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).

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Activist meeting in Delhi

In Delhi we attended an all day activist meeting in the Indian Resource Centre. Sheltered from the 44 degree heat (the hottest part of our trip so far) we were joined by water activists from across North India. This included the internationally known names of Vandana Shiva, Medha Patker, Prabesh Joshi but also a number of activists who have been fighting water struggles ranging from dams, irrigation, coca-cola to water services privatisation. the number of inspirational stories we heard and the dedication of the activists is testament to the strength of civil society in India.

The Right to Water Campaign for example utilising India's freedom of information act, exposed that the planned Delhi water privatisation that was proposed by the World Bank and consultant PriceWaterhouseCoopers was a sham that clearly would not benefit the people of Delhi. for example if signed the contract obliged the Delhi government to have to agree any budget that the contracted company demanded. unsurprisingly this included huge pay packets for directors. also no survey was done of actual availability of water in Delhi and how it could be improved. armed with this information they formed a popular campaign that resulted in the Delhi government refusing to sign the loan.

We could all feel the energy in the room. Santiago commented, 'the intensity of the room was incredible, the speeches were empowering and it was a privilige to be part of the event'

the second part of the day saw the Reclaiming Public Water book launched in Hindi to a large number of press, and it was received extremely well.

All feeling motivated and inspired our group splits tomorrow to travel to different areas. One group is off to Mumbai, Indore and Bhopal, the other to Bangalore and Kerala. We will reunite on the final day for the final launch event in Chennai.

Debate at Madras Institute of Development Studies

Despite the sizzling heat in Chennai, more than 60 people had come to the Madras Institute of Development Studies for the “Interaction Meeting of Water Movements”.

There was great enthusiasm for the testimonies by Santiago Arconada and Julian Perez from Venezuela and Bolivia, countries with progressive governments with a strong commitment to improve public water delivery. Santiago Arconada introduced Venezuela’s communitarian water process, which he has been involved in since the start in 1999. As part of this new approach, Venezuela’s public water companies works in a close and equal partnership with the water users in the previously marginalised and excluded communities, in order to secure adequate water and sanitation for all. Arconada explained how the successful experiences with democratisation in the water sector have had a profound influence on the strategies for wider transformation of Venezuelan society under President Hugo Chavez, the struggle for “21st century socialism”.

Julian Perez described how after the disastrous experiences with privatisation that caused the water wars in Cochabamba (2000) and El Alto (2005), the new government led by Evo Morales has closed the book on privatisation and instead embarked on developing a new, people-centred model of public water management. Peres, who was part of the coalition of neighbourhood councils (FEJUVE) that kicked out Suez from El Alto, is now an adviser to water minister Abel Mamani, a former FEJUVE leader.

The debate that followed was very lively and well informed, covering issues ranging from the practicalities of how to involve marginalised people in water management to the very real threats of water privatisation in India. Among the cities in most immediate danger are Mumbai, Bangalore as well as other cities in the state of Karnatakka. In Tamil Nadu itself, water has already been privatised in the industrial city of Tirupur. In the next days we will be visiting many of these cities and get a picture how citizens groups are mobilizing in response to these challenges.

The debate at the Madras Institute of Development Studies was covered the next day in the national daily The Hindu (see Public-public partnership in water sector works: expert”).

Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Visit to rural village - successful community led reform

On the 23rd April our delegation got the exciting opportunity to go and visit a rural village in Tamil Nadu that has undergone a successful public reform process.

Tamil Nadu is a state in India, that has had huge problems with water scarcity in the recent past. The traditional solution of ‘just drilling more bore holes’ became no longer sustainable so the state board of water engineers underwent what is termed a ‘change management process’ to facilitate new thinking in how to deliver water. This has resulted in engineers working with hundreds of villages in a much broader capacity, to help reform water supplies that are truly community led. India is a complex country the interplays between wealth, class, caste and religion are hard to tease apart so this has been a huge challenge, but after two years many villages have improved their access to water and significantly reduced costs.

Ramaiyanali village is just one example. The concept of a village is different in India, and can include up to 100,000 people. While Ramaiyanali was a mere 25,000 it still managed to have a village feel to it. This particular village is in one of the driest areas of Tamil Nadu and has struggled with water supply since the mid 1970s. Fed up with their plight being ignored by the state, the then president held a marriage of donkeys to draw media attention to their situation – and it worked! This innovative style of campaigning led to the water engineers coming to the village to help find solutions, and the President has played a key role in making them happen. The effort put in by the engineers (pictured below), cannot go unnoticed. They held over 30 initial meetings with the village to gain their trust that they was not just another set of government official but truly wanted to deliver community led results. And the results are indeed incredible, costs have dropped by two thirds, new sources of water have been tapped in to, low cost solutions are working and there is now a very strong ethos of conserving water.

After seven hours stuck in a minibus in the 37 degree heat, we arrived. The first thing that struck me was the pride you could feel in the village as soon as we arrived. People wanted to show off their water, show how their system worked, and it really was an amazing site to see. We started off in a public meeting that had all members of the community there with a significant active presence of women and dalits (or untouchable communities).

We then got taken on a tour to see the systems of household connections and public fountains. Everyone pays for their water, and they get their water at a certain time of day which is recorded on the pipes (see picture) and also on boards in every street – so that the process is transparent and people are accountable to eachother. The logistics of this was worked out with the community so different areas receive water at a time that is convenient to them. People are happy with the system, it is their system and for that reason there is ownership and is working well. It was truly an inspiration to see what can be achieved when a project makes community participation central to its work.

Reclaiming Public Water explained

Reclaiming Public Water is a global network of water activists, civil society campaigners, trade unionists, water experts, water professionals and academics that have joined together in the call for public water. The network was formed during the World Social Forum in Mumbai in 2004, in recognition that privatisation was failing to deliver water to those who needed it most and that a new vision was needed.

The network has produced a book entitled Reclaiming Public Water which contains a number of case studies of water struggles around the world and successful fights to reclaim water in public hands. This book has been extremely successful in inspiring others that a there are alternative models of water supply.

The book has been translated into a number of languages, and in April 2007 is being launched in India in three different Indian languages.

Four members of the network have travelled to India as part of a speaker tour to launch the book and also to meet with activists and decision makers, to share experiences and learning and to promote public water for all.

The four international speakers are:
Santiago Arconada (Venezuela)
Julian Perez (Bolivia)
OlivierHoedeman (The Netherlands)
Tamsyn East (UK)
Dr V Suresh (India)

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Welcome to India ...

Hi All,
Welcome to India and the complex world of SOuth Asian Water Challenges and politics! There is already quite a bit of interest aroused by your trip. THe word is slowly going out and more people are showing interest to interact with you all.
As you will see yourselves the issues are so diverse and complex that its impossible to characterise the water challenge in any single mould. It will be interesting even for us to learn from the interactions!
More later on,