BENGALURU: The People’s Campaign for Right to Water (PCRW) has been in the forefront of a movement to resist privatisation of water supply.
In Karnataka, the man behind this movement is Kshithij Urs. “We are an initiative of individuals and community organisations striving to secure the people’s right over water. Today, in many cities and villages in India, many are denied this basic right,” he told Express.
With eight individuals running the state campaign, the PCRW has volunteers from 30 districts, striving to bring back wisdom in water governance.
The campaign began in 2004. The group’s achievements are many, but they have maintained a low profile.
Confronted with the prospect of privatisation of the water sector in Karnataka in 2003-04, Urs, founder and adviser to PCRW, says, “This was first started by former chief minister S M Krishna in Karnataka and inspired by the World Bank.”
Krishna’s government tried to privatise water supply in the Greater Bangalore area by handing over operations and maintenance of water works to a private company.
“Further, new areas had to raise their own funds although they were not shareholders,” Urs says.
In fact, Bangalore East, far away from Cauvery water source, paid for this scheme but did not get water.
He recalls, “The government’s effort was to make urban utilities commercial and financially viable and take away water supply and distribution from municipal bodies. After this, every public utility was to be ringed and fenced and disconnected from the vagaries of governance (elected members).”
During this period, the government also removed 12,000 public taps across Bengaluru. And till date, the deprivation continues.
It was former BWSSB chairman Ashok Kumar Manoli (2006) who, emboldened by the campaign to stop privatisation, said, ‘The operational function of providing water is our core competence.’
However, he was immediately transferred to the Textiles Department. After much effort, Urs says, the privatisation push in greater Bangalore area came to an end in 2006.
A campaign achieved similar success in Mysuru but only after seven years of struggle.
In 2014, JUSCO, a Tata company, was sent out following protests by people, recalls Urs.
“Supply is now back safely in the hands of 102-year-old Vani Vilas Water Works. This was a PPP concept which involved no investment by the private company for 2007-12. Mysuru had to suffer six long years of privatisation, but people’s wishes prevailed,” he says.
The government tried a similar model in Hubballi-Dharwad, Belagavi and Kalaburagi but fortunately all came to nought, he adds.
Five per cent of the population of Mysuru signed the petition against privatisation, and more people came out on the streets “to throw JUSCO out”, he says.
The group held jathas and seminars, and distributed handbills. Writers like Devanura Mahadeva and Champa (Chandrashekhar Patil) had inaugurated this project since they were not aware of the consequences, but later all writers came on board to support the campaign.
The removal of encroachments on Sarakki Lake has been the PCRW’s most successful campaign.
Eswarappa Madivali, convenor of PCRW, says, “The land was worth `1,800 crore. We petitioned in 2013 and the Karnataka High Court’s order resulted in demolition of 130 properties in 24 acres. It was a landmark case that went on for three years but the orders were implemented finally.”
This was the first instance in Bengaluru where the state went in an organised manner. “Encroachments happen on the city’s water bodies because we have no deterrent water laws in India,” he adds.
Urs explains, “We started looking at the policies and agreements that were socially unjust, financially imprudent and ecologically unsustainable.”
Encroachments can be tracked and nowadays, people do not buy apartments if they are in the vicinity of a lake or tank, Urs says. He is holding discussions with the BBMP to launch a Green Bengaluru Campaign where 1,000 saplings are planted and nurtured in each ward.
The group is launching a national campaign with meetings planned in Delhi and Bhopal.
A doctor and activist
An activist and writer on issues of social justice and democratisation for the past 23 years, Kshithij Urs is one of the founders of the People’s Campaign for Right to Water. He is a trained medical doctor, and holds a master’s degree in development studies from London. A PhD from the National Law School of India University, his thesis discusses the implications of contemporary water sector reforms on democracy in India.