The role of municipalities as agencies for driving social and economic development has not been given its due importance for over a hundred years now. While there is a reference to village panchayats in the Directive Principles of State Policy, there is no specific reference to municipalities, other than to place the subject of local self-governments as a responsibility of the states. It was in 1992 that the 74th Amendment strengthened their role as effective democratic units of self-government.
In the popular imagination, it is understood that the poor state of public utilities can be addressed by designing effective policies and helping the “government” take right decisions. But which government is being talked about is seldom clear. Often, the decisions of the Union and the state governments are taken in a place too distant from the region it is intended for. This distance results in numerous inconsistencies and poor performance of the governments in a large country like India. Article 40 of the Constitution provides for state governments to organise village panchayats (this later included the municipalities also) and endow them with such powers and authority to enable them to function as units of local self-government.
Like municipalities, water too falls under the purview of the state governments. Therefore, it is imperative that any effort towards effective water management must involve the municipalities in a proactive role, since they comprise the local self-government in the towns. Treating them as mere “implementing” agencies will not help. The policies of the state governments must empower the municipalities to take initiatives independently and lead the course of development of their respective towns, for they know the best about their people.
India faces an unprecedented water crisis which is a crisis not of its physical availability but of gross mismanagement. Poor water-supply infrastructure is a lead cause of water shortages. Between 40 to 60 percent of the water pumped into the distribution networks never reaches the users in most cities of India. This portion of water is termed as unaccounted-for water (UFW) or non-revenue water (NRW). Technically this is not a very difficult problem to solve for water utility boards. It is the social, institutional and political factors that make it difficult.
Here is a success story of efficient water management, planned and led by a municipality. The Town Municipal Council (TMC) of Karnataka’s coastal town of Kundapura won the National Urban Award in 2009 for achieving a significant reduction in NRW. This town in Udupi district has reduced its NRW from 81 percent to 13.3 percent during the period 2004-2008, through a major overhaul of its water supply system and improving the quality of its service.
Kundapura is abundant in surface water resources and receives a high average rainfall of around 4000 mm. Its population of 30,000 is spread over an area of 11.84 sq km. Groundwater resources provided for its water supply until the year 2006. Untreated water from 11 open wells was supplied to the entire town with no attention to water quality. The production of the wells was 0.6 million litres per day (MLD) with 23 litres per capita per day (LPCD) of water availability. Most of the supply lines leaked. During summer season the low level of water in wells often led to the intrusion of saline water from the sea. Consequently, people resorted to trucked water supply during those months, paying up to Rs 1000 per month for the service.
It was under these conditions that the TMC thought of a new approach to water management. Under the new plan the TMC shifted the source of water supply from wells to a river around 12 km from the town. This was a more sustainable source. A water treatment was put in place before pumping it into the distribution network. This arrangement also helped in increasing the water availability from 23 LPCD to 135 LPCD.
As the entire water supply was being reworked, auditing the water and energy consumption was incorporated as a standard procedure. To reduce the quantity of non-revenue water in the system, people were encouraged to have individual connections to their houses, with meters installed to measure their water use. It arranged for the people to pay the cost of installation (around Rs 4000) for the piped water connection and the meters in instalments. The people were encouraged to pay their bills on time and a new water tariff was developed separating domestic use from commercial, so as to help people use water equitably and judiciously.
By 2009 80 percent of the municipality was covered by the water supply network. The town now supplies around 2 MLD of water with a capacity to scale up to 7.5 MLD. Even during summer, 135 LPCD of water is guaranteed to consumers. Leaks and operational problems are attended within 24 hours. The cost of the service has also become affordable, with average water bills around Rs 75 per month, at the rate of Rs 5 for every 1000 litres of water consumed. The entire project was implemented at a cost of Rs 135 million, supported by the Asian Development Bank. It addresses the demand for water up to 2026.
The success of Kundapura demonstrates that municipalities can effect change when empowered. They are the closest form of governance which people see, understand and interact with in their daily lives. It is the municipality which is most suitably positioned to lead the developmental projects which address some of the most pressing resource management problems of India. Municipalities have often been deprived of the autonomy and wherewithal to take care of their towns. Yet, the “face” of government which the millions of citizens see every day is that of the municipality. Empowering and equipping municipalities is therefore important in order to strengthen the faith in the Indian state.