The bank and the big bang
Read below for a crucial chronicle of water privatization in India's states
of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Orissa, and also the Latin American
Be afraid! Water privatization awaits the world, with Bush Jnr's hardliner
Wolfowitz rather than the "liberal' James Wolfensohn now at the World
Bank's helm, and women over-represented within the poverty-stricken who
will pay the price - Lynette
The Hindu -- Saturday April 30 2005
The bank and the big bang
Privatisation of water will destroy countless small farmers. It will hand
over agriculture to the rich and corporations.
IT HAS been happening for some time. Maharashtra is not the first State. It
won't be the last. The drive towards privatisation of water in this country
was planned by the World Bank in the 1990s. The just-passed Maharashtra
Water Resources Regulatory Authority Bill reeks of Bank edicts already out
in 1998. In that year, the "The Irrigation Sector" report of the Bank
(teamed up with the Indian Government) laid down the line.
It listed things that "need to be urgently put into practice." Among them:
"drastically increasing and rationalising the current water rates." The rest
of its "urgent needs" were the standard Bank rules for the capture of a
country's farming by corporations. In pushing brutal hikes, the Bank was
frank. Its report opposed gradual hikes. "The more recent experience is that
`a big bang' approach may be better." Laughably, it cites Andhra Pradesh and
Mexico as among the success stories of that approach.
The Latin American experience
Latin America is strewn with the corpses of economies and governments that
went for the `big bang' approach. Water, especially, has been a giant factor
in the rage of peoples there against regimes. This year, The New York Times
ran a front-page piece on the collapse of privatised water services across
Latin America. Being the Times, it coyly sidestepped any criticism of
corporations. Or even of the basic concepts themselves. But it did measure
the Big Bang. In Andhra Pradesh, the voters threw in a bang of their own
last May. You'd think we'd learn something from all this.
Yet the new Maharashtra bill does not stray from the righteous path. It too,
regurgitates the same jargon and ideas imposed by the Bank and its pet
politicians and paid-for bureaucrats on the people of Andhra Pradesh and
Never mind that both States saw giant disasters in that sector. Orissa's
sham (Bank-made) `pani panchayats' shattered poor farmers in Angul district.
They also handed over irrigation to a small bunch of rich landlords.
(`Little pani, less panchayats' The Hindu Sunday Magazine September 15 and
22, 2002.) In Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu's regime passed an order
that aimed for much of what the Maharashtra bill now does.
In Andhra Pradesh, too, a farce of `Water Users Associations' was set up to
the applause of the Bank. Indeed, "The Irrigation Sector" report lavishly
praises the Andhra Pradesh `example.' The term `water users' itself is
intriguing. Are the rest of us non-users? Some kind of dry land bacilli? The
cheers for Mr. Naidu's good example came even as his Government sold cleaned
and treated water to soft drinks companies at 25 paise a litre in Hyderabad.
That, at a time, when most colonies of the city were getting water for half
an hour once every two days.
Meanwhile the `users' groups proved user-friendly. They sidelined elected
panchayats. The rich have always found democracy tiresome. So favoured were
these groups that James Wolfensohn came all the way to Andhra Pradesh for
them. To inaugurate a confederation of water users associations in 2000. He
was to do this at the Koil Sagar Dam in Mahbubnagar. Alas, large mobs of
angry `non-users' furious at the loss of their water, blocked the highway.
The `users,' far fewer in number, were given a run for their money and their
limbs. Mr. Wolfensohn could not reach the site.
But if Muhammad can't go to the mountain, the mountain must go to Muhammad.
The Naidu Government, famed for its efficiency in these matters, shifted the
dam. In name, anyway. It took down the dam's plaque and flew it to a safe
venue. Away from the ugly baying of non-users. There it had a sham of an
inaugural in hiding. All this happened under the `liberal' Wolfensohn.
As against the `hardliner' Paul Wolfowitz coming in now. It doesn't really
matter, though, which Wolf is at the door, canis lupis or canis rufus. The
family Canidae are predatory by nature.
How did the Bank view the mess in Andhra Pradesh? As the "remarkable
strength of government commitment in Andhra Pradesh to irrigation sector
Maharashtra seems set to outdo that level of commitment. This bill parrots
all the pet phrases of the Bank. It dittos the ideas, rules and structures
that the Bank's own vision lays out. In parts, the jargon is near identical.
But it breaks some new ground. `Entitlement' in this bill is not defined as
the right or claim of a citizen or community. Here it means `any
authorisation by any river basin agency to use the water for the purposes of
this act.' In short, the entitlements of authority, not of society, are what
drive the bill. The bill also equates private companies with citizens. The
section on State Water Planning is clear on this. "The expression `person'
shall include individual, group of individuals, all local authorities,
association, societies, companies etc.," In short, petty officials and giant
corporates will have the same rights as citizens and farmers.
Huge costs involved
It warns that in some regions, "Water shall not be made available from the
canal ... " Not "unless the cultivator adopts drip irrigation or sprinkler
irrigation ..." Or whatever the authority orders. This could add Rs.
15-20,000 per acre to the farmers' costs for just installation. Running
costs would be a further burden. This is a rip-off. Well-known private
companies close to the ruling outfit will strike gold. The State might even
buy this equipment from them in the name of subsidies to the farmer. Even if
the farmer cannot cope with running costs.
The new Maharashtra Water Resources Regulatory Authority "shall consist of a
chairperson and two other members." The chair will be of Chief Secretary
rank. Of the other two, one "shall be an expert from the field of water
resources engineering." The other, likewise, "in the field of water
resources economy." There's another open door for the private sector — right
on the top floor.
This body will ensure that "water charges shall reflect the full recovery of
the cost of irrigation management, administration, operation and maintenance
of water resources project." Also hidden in the deal is a clause that sailed
through when the bill was first passed by the Legislative Council. That
talks of partial "recovery of capital investment."
These levels of cost recovery are aimed at clearing the way for private
investors. The Maharashtra bill, as economist and former State Planning
Board member H.M. Desarda points out, could make costs unbearable. Perhaps
as much as Rs. 8,000 an acre. That would simply evict lakhs of small holders
Some of those who back the bill, like MLC B.T. Deshmukh, point out that it
gives priority to backward regions. That new projects must come first to
hard-hit Vidharbha and Marathwada. True, the terms of the bill do imply
this. And so? It's like if the Bombay Gymkhana were to give first preference
in membership to those living in the slums of Dharavi. Sure, they'd get
priority. Could they afford an `nth' of the charges?
The uproar on the bill centred around the obnoxious two-child norm. But that
is just the tip of the iceberg. On April 28, M.P. Veerendrakumar drew the
Lok Sabha's attention to The Hindu 's reports on the subject during a
discussion on the Finance Bill. "Marginalised farmers and those who take
agriculture as a livelihood will be driven out. The field will be entirely
open for big tycoons and MNCs... " "Whenever agriculture issues are raised
in the House," he argued "the reply is that it is a State subject." But he
points out, "the moment some bureaucrat goes to some country, he signs an
international agreement." With whose authority, he demanded to know. He
believes a constitutional amendment is needed to root out the secrecy,
intrigue and plain old corruption that are tied with such legislation.
The distribution of water already stands privatised in parts of several
towns across the country. But applied to farming, will it work? Can such
massive rates be recovered? Absolutely not. No one can pay. So why bother,
Because it will destroy countless small farmers. It will establish, yet
again, water as a private good not as a human right. (What impact the costs
will have on food prices has not even been looked at.)
It will hand over agriculture to the rich and corporations. It will worsen
the terrible situation of poor farmers in the State — amongst whom there
have been hundreds of suicides. And it will doubtless be touted as a
national and global `model.' Watch out for that big bang.