Moral issue in a bathtub

  • 14/06/1994

"DELHI will not have to beg for water any more," was the preening claim of chief minister Madanlal Khurana on May 12, after his counterparts from Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh had put their signatures on an agreement that almost doubles the quantity of Yamuna water available to the first city of India. From the current availability of about 1,000 cusecs, the accord, when implemented, will bring to the city an additional 932 cusecs of water.

However,in the wave of relief that flooded an ever-thirsty capital, some crucial ramifications seem to have been washed away. One bitter reality, for instance, is that no one seems to have noticed that water, once used, will not dispose of itself on its very own. The cost of treating water, supplying it to consumers, and then discharging the used water, have together crippled the Delhi civic administration, which survives only on huge government subsidies and frequent writing-off of its accumulated debts.

In addition, the capital will also have to make huge investments to virtually create the treatment facility for the raw river water. Since this investment is essential to supply water to the people, the only area where a fund-starved government can possibly make compromises is in augmenting its treatment capacity. Even now, the civic authorities are forced to discharge a lot of sewage into the Yamuna for want of sufficient resources to treat water. Even worse is the fact that increasingly large parts of the city are being left out of the municipal sewer network, as a result of which residents, mostly poor ones, dispose off their sewage in their own neighbourhood.

In his moment of victory, has Khurana spared a thought for what is likely to happen if more and more sewage meanders within the city itself, with nowhere to go? Even if the government were to somehow mobilise resources for laying sewers throughout Delhi, can it even dream of restoring the sewage qualitatively before it is thrown back into the Yamuna? Delhi's sewage has already taken its toll on the water quality of Yamuna. A further influx of untreated or inadequately treated water can only add to existing peril.

Because water supply and disposal are currently so highly subsidised that most people take them to be free. Somehow even the government policy seems to assume the same. Otherwise, there is little to explain why a resource-starved government should do nothing to discipline wasteful consumption in a city which already wallows in more water than anywhere else in India. Instead, the government grandiosely promises unlimited water to all -- without having the financial wherewithal to carry out the promise. Khurana himself articulated, albeit unintentionally, that this was a trap: he said that Delhi would get more water by the turn of the century from proposed dams in adjoining states. The question that the people and the government of Delhi need to address is: how long will they freeload on the nation just because their political clout permits it?