Water, among all infrastructure services, has to be the state’s responsibility. If the state cannot arrange to provide for water in the cities and other habitats, then nothing else that it does or provides is meaningful. By that count, most of the states, including Delhi, would have failed. Chennai and some of the cities of the southern states would be exceptions.
There are huge positive externalities to providing clean 24-hour water supply, especially when linked to complete coverage by underground sewerage systems in cities and towns. There are few cities whose solid waste is not uncontaminated with faecal matter and the reason for the same is poor coverage of sewerage systems. Indians have among the highest morbidity rates in the world and when adjusted for income, it is appalling.
Indeed, in almost all aspects where the state’s comparative advantage is the highest, the failure is most glaring. Thus, in literacy, we are awful even when due account is taken of our low incomes. Similarly, on infant mortality, we do poorly. But on higher education and adult life expectancy, where state failure can be compensated by great familial effort and by cheap doctors and medicines (the market), our performance, when adjusted for income, is not too bad.
At one stroke, considerable reduction in morbidity, and ill- health can be overcome by universal sewerage and water supply. But despite vast investments, little is happening on the ground. The problems have their root deeply in the institutional mechanism of our cities and in the assumptions that are routinely made by city planners and governments.
Thus, low prices for water create artificial water scarcities. Nothing could illustrate this better than Delhi. Pampered Delhi actually produces more than 200 lpcd for all its citizens. But many, nearly a-third, do with less than 30 and some with as little as 10 lpcd and as many as 30% of its population buys expensive water in local markets at prices that are hugely above the cost of production.
The other reality is some (not just in Lutyens Delhi) consume as much as a few thousand lpcd! At low prices, the elastic demands of the rich and the politically connected compete with the inelastic demands of the poor. And anybody can guess who would be the loser in this competition. Since there is limited supply with this ballooning demand (a large part of which goes to maintain gardens that make Delhi greener than its surrounding farms), the poor and those without the contacts would be the losers.
But denying the poor water comes at a high cost. They become victims of disease and, with time, nobody, not even the rich with water for their lawns and garages, is entirely protected. Sewerage systems without adequate flows become in-operational even when they are provided; which, of course, is rare beyond the pampered parts of Delhi. Interruptions in water pressure allow breeding of deadly germs in water pipes. The cost of providing sewerage and water is unnecessarily raised by over-ambitious standards of public and open spaces in town planning that leaves vast empty spaces in the middle of Delhi and imposes artificially low densities over much of the city. That makes housing (and without housing there is no question of toilets and sewerage) very expensive and unaffordable to many of its citizens. The low floor space indices further increase the cost of sewerage and water supply by at least 50% from simple engineering considerations.
Public toilets in slums and JJ clusters could have been a partial answer, even if they would not attack the root of the problem—absurd tariff schedules and perverse town planning. But, alas, that is also not ‘feasible’ because the state cannot but maintain the hypocrisy of its planning and land use.
The poor, since they could never afford the astronomical cost of urban space created by the imposed low density of the town planner, cannot but live illegally in the innumerable JJ clusters, and in between offices and public buildings, from which they routinely get evicted. So, given the illegality of their habitats, wouldn’t we be admitting failure and compounding the problem and provide toilets and running water in slums to accommodate all of them, rather than let it all spill over on the streets?
In Mumbai, the problem is even more severe, not so much by mis-pricing of water (Mumbai has ample supplies, and more rational tariffs) but by the limited amount of land that is allowed to be built up, and that too at absurdly low FSIs (till very recently).
Hence, public failure can continue with impunity as also the hypocrisy of vast allocations that are mis-spent on ill-designed and unworkable urban systems.