Interview with Sunita Narain

A couple of days ago, a business magazine picked her as one of the 25 most powerful women in India. The Director of the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), one of India’s leading environmental NGOs, Sunita Narain is an award-winning activist for environmental issues in India and has carved a space for herself in the niche academic-activists public space of the country. In this informative and sometimes combative interview with Nidhi Dugar Kundalia, she speaks on India’s biggest issue in the years to come- Water Wars.

In cities like Calcutta, residences are not billed for water, but in most other cities they are charged at a flat rate, instead of water metering. Isn’t this causing over-usage?

No, that’s okay. I mean metering water is very important because the only way we will become more responsible for our use of water is when we pay more for the over-use and secondly, when we know what are we using our water for and eventually, save it. And so, you know, having quantitative metering is very-very important.

So why is Calcutta not billed for water? Why is it free?

Good question, Nidhi. Two reasons – one, traditionally we have always seen water as a public good, which it is. But that is also not extended to believing that because it is a public good, we should neither price it nor should we meter it, and therefore it has become a sort of a political issue as well. Even in Calcutta, every time they try to meter households, it has become a big political issue with politicians arguing that if you meter it, you will end up commodifying a public good. What they don’t understand is that the poor in this country are already paying more for water than the rich. It is the rich in this country who overuse their water for hot tubs, long showers, swimming pools etc; and they should be the ones paying the right price for it. And I think, that is where metering needs to become a reality, and it needs to get extended. But there is also another issue that we need to understand – it is not that easy to get water metered. Water meters are very faulty in India because we have a technical problem where we have an interrupted supply of water. Because we get an interrupted supply of water, for a large time the water meter has got air and not water to meter, and that creates a lot of problems in their readings. People don’t believe the water meter as a result of it. We also don’t have a very good governance system to ensure that the water meter reader, who comes to individual homes, actually does the right reading of the meter. It is a very corrupt system and we don’t trust it. So it is easier said than done that we should have 100% metering. But we also need better technology for metering. We need better governance systems so that you and I, as a customer know that we are not being cheated when the water metering happens and we need a better and more transparent system to tell us where and how we can reduce our water bill, because if our water bills become very high after metering we would not like to pay those. So I think it is very important to know that the system is working, and we, as customers are not being cheated.

Sarvajal, an organisation founded by a private company has started solar powered water ATM’s to bring clean water to remote villages in India. Water is not free in India, if not always available. So how difficult would it be to get people to pay for water and use new technologies like these? Has anything like this been attempted in the past before?

See, I don’t think we have a tradition of paying for water and I don’t think we will have…You and I buy a bottle of water. We pay Rs. 12 for a litre of water, and it is obnoxious because if you think about it, the company has practically paid nothing other than transportation cost and marketing cost to get the water to you. But we pay because we think we have no choice and because it is also being sold to us as a pleasurable thing to have. But you also have to understand that very large numbers of people in this country can’t afford it. And therefore we need water pricing which is affordable by a large number of people. There is also another issue here. You and I as rich users of water don’t pay for it, then why should the poor of this country be asked to pay for water which actually should be available to them at a reasonable or free cost. So I think water is a very emotive issue as well, but where we will all change in our use of water is when we begin to see our usage and its implications. How are we using our water? How can we reduce our water usage? And of course, change will also happen when we start paying for that water use, particularly high water usage. Now, I don’t agree with paying for drinking water usage. Look at your household, or my household, or any household, and suppose you did a broad water audit of our households, you would find that how much water do you use for drinking – 2 litres maximum? If you are really good, you will drink 3 litres of water, as an individual. On a per capita basis, which means per day per person, we use anywhere between 40 – 125 litres. So if I have only drunk 2 litres, where has the rest gone? The rest has actually gone in a flush, or it has gone in washing, or it has gone in gardening. Your big uses of water in a household are those. Now I would argue that instead of making people pay for drinking water that should actually be the right…everybody should have the right to free drinking water! Two litres water per day per person or three litres of water per day per person should be a fundamental right. But the right to use water for gardening, or washing clothes in a washer, should be priced. So actually we should turn this discussion on its head so that you make sure that the right to drinking water is not priced, the right to water usage in a household is priced. Or there is no absolute right to that.

Will privatisation in the water sector help?

What do you mean by water privatisation? Such a vague term…

In sectors such as sewage control, drainage cleaning, river cleaning projects, will the advent of private companies help?

Is that what ‘they’ mean by privatisation? I don’t think so. No, they don’t. What they are meaning by water privatisation right now is something that is already happening. Most of your water services are privatised. What they are thinking about whether it is metro Manila, or they are thinking about other cities, is when distribution of public water also becomes privatised. Now why should you have a problem with that, okay? If there is a regulatory environment where the tariff is set, where the poor are cross subsidised, where there is absolutely no way that a water company can actually price water at any rate that they want, and you can make sure that they both supply water and take back sewage for treatment. The problem with water privatisation sometimes is that it only looks at water and not sewage. So I think it is important for us not to get into this. I am sorry but I have a lot of problem in just answering it as a blanket yes or a no because there is too much polarisation and there is a huge lack of understanding about what we mean either by water privatisation or not by water privatisation.

In absolute terms, India receives almost twice as much development assistance in water and sanitation than any other country. And this amount is USD 830 million. So considering the water wars looming ahead of us in the near future, isn’t this dependency scary?

I don’t understand this. Where do organisations get these figures from? I do not understand these statistics. I’m on the ground and I will talk about ground realities. India’s major water budget comes from its domestic sources. It is domestic Indian money that is spent. Do you know there are 19 million tube wells in this country? Who has built those tube wells? Farmers. Where did the money come from? From individual incomes. The Indian water services sector is domestically supported. The question that you and I should be asking is, given that we have such high levels of…so many people who still need water services, so many people are not being reached by drinking water, so many millions who still do not even have a toilet in India, so many cities that do not have underground sewage systems, so many cities which do not have clean drinking water – the question that we have in India is where will we find those domestic resources to be able to pay for these services? Should we find a more affordable solution so that we can reach water to all and sanitary services to all? So that should be the question Nidhi.

So why don’t we answer that? How should we be making these services more affordable?

I think it is a big question in India, and we are not thinking about it, because we are still thinking that we are on a infrastructure trajectory and today we don’t have sewage systems, and tomorrow we will have them, and we will get richer tomorrow, and some private agency will come and invest in them because that is what infrastructure spending is about. We don’t understand that water and sewage is about being able to pay for those services and the fact is we don’t have abilities to be able to pay for services that are not affordable. So it does mean that we have to re-invent how we supply water, how we cut down the length of the pipeline, how we reduce our distribution losses, how can we supply water at more affordable rates? And then it also means how we can take back the sewage, and treat it as cheaply as possible because, if our sewage treatment systems are very expensive, we will not be able to pay for them. If we are not able to pay for them, you will not get investment into them, and you will get increasing pollution, pollution will add to the level of water contamination that is, and that will require more cleaning up to be done – so more costs. So it is a vicious cycle and we have to start looking at water from this challenge of affordability. We are not doing it yet.

Why has CSE lobbied so hard for rain water harvesting? Are government and policy makers listening to CSE’s messages?

When CSE began its work on rainwater harvesting, we were looking at it from a point of view of community based water harvesting solutions and we were saying that so many parts of India had followed the principle of harvesting rain water. And I do believe we were heard. There was a huge debate and engineers were totally against us because they saw it as a solution that was not viable. But increasingly, the whole issue about decentralised water harvesting became part of policy and a part of our practice. And I think today there is more and more acceptance of the fact that village ponds play a very important role in ground water recharge because if you don’t recharge your ground water, you have a huge crisis today with the way water levels are declining in the country. But increasingly, in our books like Excreta Matters, we have looked at urban India and the challenges of urban India when it comes to water and sewage. We are finding that the lessons we learnt from rain water harvesting, which we thought were more relevant for rural India have become equally, if not more relevant, for urban India. Why? Because of what I just said. India will require an affordable way of supplying water… affordable way of supplying water means that instead of having long pipelines bring in water through long distances, you think about local water systems. You make sure you manage, harvest every drop of water, you hold it in lakes and ponds, on rooftops, so that you can recharge your groundwater… you can supply water more locally. If you supply water more locally, your distribution costs go down, your billing becomes easier, your metering becomes easier, your payments become easier. So you change the way you look at it, but it is also a fact, and that is becoming another challenge that with climate change you are seeing more extreme weather events and with extreme weather events you are seeing more urban flooding. And another way to deal with urban flooding is to make sure is that you have your ponds and tanks which are your sponge for urban India. Look what has happened in Srinagar. Srinagar drowned because of that fact that it destroyed its lakes, its ponds and it is built over its drainage systems. So, if you look at every rain in Kolkata, the city goes under; because you had huge drainage systems, which you have built over, and destroyed. So our work on rainwater harvesting today had become even more relevant because you have seen it within the context of a city, both requiring affordable water, and requiring ways in which we can reduce its … it can charge its water.

Has the government been involved with you on rainwater harvesting in any way? Are they taking up the leads?

We don’t ask for involvement of the government but yes, I think the government has heard our lesson, our message, and it is definitely taking appropriate steps, it is definitely introducing it in its policy. But I think when it comes to urban issues, I think that will still take some time because the urban engineers – the urban PHD engineers, public work department engineers are so convinced of the technologies that they have of the large pipes, pumps, water treatment plants, sewage treatment plants that they cannot think beyond it. And I think that it will take us all a lot more effort to get them to understand the imperativeness of an affordable water supply and affordable sewage treatment.

How important is this online environmental clearance system which the new government has introduced? 

I think it is very important. The more transparency it can bring into clearances, it is going to be critical. But I think beyond just transparency, it is critical to make the system more effective. And to make the system more effective, you have to make sure that you can actually increase the rejection rate of projects, and you can make sure that once you clear a project, the conditions that you have set for the project are also monitored. So, you need to make sure that the monitoring is tightened, there is penalty for non-compliance, and that there is higher rejection.

But when you look at the structure of the governance here, you know, except for Delhi and the Union territories, the central ministries have only advisory capacities and limited role in funding. So how does that work? How can they be involved in what is happening in different parts of the states or all over the country?

The State Pollution Control Board has a lot of power and so at the state level you have a department of empowerment and you have a Pollution Control Board, which has enormous power if it decides to use it; so I think the strengthening of the state institutions is critical because that’s where the real action is, and that’s where the real power lies, and that’s where people can also make a difference because you cannot make your voice heard at the central level, but you can make your voice heard at the local, the district and the state level.

PM Narendra Modi has recently been introducing a lot of schemes where the public can be more actively involved in governance. Can there actually be a model where the public and the government can be working together towards the environment?

I think, Nidhi, it is a good start. In India, unlike in western countries, environment is not an isolated issue. People here make their lives and livelihoods on their environment. If the environment degrades, they lose their source of income and are further marginalized. Be it tribal people living in and near forests, fishermen on our coasts, or the urban poor in slums. But clearly we have to see the method that is actually used to work together. I think what the Prime Minister has done, is very rightly, made people much more aware of the critical issues like garbage cleaning up. It is very good to have such issues in our face. But now the real task begins to implement those ideas. And to make sure that people can be involved with the implementation. And that is going to be something to see, to learn from and see what works because it then can be applied to people and the environment.

has a passion for odd and intriguing, and that is what brought her into the field of journalism. Adventure sports, street-style theater and travelling are her much revered leisure pursuits. While at it, she digs random coffee shop talks and scribbles them down into droll stories.

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