Magazine article UNESCO Courier

India: Calcutta Plugs Its Deficit

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

India: Calcutta Plugs Its Deficit

Article excerpt

Short of money to overhaul an antiquated water system, the Indian city may have opened a pandora's box by extending the coverage of its water tax

Standing in a long, winding queue, Ratan Das eagerly awaits his turn to get a bucket of water from the public tap in Topsia slum in southern Calcutta, capital of India's West Bengal state. Das, like the 200 other people who live in the slum and are dependent on the tap, is anxious to reach it before the water stops flowing. If he misses out now, he will have to wait another four hours, sometimes even more, to get his fill.

Not far from Topsia, Meenakshi Mukherjee, a middle-class housewife living in a one-room fiat, has an array of vessels under the single water tap in her house. She needs to store as much water as possible before the pipe stops pumping out water and instead coughs out air.

Will the poor foot the bill?

The travails of Das and Mukherjee in their daily struggle for water are typical for Calcutta and its five million people. The city's antiquated distribution network, built mostly during British rule in India, has long since been unable to cope with the strains of population growth. Meanwhile, the impoverished state government has lacked the money needed to overhaul the crumbling water system. As a result, the leftist state and municipal governments are now extending their water taxes to the middle classes. Poor people fear they might be next in line to pay tax on water.

The decision to extend the water tax - which hitherto has been paid only by the rich and by commercial users - was taken by Calcutta's Marxist-dominated city government last month. The tax has been introduced underworld Bank pressure in return for loans to help refurbish the city's hydrological infrastructure.

The new tax will be applied to all buildings four or more storeys high - the kind of residential buildings popular amongst the middle class. …

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