Friday, 4 May 2007

Bhopal disaster rumbles on

Bhopal is also in the state of Madhya Pradesh and is facing many similar problems to those described in Indor. Like many Indian cities it is so visually apparent that economically it is booming and expanding – the rich are getting richer, yet behind this facade the poor are getting poorer, and slums spread across over 20% of the city. Bhopal is best known for the tragic accident that happened over 20 years ago when Union Carbide’s factories leaked toxic chemicals across the city killing thousands. The repercussions have been felt for generations with people fighting for compensation, accountability of Union Carbide and for their rights to a safe future. The campaign has international acclaim but the struggle goes on and prejudice remains rife. As I was entering a slum to meet some people directly involved with the disaster, an air-conditioned car drove by and commented ‘oh look there are some of those gas victims’ – proving that today these communities have been ostracised from Bhopals up and coming boom. Compared to the people of Indor many had been campaigning hard for 20 years – in fact

I don’t think I have ever met so many inspirational people in one place. Women have played an incredibly strong role in the movement – undertaking actions such as walking from Bhopal to Delhi (a mere few thousand miles) to take their issues to the national government, to organising hundreds of meetings locally, nationally and internationally – to taking contaminated land and dumping it outside Union Carbides headquarters. And this is a mixture of people it is not just the educated and the middle class, it is also the working class, the illiterate, the slum dwellers, the untouchables all working together to try and gain justice for their community and ensure that such a terrible thing is not repeated. There are still many battles to be one, and one that has perhaps received less press is the problem with the aftermath of this toxic spill – or the groundwater that has now been contaminated. Groundwater that the people drink everyday because there is no alternative. The evidence of contamination is there, and the effects are obvious with cancer rates going through the roof, yet the government is failing to take action. One women described the struggle as being a lifelong one that must not end. “Campaigning is like a life. 20 years ago when we starting fighting Union Carbide, the campaign was a baby, over the years it has grown in energy but so has the struggle. Now we a fighting a young man, and we must keep up that energy, now and in the future.”

The trip ended with a visit to the Bhopal museum where many artefacts/photos/press cuttings are stored. All in all while the day was inspiring by the people I met, it was also a very distressing experience to come face to face with one of the grim realities of today.

Indor - privatisation about to take hold

Our group then headed off to the state of Madhya Pradesh in central India. Madhya Pradesh is undergoing a huge privatisation process, not only in individual cities, but there is also a huge World Bank loan in place for hundreds of millions of dollars that is looking at the overall framework for privatisation across the state. Indor is one of the cities that is being prepped for privatisation, and measures are being put in place such as the removing of standposts, and increasing of tariffs. The community is at an early stage of mobilisation but now that these measures are being felt, and with the start of the dry season they were keen to hear for ideas about what they could do, and the book was very well received.

The programme was packed. In the morning we met with a community group who contain a mixture of activists, journalists, writers, professionals and others who actively take up issues in Indor. They were very interested in hearing about the successful case studies in the book, and also the struggle to challenge policies against the international institutions. There was then a detailed press brief (which resulted in some very good detailed articles about public public partnerships), before scooting off to meet with the Municipal Corporation who are implemented the World Bank and Asian Development Bank loans, before experiencing the problems of lack of water in the slums.

We visited a slum on the outskirts of the city that has no access to water, and there is no planned access to water (slums do not have legal status in India so are not recognised under state governments) – the best they could hope is to one day have a few standposts on the periphery, but this is not going to happen anytime soon. The only way these 300 families can get water is from the good nature of one individual who is letting them use his private well 2 km away. He allows each family 2 buckets of water a day. While this is helping the community for now it is simply not sustainable. Not only will this water run out, the time of collection means that families have to choose whether to try and get work for that day (they are all daily workers) or choose whether to have water – it is a desperate situation. And it was here that Julian delivered what I think was is best presentation – he shared his experiences of how the water wars came about in Bolivia, how there were so many similiarities with what was happening here, how the people managed to come together and mobilise. The water wars in Bolivia got 1 million people out on the streets to reclaim their water, and Bolivia only has a population of 9 billion. With India’s population busting at more than 1 billion this powerful mobilisation is an inspiration to anyone. It was so moving to see Julian explain how they managed to mobilise and work together, and how we believed that this slum could do it to. The amount of energy and determination that was felt by the group afterwards cannot be underestimated –and this is even after it had been translated from English, to Spanish to Hindi!

The day ended with a successful public meeting to launch the book. People here have really taken the time to read the book in detail and the presentations people are giving are really insightful into the different problems faced around the world.

Mumbai's campaign against the PPIAF

After the adventures of Delhi the group split into two groups. Myself and Julian joined Willy de Costa (from the Indian Social Forum) hastily left the Delhi meeting with the General Secretary of water to rush to Mumbai for an afternoon public meeting. The PPIAF is currently undertaking a scoping privatisation project in a rich area of Mumbai, and there is a strong concern among many aspects of the community that this work will be used to push privatisation across much of the city. Civil society has mobilised well and have formed a collective called ‘Mumbai Water’ that is looking at trying to stop this threat of privatisation. WDM has done a lot of work on the PPIAF so I was keen to meet some of these activists directly, and hopefully invite some of them to attend a counter conference we are organising at the PPIAF’s AGM in The Hague this June.

Due to delays we arrived quite late for the event and went straight into the press conference – where there were dozens of press of photographers and press waiting for the book launch. Apparently the press in Mumbai ‘prefer women’, so being one of the only women on the delegation I ended up having lots of photos taken of me, and had to choose someone from the audience to present the book to (I chose someone who had been actively campaigning against the PPIAF’s work).

There was a lot of energy in the meeting, and they were keen to learn from our experiences. It is a critical time in the PPIAF work, and the groups are ready to take action – in fact at the end of the meeting they decided to implement their own version of a ‘public-public partnership’ and are now forming a new group to explicitly deal with this issue and keep the pressure up in Mumbai.

This event was organised by a lady called Mina, who has been an active campaigner for many years, and was championing the research into PPIAF and Mumbai. Unfortunately Mina died the week before the event in a tragic accident. Our strong condolences go out to her friends, family and relatives – and thanks to all the hard work she did.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

Kerala: community management, Coca Cola and river struggles

As we crossed the border between the two states, the difference between water-scarce Tamil Nadu and Kerala with its abundant rainfalls immediately became clear. The favourable routes of the summer and winter monsoons along the Indian subcontinent make Kerala green and lush and also results in a less immediate water crisis than is the case in the far drier state of Tamil Nadu.

But also in Kerala, there are intense struggles over water. Just across the border is Plachimada, known worldwide as the village that managed to shut down the Coca Cola plant that was sucking up the water sources and polluting the local environment. We were warmly welcomed by some twenty activists from the Struggle Committee, in a hut just opposite of the main gate of the Coke plan, which has been closed for over 1400 days. A battle was won, but the struggle is not over, the activists explain. The closure of the plant is not definite and the future of Coke in Plachimada may be decided in the High Court of Kerala and the Indian Supreme Court. The Struggle Committee’s main demands, in addition to the final closure of the plant, are: financial compensation from Coca Cola, prosecution of the company for its environmental crimes, and legal recognition of community rights to water. The Plachimada activists ask us about CocaCola in our part of the world and how real international solidarity can be achieved.

Half an hour further into Kerala we arrive in the village Erimayur. In this panchayat of 35,000 inhabitants, 100% access to water has been achieved. The village is an example of successful decentralisation, as part of the “People’s Plan Campaign” launched by Kerala’s progressive government in 1999. In Kerala, the government transfers 30% of the state budget to the communities. This makes decentralisation in this state very different from elsewhere in India (and other developing countries), where responsibility for public services has been left to local governments without the needed capacity and resources to fulfil these tasks. Water systems in Erimayur are run by 50 community cooperatives, in which women play a very active role. As a result of the community taking control over its own water supply, costs (and tariffs) have been reduced by 40%. Rain water harvesting plays a major role in the village. About 100 panchayats in Kerala have achieved improvements in water supply through forms of community management similar to that implemented in Erimayur.

After enjoying a marvellous meal with the family of the women leading one of the community cooperatives, we continue to the city of Chalakudy. The Water Kerala Network has organised the launch of the “Reclaiming Public Water” book in the Malayalam language. Local activists talk about their struggle against a proposed dam in the Chalakudy River, a project which would very negatively impact communities and the environment. Activists argue that the river (already overdammed, with six dams along its 145 kilometers) does not only belong to state institutions like the Kerala Electricity Board, but also to the communities living along the river. As during the visit to Plachimada, we are reminded that the need for democratisation is not restricted to water supply but is also a major issue for water resources and rivers.

Water democracy versus privatisation in Tamil Nadu

Back in Tamil Nadu, we visit Palangarai, a rural panchayat (village) that has benefited tremendously from the democratisation process undertaken by TWAD, the state water company (see also the entries of 24 and 26 April). Before the start of the reform process, the 14,000 inhabitants of Palangarai suffered from very serious water scarcity, resulting in water riots each summer. Similar to Ramaiyanali village (which we visited at the beginning of the tour), a group of TWAD engineers had 30-40 meetings with the villagers in an attempt to build trust and consult with the water users about sustainable, low-cost solutions to the water problems.

Out of this came a model in which the villagers feel genuine ownership over the water systems and a strong awareness about the need to save water. The users pay a low fee for water, made possible by reducing electricity costs for pumping. The collection rate is 100%. Out of the fees, the village employs its own pump master. Transparency around the finances of the water system also helps secure trust: the villagers have the right of inspection of the book-keeping at the mayor’s office. Whereas water supply was previously very irregular and moreover unequal, today the whole village has adequate access to water and sanitation, including the dalit and indigenous population. After the successful improvements in water and sanitation, many other new projects have emerged in the village, including the planting of more than 7,000 trees.

In the evening, we took part in a public debate in Coimbatore, an industrial town with 1,2 million inhabitants. The event is organised by the People’s Watchdog Committee on Coimbatore City Development, which opposes the proposed privatisation of the city’s water. As part of the Pillor II drinking water scheme, water supply might be tendered out to international private water firms. This would be far more costly than letting the Tamil Nadu state water company undertake the scheme, campaigners argue. These fears are based on the experience from Tirupur, the textile industry centre nearby. The build-own-operate-and-transfer (BOOT) project in Tirupur, South-Asia’s largest privatisation project, resulted in costs that were far higher than projected. The price of drinking water in Tirupur is now more than twice that in Coimbatore. Among the private water giants involved in the Tirupur privatization, officially termed a public-private partnership, are Bechtel and United Utilities.

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Privatisation mutates

After the day in Delhi, Santiago Arconada, Dr. Suresh and I went to Bangalore, the booming IT capital of India. We immediate notice one of the side-effects of the rapid economic growth of the last five years: the air is thick with exhaust fumes from the countless cars and motorbikes that fill the streets of Bangalore, a city traditionally known for its calmness, lush gardens and ample trees and flowers.

In the course of the day we discover that Bangalore - and the state of Karnataka more generally - is a major hotspot of water privatisation in India. Earlier this decade, global water giant Suez had its eyes set on Bangalore, but a full-scale transfer of water delivery to the private sector was avoided, in part due to trade union opposition. Veolia and Northumbria were involved in a privatisation ‘pilot project’ covering parts of the city, but the contract was terminated after the private firms failed to deliver the promised results. After this failed experiment, Bangalore has experienced a process of piecemeal privatisation: one essential task after the other has been sub-contracted to private operators; Thames Water, for instance, has a contract for leakage detection. Local activists argue that this means that the city’s water supply is practically 90% privatised. And now there is the Greater Bangalore Water Supply and Sanitation Project (GBWASP), which may also contract out the central task of water distribution. The project is promoted by USAID, the World Bank and its International Finance Corporation (IFC), the latter coordinates the process of bringing in an (international) private water operator. Strong opposition from within the Bangalore Water Supply Board as well as from community groups and activists has delayed a final decision on this most controversial aspect. If it goes ahead, it would mean that only bulk water supply is left under public management; water to Bangalore is pumped in from a source some 100 kilometres away.

In the evening we participate in a very vibrant public debate hosted by the Campaign Against Water Privatisation (CAWP), the coalition that has over the last three years resisted the proposed privatisation in Bangalore. We were welcomed by fabulous drumming and singing by musicians from the Dalit community (the heavily discriminated cast referred to as untouchables). Half of the more than 100 people in the audience are slum dwellers, we’re told. An estimated 20% of Bangalore’s 2,2 million inhabitants live in slums. It is exactly for those living in slums and other poor areas that the proposed privatisation has little or nothing to offer. Quite contrary, there are fears that privatisation may result in closing of the thousands of public fountains on which the poorest in Bangalore depend.

During our visit to Bangalore we also learn about the advanced plans for privatising water distribution in three cities in North Karnataka. A subsidiary of French water giant Veolia has good chances of capturing the contract for these ‘pilot projects’. The background of the privatisation in these cities is that water supply in these cities has virtually collapsed. As part of a World Bank driven reform scheme, Karnataka’s state water company was ‘decentralised’ in a way that seems to have seriously weakened public service capacity in the state. The same has happened in numerous other states across India.

We leave Bangalore with the worrying sense that a new wave of privatisation is underway in India, with Karnataka as the focus of experiments by international financial institutions with new formats for handing over water supply to private firms, without expecting them to invest and with public funds safeguarding their returns.

Thursday, 26 April 2007

Meeting with the TWAD engineers

Tuesday, the third day of the tour, started very early with a breakfast meeting at the headquarters of the Tamil Nadu branch of the Communist Party of India (CPI), in Chennai. A heavyweight delegation had come to discuss with us. The CPI is one of the parties in India that is most clearly opposed to water privatisation.

After this meeting we went straight to the offices of the Tamil Nadu Water Supply and Drainage Board (TWAD), where more than 20 water engineers were waiting for us. The engineers are all part of the Change Management Group, the collective that has been the driving force behind the experiment with democratisation of rural water management in Tamil Nadu. The transformation process, as the engineers described it, started in 2004 and has resulted in the “Total community management” approach, based on the notion that the widespread water scarcity is a problem of management, not of water resources. This new approach has led to very impressive results in improving access to water while at the same time lowering costs and water bills. Ramiyanahalli, the village we visited Monday, is not unique: out of the over 470 villages included in the experiment, more than two thirds experienced major improvements.

The enthusiasm of the engineers to share their experiences with us made the meeting a fascinating experience. The depth of their commitment to the democratisation process was striking, not the least because several engineers very honestly admitted that they had at first been sceptical about the proposed experiment and even initially opposed it. They stressed that the experiment was very much a self-critical process of re-assessing traditional thinking within the public water company and finding news ways to engage with the water users in rural communities, essentially by approaching people as equals. “The people are the ultimate masters, we must never forget that”, one engineer said. The engineers stressed that building trust can be a very lengthy process, especially because rural communities have often for very long time had little reason to expect anything from government officials.

A fascinating example of the changed mindset was the example given by an engineer who has worked with an indigenous community without access to clean water, in a remote forest area. Before the start transformation process the engineers would have disregarded villages that were far away or lacked electricity. Now exactly these difficult villages get priority because this is where those with adequate access to water and sanitation live.

The meeting ended with the very encouraging news that the democratisation process will be expanded to more villages in Tamil Nadu and gradually also to urban areas. There is also interest in other Indian states to learn from the democratisation process, possibly through public-public partnerships with the Tamil Nadu Water (TWAD).

For more information about the work of the Change Management Group, see for instance: “Democratisation of water management as a way to reclaiming public water - The Tamil Nadu experience”, V. Suresh and Pradip Prabhu (written for the Indian editions of the "Reclaiming Public Water" book).