A few months ago, I was invited to a media workshop on water organized by the Asian Development Bank (ADB). The idea was to facilitate a frank dialogue between reporters and water experts on India's current water crisis and what could be done about it. We were seized by the gravity of the crisis.
The symptoms of unrequited thirst were there for all to see and suffer: There are falling groundwater levels as people dig deeper in desperate search for more water; a flourishing water-market, mainly water tankers and bottled water, which too often gets its supplies from borewells in the farmlands located around the city; lastly, the increasing poisoning of groundwater by industrial, agricultural and municipal wastes, not to mention the naturally occurring dangerous chemicals like nitrates and fluorides in groundwater, which threaten to spiral into major public health disaster.
Pollution and excessive extraction apart, inequitable access to this most fundamental resource makes the problem especially egregious. While the rich can afford to spend huge amounts of money to set up borewells, install expensive water-purifying machines, or simply live on bottled water on a daily basis, the poor suffer scandalous indignities for lack of safe and clean water.
Lest it seem like propaganda of its vested interests, ADB had chosen speakers such that a wide spectrum of views was represented. So while the ADB consultant argued in favor of treating water as an economic good, a former bureaucrat-turned-academic tried to demonstrate that this position was fundamentally incompatible with the more laudable goal of equity. Likewise, a grassroots activist, who fervently believed in traditional water harvesting systems as the solution to India's rural water problems, crossed swords with a technocrat who appeared convinced that mega water projects were the long-term answer to India's water woes.
Journalists and the Water Debate
As for the journalists, they too reflected a range of opinions depending on, among other things, their social class, language of reporting, place of work, and the ownership of their newspaper. For instance, while some were openly critical of public water agencies, some others candidly expressed their distrust of corporations.
The workshop was intended to enhance our understanding of this complex subject. However, at the end of two days of discussion, most of us seemed as perplexed as ever by questions such as: Are private managements inherently better than public agencies? Can, indeed should, water be treated as a market commodity at all? Are big water projects such as dams the answer to the imminent water crisis, or should we go for local solutions, as have been demonstrated by many villages? What should be the best and just way to allocate river waters between upstream and downstream nations/states? Shouldn't industries be forced to pay when they pollute water?
A major reason for this lack of clarity is that journalists' understanding of water issues remains piecemeal. We simply do not know enough to separate the wheat from the chaff. Let me provide an illustration from the ADB workshop. The ADB representative in his presentation tried to convince the audience that privatization inevitably leads to greater transparency, efficiency and accountability. He didn't mention equity. Most journalists who had written about chaos and corruption rife in public corporations tended to agree with this assertion. But then a mild-mannered professor begged to disagree. To prove his point, he fished out a slim book from his bag and read out the main findings of an investigation into privatized utilities around the world.
Much to the surprise of the journalists, not to mention the chagrin of the ADB official, in virtually all the case studies, the corporations were found guilty of corruption, lack of accountability, and a deplorable attitude towards the poor. The …