A population of 377 million, spread over 7,935 cities and towns, projected to grow to over 600 million in another 20 years, presently contributing more than 60 per cent of India’s GDP, above 80 per cent of tax revenue and generating almost 70 per cent of all new jobs in the country — that is urban India. But when it comes to basic services for these urban residents, where do we stand and what solid planning for ensuring basics to all do we have? Not all urban residents are covered even by basic requirements like water connections at home. While estimates show that a little over 90 per cent of urban population has access to water supply, with almost 10 per cent not having this privilege, even within those connected there are huge variations. Indicators of poor quality of access, low reliability of supply, poor water quality, high loss levels and low cost recovery do not get reflected in the overall access figures. There is no city in the country which provides 24x7 piped water supply. While only 64 per cent of the urban population is covered by individual water connections and/or stand posts, duration of water supply averages between one and six hours.
While waste water recycling and re-using the same for a variety of purposes does not figure in our water management system as a key activity, we also do not seem to be sufficiently concerned about the considerable gap between the amount of water put into the distribution system and the amount of water billed to the consumer. Technically called non revenue water (NRW), the loss level is supposed to be about 50 per cent on average, though actual figures for the country are not available. This basically reflects the poor management of water utilities in our cities; they lack the governance, autonomy, accountability and managerial skills to provide reliable service. NRW could be physical losses such as leakages, commercial losses due to defective water meters or theft or unbilled authorised consumption. The total cost of NRW worldwide is estimated to be $14 billion per year, with a third of this accounted for by the developing world. In developing countries, estimates say that about 45 million cubic meters of water are lost daily from water leakage — capable of meeting the requirements of about 200 million people. Service-level benchmarking exercises undertaken in recent years show that NRW in cities like Bhubaneswar, Bokaro and Imphal are the highest, above 60 per cent.
If we consciously go in for a strategy for reduction of NRW in our cities from the present level to an acceptable level of 15 per cent, would not that itself easily provide the water requirement of those who do not have access today? Let us look at the example of Mumbai. The Brihanamumbai Municipal Corporation, responsible for water supply, says that the exact percentage of water loss due to pilferage and leakage cannot be ascertained unless the water audit gets completed, a process which could take three years. Estimates indicate that BMC’s distribution network loses more than 20 per cent of its water. While Mumbai needs 4,250 million litres of water per day (mld), the city gets 3,470 mld and, against the daily shortfall of 780 mld, loss due to leakage and pilferage is reported to be 694 mld. On the other hand, Nagpur municipal corporation which successfully implemented 24x7 water supply for a pilot area and is now in the process of upscaling it for the entire city, could have reduced transmission losses, translating into savings of Rs 6 crore a year; it has upgraded its water treatment plant, resulting in water savings of 22 mld; and put in energy conservation measures, enhancing its pumping efficiency to 80-85 per cent and reducing energy consumption from 285 kwh/ml to 195 kwh/ml — leading to savings equalling Rs 163.6 lakh per year. 24x7 water supply taken up in five selected zones in the three Karnataka cities of Belgaum, Gulbarga and Hubli-Dharwad helped in loss reduction from 50 per cent to 7 per cent due to improvements in the transmission and distribution network and improved metering. Today, over 25,000 households get the benefit of 24x7 water supply. Both these instances are examples of improving supply, generating more revenue, taking up governance reforms and tariff increases and bringing in the private sector, leading to efficiency gains. The pro-poor policy in Karnataka for the urban poor, of waiver of the normal one-time connection deposit and fixing a lifeline supply of 8,000 litres per household per month at a concessional rate encouraged all poor households to opt for direct connections rather than depend on stand posts.
Urban water is a state subject, so the action is at the level of states first and cities next. In terms of reforms for the water sector, the first stage of the Centre’s Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission talked only about the levy of reasonable user charges by ULBs/para statals in the water sector. But the huge funding either for the mission cities or the small towns meant major improvements in augmenting bulk supply and bringing about long-pending changes. Thus Kolkata could replace British-era bulk water supply pipes after ages of corrosion. Surat could institutionalise reforms in water management through optimal investments in technology. Hyderabad — which had only alternate-day water supply, with inappropriate timings — could restore daily supply after a gap of 20 years.
We cannot afford to waste almost 50 per cent of the water made available to the system just because there is no focus on efficient water management. The forthcoming JNNURM II should insist on much-needed managerial and policy changes. Maharashtra is a good example; a focused three-stage Sujal Nirmal Abhiyan was a comprehensive programmatic approach to increasing the efficiency of service delivery. Setting the basis for reduction of NRW, ring fencing water supply and sanitation operations, moving to full cost recovery, piloting 24x7 water supply, city-wide metering, 100 per cent billing and collection, increasing the autonomy of service providers, adopting service standards and tariff guidelines, generalisation of 24x7 across all cities, corporatisation of utilities and regulating mechanisms are planned to be achieved state-wide through this initiative. However, all this is to happen only by 2025. The Union urban development ministry has recently circulated an advisory to all states outlining areas of improvement and actionable points by the states and local bodies. The six areas identified are: clarifying the mandates of water supply and sanitation service providers, improving the governance of water supply and sanitation service providers, financing water supply and sanitation operations and infrastructure development, regulating the urban water supply and sanitation service, building capacity and developing procedures for community participation.
India’s urban water sector is long overdue for changes and reforms, better management and accountability and a prioritised as well as focused strategy, meriting the status of a mission. The next version of the JNNURM in the Twelfth Five-Year Plan should take note of this, and insist on time-bound action by all states so that water is saved and better managed.
The writer is former secretary, ministry of urban development