provision of free water to Delhiites on groundwater, and the quality of the water provided, have been questioned by experts and the opposition. But are voters likely to be swayed?

This article is part of our special series on Delhi Elections 2020

Round the clock supply of clean drinking water and continuation of the free 20,000 litres per month water consumption per household that is currently in place, comes second (only after Jagmag Delhi — subsidy on power bills) in Delhi chief minister and Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal’s list of 10 “Guarantees” to the people of Delhi if they return him to power.

Supplying free water, especially to areas that had no water supply, was one of AAP’s key promises when the party made its foray into electoral politics. And when it came to power first in 2013, the government began to implement this promise amidst doubts on whether homes needed that much free water and how it would be supplied. When the government was forced to resign 49 days later, Kejriwal’s detractors said many areas were not getting any water.

The 2015 party manifesto addressed the supply issue with the characteristic anti-corruption mood of that time. Instead of talking about what they had done in those seven weeks or the technical steps they intended taking, the party that was conceived in the wake of the Anna Hazare-led anti-corruption movement, spoke about how it would fight corruption on the water front.

“The water mafia was reined in and there was a crackdown on corruption in the Delhi Jal Board and all other government departments,” declared the manifesto. “The schedule of water tanker operations was made publicly available. Three FIRs were registered in scams related to Delhi Jal Board. Also 800 Delhi Jal Board employees were transferred and three senior officials suspended.”

Besides promises of reviving the Yamuna and promoting rainwater harvesting, Kejriwal had, immediately after taking charge, announced 20,000 litres a month of free drinking water to every household and all apartments of group housing societies through the Delhi Jal Board’s metered connections, and universal access to drinking water at “a sustainable and affordable price”. The government also abolished the annual 10 per cent hike in water charges.

Water for free

As a result, in upmarket residential areas like Defence Colony, families like the Salujas, who live in an independent three-storeyed house, have not paid quarterly water bills the last two years as their water consumption has been way less than the government’s monthly cap of 20,000 litres. While the senior Mrs Saluja and her three children live on the ground floor, they have five tenants, two of whom are school students, on the first and second floor. “Earlier we paid Rs 3000-4000 in every billing cycle,” said Vikram Saluja. The subsidy roughly translates to a saving of about Rs 1000 to 1250 every month for the family.

In East Delhi’s cooperative housing societies, residents said they do not get individual water bills, but pay the society along with the maintenance charges. The administrator of Ekta Apartments, for instance, told this correspondent that they received 8000 litres of DJB water per apartment per month, though they were told that 20,000 litres would be free. “We now do not have to pay anything for what we get,” said one resident, though the apartment could have done with the higher, promised quantity. The society has its borewell, and makes good the gap between their need and the DJB water supply by tapping ground water. The story is the same in apartments across the city–like Mayur Vihar, Punjabi Bagh and Hauz Khas.

Unlike electricity bills that people could study and note the subsidy, society management committees do not give a separate water bill. The secretary of one society said that they had adjusted the subsidy in the maintenance charges that have not been increased the last two years. Every society has its own way of billing maintenance charges, depending on how many guards are employed, the number of lifts, the common gardens, the number of gardeners, the number of cars each family wants to park inside, and the number of bedrooms in the apartments. While elected representatives manage some societies, some have outsourced the management. The maintenance charge starts at Rs 2000 in some of the lower middle-class societies, and goes beyond Rs 15,000 in apartments built by big branded realty companies like DLF.

BJP leaders have often blamed the AAP’s free 20,000 litres of water for the depleting ground water table of the national capital. And the Union Government’s think tank NITI Aayog in its Composite Water Management Index report of Aug 2019, says Delhi is the “lowest performing state” across the themes and indicators of the index. It adds that the “national capital territory of Delhi has not shared data on infrastructure set up to recharge ground water and that Delhi was “unable” provide data on drinking water access as well as water infrastructure coverage at the household level in rural areas.

On the supply and treatment of urban water, which is one of the themes of the index, the report says: “Delhi was unable to report data on the indicator and has scored nil on the indicator in the Index calculation. The same is the case with the percentage of Delhi population being provided drinking water supply by the end of the financial year 2019.

However, Delhi has the capacity to treat 67 per cent of the waste water generated, said the report, according to which 65 per cent of urban households were charged for water supplied to them between 2015-18. The report also adds that only 13 per cent of the over-exploited and critical groundwater units in Delhi have improved efforts at recharging.

Promises made in 2015  Status
Free lifeline water Mostly achieved
Promotion of rainwater harvesting Very little done
Crackdown on water mafia State govt unable to do much (It must be noted, though, that both police and Anti Corruption Branch come directly under Union Home Ministry)
Augmenting water resources including sourcing water from Munak canal Pending
Fair and transparent water pricing Achieved

No data on water

The constant clash between the AAP government and the Central Government could be one of the reasons why the NITI Aayog, chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, could not access the data. But the report does elaborate on what it calls ‘Delhi’s data reporting challenges’:

“Delhi’s data reporting challenges land the national capital as the bottom performer for FY 2017-18 with 20.16 points. Delhi, one of the two UTs included in the Index, ranks at the bottom but poor data reporting is a substantial reason behind it. Delhi failed to report data on 12 indicators and reported nil figures on few other. As a result, it scores zero points on 4 themes which collectively make up a little more than 40% of the maximum score in Delhi’s case. This limits the potential to understand Delhi’s water management performance through the Index and compare it with other state UTs.”

Looking beyond the Index, Delhi faces several water-related challenges such as water access for the urban poor residing in slums and discharge of untreated sewage and industrial waste into river bodies such as the Yamuna. It also ranked second in the list of 20 largest water stressed cities in the world in 2015-2020, highlighting serious water management concerns for the national capital.

“Given the need and importance of data-driven policy making and governance for tackling the constantly evolving water challenges, it is essential for the national capital to improve its water data practices. Establishing an integrated data-centre for water resources can potentially help in institutionalizing these practices as a beginning step, and the state can further utilize such platforms to design targeted policies and programmes to manage its water resources better,” the report concluded.

The NITI Aayog report had an impact at many levels. There was widespread concern with the Delhi High Court taking serious note of the reports in the media and initiating its own PIL on the alleged failure of the Delhi government and other public authorities to check the depleting groundwater levels in the national capital.

Conservation efforts

In response, the Delhi Jal Board said water requirement of the national capital was 1,140 million gallons per day (MGD), of which 935 MGD came from groundwater and sources like “raw” water from the Yamuna river, the Upper Ganga canal, the Bhakra storage, the Munak canal and from tubewells. Demand was expected to increase to 1380 MGD by 2021, and with groundwater sources already overstressed, there was need to explore alternative means like rainwater harvesting, the Board said in its affidavit:

“The increasing water demands can be met only if civic bodies and public authorities implement rainwater harvesting and substitute groundwater with treated wastewater for non-potable purposes like irrigation, horticulture and sanitation.”

The DJB also suggested that municipal bodies and the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) should strictly enforce the modified building bye-laws according to which RWH system is mandatory for a plot size of 100 square yards or more in order to get a building plan sanctioned and obtain a completion certificate. Apart from that, the Board has also suggested that the public authorities, including the Public Works Department (PWD) and the Irrigation department, and other park owning agencies “substitute use of groundwater with adequately treated wastewater for horticulture and gardening”.

But despite the demonstrations and allegations levelled by the BJP, Kejriwal refused to modify his free water scheme in any way resulting in over 1.35 million consumers not paying any water bills at the end of the 2018-2019 financial year. When the Delhi Jal Board’s reminders on unpaid bills to residents after April 2019 had no effect, Chief Minister Kejriwal announced in August 2019, a one-time waiver of late payment charges and partial waiver—ranging from 25 per cent to 100 per cent of arrears—on all houses, based on consumption.

Despite the waiver, the government had expected to mop up Rs 600 crores and clean up its account books. Kejriwal, who is chairman of the Delhi Jal Board, had then said while some of the arrears were due to consumers not paying up, some were due to what he called incorrect billing. Many who did not pay said their meters were faulty.

In the Delhi government’s budget for 2019-2020, Rs 872 crore was provided as grants to the Delhi Jal Board, of which Rs 300 crore each is for providing potable water supply and sewage facility in unauthorised colonies. The budget also allocated Rs 468 crore for providing subsidies to consumers through the Delhi Jal Board, which claims to supply piped water to 85 per cent households, covering 19.5 million people through a network of 14,355 kilometres of pipelines and 110 underground reservoirs. In addition, about 700 water tankers whose movement is tracked real time, ferry water to the rest. The Board gives a 10 per cent reduction in bills to societies that have rain water harvesting system in place. Though mandatory, the response to it has been lukewarm.

“Everyone in Delhi has access to clean drinking water, and more lifeline water than they can use,” said Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, at a mohalla gathering three months ago. Even before the BJP claimed that they had legalised the unauthorised colonies, the chief minister was there, saying he had provided clean water to them.

The political rhetoric

Now, as campaign picks up for the February 8 polls, the quality of water has become the political talking point. The Bureau of Indian Standards released a study in November 2019 that described Delhi’s water as “the most unsafe tap water” among 21 state capitals. BIS had tested samples for 28 of its 48 parameters for piped drinking water. The Delhi Jal Board’s website uploads its water quality surveillance reports on a daily basis. A random viewing showed they test samples in eight zonal labs. The report showed “unsatisfactory” water samples tested in one of these labs last August. All the reports of January 2020 samples show “nil presence of toxic matter or “unsatisfactory” water samples.

Senior Congress leader Abhishek Singhvi recently tweeted a snapshot of a media report based on the BIS study with the comment:” This is what happens when liars govern a state. We all have been consuming the ‘deadliest” water every day for the past five years”.

But whatever the opposition says on quality, the regular water supply and free policy have clicked with voters. “I have never paid a paisa for water in the last six years. The water is fine, no one in my family or neighbourhood has fallen ill” said Dinesh of Geetha Colony. “The 20,000 litres free water is more than what most families consume,” said Dinesh, who received a water bill of Rs 4500 last year.

Dinesh was one of those citing non-functional water meters. Since the meter was enclosed in a wire mesh cage, he had no way of checking its condition and took up the matter at the nearest Delhi Jal Board office. The small trader says he was advised to spray a sharp jet of water on the mesh cage to see if the meter begins to work. “All the mud that had settled on it got washed away and the meter started working chakachak‘”. He had been asked to forward a video clip of the meter to the DJB. They also told him not to pay the bill.

Voters of Delhi may have got more than just free water. The very chatty Dinesh remarked, “They (the DJB billing office staff) were unbelievably polite. Otherwise, don’t we all know how these sarkari people deal with the public?” That perhaps may become Kejriwal’s biggest achievement as he heads to the polling booth in February.

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