At the outset we need to discuss the definition of water. Is it only a resource? Is it merely a usable item like road, electricity, telephone or fast food? Is mankind the only consumer of water? Besides mankind who else has a right on water? Pondering at length over such questions I have come to accept the following definition.
Water is a resource but more than that it is the most precious gift bestowed upon us by Mother Nature. All living beings have a right on it. From the tall trees of the forest to the humble grass in the meadows and from mighty elephant to tiny ant every one needs water to survive. Mankind needs water primarily for drinking. Then only he uses water in other purposes like sanitation, irrigation and industry- in that order. It should be obvious that water can’t be compared with any other resource or service.
Water is our fundamental right. It can neither be curbed nor terminated. But this is what precisely the global machine of profit is trying to do. The authors of our constitution might not have envisaged this situation; otherwise they sure would have enlisted the right to water as the first fundamental right. All constitutions in the civilised world recognise the right to life. Isn’t access to water a part of that right? Then how should one describe the powers, which are trying to take away this right from our hands? Aren’t they the most cruel and heartless exploiters and demons in today’s world?
Water is not something created by man. It is given to us through rains in many forms and mediums. We get it in natural way through mountain streams, meandering rivers and placid ponds; as also through wells, hand pumps, and urban water supply schemes by use of technology. Undoubtedly technology makes life easier and therefore we are naturally pleased when water comes through municipal taps. Unfortunately in the pleasure of this easy availability we tend to forget that water deposits are not endless, and therefore ought to be used in judicious manner. While we discuss the role of WTO and the privatisation of water in this forum, we should also ask ourselves whether there is something like water-consciousness in the society.
WTO is a gigantic machine of profit. World Bank, IMF, ADB etc. are also part of the scheme. They all profess to be working for the development and progress of the world community but our experience over last five decades tells another story. That they have worked relentlessly only for making the rich countries richer and more powerful. On the strength of their ill-gotten wealth in the colonial era these countries have forced the rest to kneel before them and beg for scraps. They are least concerned about the sovereignty of nations and have never cared for cultural traditions and diversities of other societies.
In this background it’s hardly surprising that they now want to trade in water. Water is only a commodity for them, a product- that doesn’t require any manufacturing process. A permission from the government of the country where trading is sought is more than sufficient. Such permission in this uni-polar world order has become much, much easier to seek. National governments, even provincial governments and Panchayati Raj Institutes prostrate before the global traders. Once the permission is granted they need to invest only on bare requirements like motor pumps and pipelines. Thereafter it becomes a game where water suppliers dictate the terms. Those with enough money at their disposal alone can buy water and survive. The rest are free to die of thirst.
This happened in far away Bolivia. In the town of Cochabamba municipal water supply was handed over to the US multinational Bechtel- the same company, which has emerged as the biggest contractor in the war-torn Iraq. This company took over all water resources of the town and started trading on very high rates. So much so that people were forced to spend almost half of their income in purchasing of water. The situation soon became unbearable and agitated people came out in the streets. The government supported the company. It resulted in brutal firing on unarmed civilians in which several citizens died. Yet, the people were not deterred. Ultimately the government had to cancel the contract. The company was sent packing back. Ironically, the company is now demanding an astronomical sum in compensation from the Bolivian government.
It is important to understand the background of this decision of Bolivia to privatise urban water supply. In many countries, governments take huge loans from World Bank et el. ostensibly in the name of development work. But rather then investing in productive activities the money is mostly spent on unworthy causes or finds its way into private coffers. The development projects are never completed in due time resulting in escalation of cost, while the interest on such loans, mistakenly believed to be foreign aid, continues to increase. A major part of the country’s revenue thus goes into servicing of foreign debt, leaving little money for real development. To bridge the gap, governments again lean on institutions to help them out. At this point, lending institutions pounce upon the borrower. They start applying all kinds of pressure on the government to accept their own agenda such as privatisation of public sector industry and services, low interest regime, Voluntary Retirement Scheme, downsizing of bureaucracy, free entry to foreign firms etc. Debt-laden, corrupt and ever-needy governments succumb to these pressures.
We are witnessing the same scenario in India. The central government has bowed down before the foreign capital interests. But that has not benefited the country in any respect. The state governments also seem to be very much attracted by foreign investment. Their leader is Chief Minister N.Chandrababu Naidu of Andhra Pradesh. In his state every year hundreds of farmers commit suicide, as they are not able to repay their debts. In summer 2003, for the first time in its history 1300 people died of heat stroke in the state, as the government was not able to open drinking water kiosk in urban areas. Yet, Naidu is rated as the best chief minister in the country.
Enron is a well-known name. Indian political masters rolled out red carpet for this US multinational. Whatever dreams the company sold turned out to be a big hoax. It went bankrupt in spite of its thick relations with President Bush. This meant losses for the shareholders but the directors went home with handsome compensation packages. The same directors have now formed a new company to try their luck in trading of water. There are more than a dozen firms in Europe and the US in this business. Their operations are mostly in the developing world. I have already cited the case of Bolivia. In Metro Manila in Philippines, city water supply is in the hands of a foreign company. In Karachi, Pakistan talks are going on for a similar project. A river in Michigan, USA was leased out to a soft drink manufacturing company in the face of protest from local residents. But India is the biggest market for these traders.
The National Water Policy, which has been framed by the Govt. of India under the influence of the water industry and WTO advocates private trading of water. The govt. expresses its inability in providing adequate water supply citing lack of resources. It is also of the view that the private sector is more efficient. On such grounds in 1998, the erstwhile government of undivided Madhya Pradesh had privatised Sheonath River in Chhattisgarh. The present government has promised to terminate the contract but no steps have been taken so far in this direction. Then, we have this case of New Delhi where the multinational company “Suez” has been contracted to bring water to the metropolis from far away Tehri Dam on Ganga. In this particular project no consideration has been given to the enormous money spent from the public exchequere in building the dam. In the neighbouring state of Jharkhand municipal water supply of Jamshedpur has been handed over to another multinational “Vivendi”. Periya River in Kerala has been handed over to Coca-Cola and in Tamilnadu Coca-Cola and sakthi Sugar combine has been given rights to extract ground water in Shivganga area near Madurai. In that state water supply of Tirupur- famous for its hosiery manufacturing- has been given to another foreign company. Such examples are on the increase.
The only aim of these local/foreign traders is to earn maximum profits. They are least bothered about the basic water needs of the people. Their profits come not only from selling water, but from other activities, too. Their business interests range from hybrid seeds to chemical fertilisers and pesticides to irrigation systems to construction of big dams and factories. Vivendi owns the Universal Studio in Hollywood. In countries like India these foreign firms may get contracts from building of dams to sale of terminator seeds. Once they have entered our life then there is no escape from their clutches. In Kerala where rivers have been handed over to Coca-Cola, access to drinking water has been cut. In Andhra Pradesh farmers are committing suicide because they are never able to repay debts taken for purchase of seeds, fertilisers, pesticides produced by these firms.
WTO asserts that water supply is a part of the “service industry” as if it is something like a Post Office, Bank or Insurance Office. It is continuously making a case in favour of free trade across the globe. This has resulted in profits mostly for American companies. The US, the champion of the free trade, never hesitates in raising barriers in the areas where it fears losses for its own firms. The call to treat water supply as a service is also motivated to facilitate entry of foreign firms in this trade like already done in banking and insurance. Once the field is opened to them they will take over city water supply, refine wastewater, build huge dams and introduce water related technology developed by them. No need to say that each of these activities will fetch huge profits.
Water will then be supplied on the paying capacity of the consumer. Naturally, top priority will be given to the industrial manufacturers who will be able to recover the charges from the end users. Then will come soft drink manufacturers as the coloured sugary syrup can be sold at, may be, fifteen times higher price. In agriculture sector only rich farmers will be able to purchase water, as they are not only rich but also enjoy political clout. In the cities residents of posh colonies will get preference. It beats me as to how in this scheme of things rural poor, landless farmers, urban labourers and residents of shantytowns will be able to get water for life. The masters of water will lay claim even on the raindrops falling in one’s courtyard.
Once WTO declares water as service, it will not be possible to retract from it. Each member country will have to accept it. Then a situation may arise when water from India will be sold in Singapore. The market will decide the selling patterns. Then a contractor will also be free to decide his own rates in his contracted area, as it happened in Cochabamba or Metro Manila.
The challenge before us is to join hands in fighting with the traders of water, the agencies supporting them and the governments giving them permission. Environmentalists and water activists in India have already rejected the national water policy, but there is an urgent need to launch a nationwide agitation. We must tell WTO and its associates in their face that trading of water is not acceptable to us. If our peaceful appeals are not heard then we must be prepared to come out in the streets.
Written and translated by Lalit Surjan
Keynote address given in pre-Cancun National Seminar held in Bhubaneswar, Orissa on 27th/28th August 2003. Published in Deshbandhu, Raipur on 28th August 2003.
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