Water in India has always been perceived from a lens of public good rather than an economic commodity.
A sense of ownership is missing among users as they abstract water at minimal or no cost, and in turn, discharge wastewater into rivers either without or partial treatment. It is the primary reason why water is valued minimally by consumers. Such a thought process is ironic given the already ‘water stressed’ situation in India wherein the current water availability is about 1500 m³ per capita per annum. The situation is expected to worsen in the coming years due to the probability of India becoming a ‘water scarce’ nation with water availability of less than 1000 m³ per capita per annum in the Business as Usual (BAU) scenario. The current situation can be improved by adopting tools and mechanisms such as water conservation, water-efficient practices, improved irrigation practices, wastewater treatment, and recycling, benchmarking of water used for different sectors, and use of economic instruments. While many such mechanisms are already being adopted in some places, they need to be adopted widely to improve their impact.
In the national capital, water demand on the domestic front is increasing at a rapid pace. Based on the norm of 60 gallon per capita per day (GPCD), the total requirement of water for NCT of Delhi in March 2021 was 1380 MGD for the projected population of 23 million, according to the Economic Survey of Delhi, 2020-21. At present, there is a requirement of approximately 20% more water supply for the city to meet the domestic water requirement.
In the current scenario, urban authorities are facing serious challenges in addressing the water demand and water supply augmentation for the future. However, the lack of supply and demand equilibrium worsens the on-ground challenge. The issue is exacerbated by a host of other problems such as water resource depletion and degradation resulting in persistent water scarcity, climate change that is triggering unequal rainfall distribution, as well as increased water demand due to urbanisation. It is also seen that economically stable consumers have higher water demands. Therefore, these on-ground complications along with scarce budgetary resources and respective institutional and governmental issues lead to a huge gap between resource requirement and availability.
Further, high water subsidy services under governmental control have led to water being an underpriced commodity, and consequently, the community consistently perceives that water is free. Besides, the ‘free water scheme’ of the Delhi government allows domestic consumers who have a functional water meter to use up to 20 kilo litres per month. On the other hand, a large number of unmetered connections continue to exist while many others remain faulty or non-functional. As per Delhi Jal Board (2018), 2.6 million water connections have been sanctioned, amongst which 13% lack functional meters, while 3.5% connections remain unmetered. Since the piped water supply continues to exist, the groundwater withdrawal by several residents of Delhi remains unmonitored and unbilled.
A significant measure for reducing water wastage in Delhi is based on the rationalisation of water tariffs. It rests on the principle of “use more, pay more.”
Water wastage is very difficult to monitor at the domestic level. Charging a reasonable price for water consumption is considered a necessary measure by the Delhi Jal Board, Delhi Government, and the Government of India (Water Policy for Delhi, 2017). A policy on water tariffs will work effectively for financially stable consumers as well as those who are not. While low-income consumers will tend to utilise less water to stabilise their water consumption charges, economically stable consumers will pay the price for the extra water consumed in the month. The measure creates an equilibrium between water utilisation and water infrastructure maintenance charges.
It is recommended that average municipal incomes be considered to calculate water tariffs for different income groups. Uniform water tariff will involve an element of regressivity which shall impact the economically challenged consumers. Redesigning of the water tariffs should be considered in order to ameliorate water access to the lower-income households so that their basic water needs are covered. It can be analogous to the ‘income tax rates,’ wherein different charges are levied from different income groups. The measure will help inculcate a sense of awareness among the higher income groups to utilise the appropriate amount of water and also bring in the knowledge that over-usage will invite additional charges. The measure will generate a fair degree of progressivity in the water tariff policy for domestic consumers along with sensitising them on their consumption quantum. Apart from this, it will also re-include the concept of social equity which was once a major objective of urban water pricing, creating a synergy of equity and affordability for a large percentage of consumers.
It is critical to comment on the appropriateness of water tariffs in a city such as Delhi, due to the diversity amongst the consumers in the urban domestic sector. Economic pricing is accounted significantly where the local people have little control over usage; it creates a necessary indicator of and barrier against overutilisation of water. Apart from the responsible realisation of sustainable water utilisation amongst consumers, the concept promotes water conservation and water augmentation techniques such as rainwater harvesting and using treated wastewater wherever possible. It is in accordance with the much-discussed Sustainable Developmental Goals (SDGs), particularly SDG 6 (clean water and sanitation), SDG 12 (responsible consumption and production) and SDG 13 (climate action), and hence an essential economic factor to keep a check on water management in the domestic sector. The tariff needs to be revised from time to time to keep up with the operation and maintenance cost of the urban water supply bodies in each state, and importantly, it should be fair and reasonable for different income group consumers to ensure the right to clean water for all.