Water warriors battle privatisation in thirst for justice

An activist group in Karnataka staves off politicians’ efforts to hand over water supply to private players.

Published: 12th June 2016 09:59 AM  |   Last Updated: 12th June 2016 10:03 AM   |  A+A-

Water Warriors

Bengaluru: 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 groups striving to secure the people’s right over water. In many cities and villages in India, many are denied this basic right,” he said.

With eight individuals running the state campaign, PCRW has volunteers from 30 districts, striving to bring back wisdom in water governance. The campaign began in 2004.

Confronted with the prospect of privatisation of the water sector in Karnataka in 2003-04, Urs, founder and adviser to PCRW, says, “This was 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. “New areas had to raise their own funds, though they were not shareholders,” Urs says.

Bangalore East, far from the Cauvery river, paid for the scheme but did not get water.

“The government’s effort was to make urban utilities commercial and financially viable and take away water supply and distribution from municipal bodies,” recalls Urs. “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. The deprivation continues even today.

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.’  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.


Mysuru experiment

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 suffered six years of privatisation, but people’s wishes prevailed,” he says.

The government unsuccessfully tried a similar model in Hubballi-Dharwad, Belagavi and Kalaburagi. 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”. The group held jathas and seminars, and distributed handbills. Writers such as Devanura Mahadeva and Champa (Chandrashekhar Patil) inaugurated this project as they were not aware of the consequences, but later supported the campaign.


Sarakki demolitions

The removal of encroachments on Sarakki Lake is 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.”

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.

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.

Healer and Activist

An activist and a writer on issues of social justice and democratisation for 23 years, Urs is one of the founders of PCRW. He is a medical doctor and holds a master’s degree in development studies from London. A Ph.D from the National Law School of India University, his thesis discusses the implications of contemporary water sector reforms on democracy in India.

”We are an initiative of individuals and community groups striving to secure the people’s right over water. Today, in many cities and villages in India, many are denied this basic right.

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