Friday, 4 May 2007
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.
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.
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
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
After enjoying a marvellous meal with the family of the women leading one of the community cooperatives, we continue to the city of
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
Tuesday, 1 May 2007
After the day in
In the course of the day we discover that
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
During our visit to
Thursday, 26 April 2007
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).