According to the director of urban development at the ADB, Indians pay far too little for their water. He said at a meeting in Singapore on Thursday that we pay many times more for tobacco and alcohol than for water. Kin also added that “”When you don’t want to pay for the water that you use, then it’s difficult to improve the water infrastructure to the desired level. Unless people pay more, they won’t be responsible to conserve water.”
Kin is repeating the tried and true argument that international financial institutions have been making about Indian water provision for years. It certainly seems sensible on the surface, but this morning I found it especially frustrating. Kin has conveniently forgotten two facts. Firstly, I and most urban residents in India pay far more for water than the basic water tariffs to the municipality. Many residents of Chennai where I live pay for drinking water to be delivered to their houses in large 20 liter tubs, which cost anywhere from Rs. 30 to 60 each, and the urban poor supplement their access by paying for drinking water by the bucket from tankers. Others have built bore wells (often at great cost) to supplement scanty, irregular, or non-existent water supply from the city. The point is that municipal water tariffs do not reflect the full cost that we pay for access to water. Secondly, the reason why we pay so much for other sources of water besides municipal water taps is because municipal water supply is often of very poor quality. Why should we pay as much as we pay for tobacco or alcohol for a service which is erratic at best? Until municipal water services become far more dependable and accessible to all, residents will continue to resist price increases from city governments.