WaterDear Jal Rakshaks 

In a recent Workshop, a comment by one of my friends in the developmental sector said something that got me thinking.  We were talking about a civil society advocacy group for Water. She asked me whether I wanted to be part of that group. I immediately said “Yes – any group that cares for Water is a group I’d like to be part of.” Then I asked her who the other members were. She reeled off some names. I was familiar with them and so, without thinking, I said, “ Oh- the Anti-Privatization group?’ She looked at me speculatively and replied, “ Yes…though we too are part of it.” Then more suspiciously, she asked ” Are you pro-privatization or Against?”

I was stumped for a moment and then said the only thing that came to my mind  “ I am pro – Water for All”

I remembered another time, another place when a government official had made a similar statement – equally suspiciously – “ Outsourcing is not the same as privatization –I hope you can appreciate the difference?”

As I sat back today and thought about these questions and my answer, I wrote this blog randomly – just penned down my thoughts as they came….

My relationship with Water

I am neither an activist, nor an expert on Water, I am a student – a ‘shishyaa’ – of Water. As I go through the rituals of the work that I do for Water issues, one part of me watches and analyses Water in the different situations It finds itself in. Each time I marvel at the amazing resilience of Water… the calm grace with which it allows adverse situations to play themselves out.  One of the things that I have learnt from It is to assimilate every thought that comes my way. Water treats nothing as good or bad. It is as receptive to poison as it is to nectar. It labels neither. It leaves the labeling to the user. For example, a colony of bacteria in a sewage filled pond probably labels the Water as ‘Excellent –A + category Health drink” while we will label it ‘Highly polluted – E category – unfit for use”

And that brings me back to my friend’s question and my answer. I think, the answer to whether private involvement in Water is good or bad will vary, depending on who is answering it.  And also will be determined by the circumstances in which private involvement is brought in.

Where the government system works efficiently, with decision making based on rational parameters, compliance is ensured and where sustainability of the water system is planned for, there, perhaps, private support is not needed. In such a place, the internal dynamism of the government supplier will ensure that Water for All becomes a reality.

But what of where the government’s water decision making gets influenced by irrational pressures? Or when it is not able to invest in infrastructural improvements needed to make the system work as required.  When the price paid for its inefficiency, is unsustainable pressure on the source and non availability of water for people?  Perhaps this is where the choices open up and so, the debate starts.

If you ask those who are deprived of Water, they say that the first and most important need is to make water available for all. The choice of mode of delivery and its management system must be decided based on what serves this need best.  In many villages, NGOs supply safe drinking water to people. The polluted village lake has been given as their source of raw water, they have been given some financial support for the capital investment. The operational costs of the system are recovered through a price they charge for the treated water. The pricing is very reasonable, the water quality is good and a local person gets a livelihood running the system. But, in a way, this is a form of privatization – infact the worst kind where the source itself has been given away – so is this good or bad?  

Those who argue for private involvement in Water management come armed with a huge bunch of facts and figures to prove its impact on efficiency. Those who argue against it come equally armed with examples of failed experiments and figures to prove that we are playing into the hands of profit making entities. Each is passionate and absolute in his belief.

What irony …formless Water –  the universal solvent, reflecting all that is around it – …. Loved passionately by lovers –  rigid, exclusive and with doors firmly shut on each other.

The truth is, there are no sides – we are all on the side of Water. Water must be allowed to do what it is best at – slaking the thirst of any living being that needs it. It must not be held hostage by any entity or ideology. With open minds and pure intent we must together identify the method or combination of methods that ensures this.  

So, Jal Rakshaks, whatever be your belief on how best to care for Water, count me in as a fellow care-giver. In the world of Water, every belief has its space.

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