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I had the privilege of participating in a recent seminar of the Asian Development Bank, which focussed on best practices in urban development in Asia. The story of the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority (PPWSA) is an outstanding example of public sector turnaround. The presentation at the seminar was made by none other than Ek Sonn Chan, the legendary waterman of our times. As General Director of Cambodia's PPWSA, Chan had radically transformed a decrepit and war-torn water supply system, known for its missing water and missing customers, to a model public sector utility that now provides 24-hour drinking water to the city of Phnom Penh. I had an opportunity to visit the plant six months ago, and was further inspired by what I saw.
I wondered when we will see something like this happening in India. There are some examples of public private partnerships delivering continuous supply of water, but can our public sector do the same? Well, Malkapur has done it! It is indeed a home-grown initiative driven by the public sector while engaging and involving the multiple stakeholders.
In December 2002, the government of Maharashtra gave a nod to a new water supply system for Malkapur, which would cost Rs 9.5 crore and serve an expected population of around 67,000 by 2030 at 55 litres per capita per day (lpcd) with the existing distribution network of 12.5 km. This project was commissioned in 2005.
The ambition for 24x7 water surfaced in 2006, and a revised project for Rs 12.3 crore was approved by the state government, with a higher water norm of 70 lpcd. While the capital cost would be largely borne by the state government, the operation and maintenance was the responsibility of the MNP and a system had to be put in place for residents to accept 100 per cent metered connections and user charges on volumetric basis. After extensive consultations, the Malkapur gram panchayat gave its consent to the Scheme in January 2007. In April 2008, the gram panchayat was converted to a nagar panchayat, recognising that it was an area in transition and a sizeable proportion of the income of its residents was originating from non-agricultural activity.
The project had its champion in Manohar Bhaskar Shinde, who had provided leadership for the 24x7 water idea in the period 2005-2008 as sarpanch of the gram panchayat. The actual work on the project began in March 2008, after the contract was awarded through competitive bidding. As deputy mayor of the nagar panchayat (the mayor's position was reserved for a woman), Shinde continued to play a leading role in garnering support for the scheme during its implementation through people's participation and ensuring that the project was implemented in a transparent manner.
The actual cost of the project was Rs 13 crore, of which 90 per cent was financed by the state government and the remaining amount was mobilised by the Malkapur Nagar Panchayat (MNP) through a surcharge on property tax, while funding support also came from the MPLADs fund of Prithviraj Chavan, the present chief minister, and from the MLA of the area. By end-2010, the project was up and running.
Technology has played an important role in improving the quality of the distribution network. In designing the new network, the WaterGEMS hydraulic model utilises the information on the use of water at different times of the day, and also the spatial information available from GIS (Geographical Information System) and household surveys.
The durability of the network has been improved and leakages minimised by the use of high-density poly ethylene (HDPE) pipes, which require fewer joints, and the joints are made using electrical fusion-welded couplers so that the connections are leak-proof. Attention to quality can be gauged from the fact that the resin to be used for manufacturing the pipes was specified in the tender, which included the condition for third-party testing.
Consumer surveys were used to identify all customers. Such surveys facilitate the process of regularising illegal connections and also help in targeting the subsidies more easily. Third-party inspection was used for meter connections. The introduction of automatic meter reading (AMR), and transferring the data directly to the computer for billing and analysis, has brought about transparency in the billing system. AMR also makes it possible to go for monthly billing rather than annual billing, which is more burdensome for the customer. Computerised billing and customer-friendly services such as SMS alerts have improved efficiency and generated higher revenues.
Not only has the introduction of a telescopic pricing system acted as an instrument to conserve water but people using less than 55 lpcd of water have been rewarded with 15 per cent concession. Malkapur is thereby able to provide 24x7 water supply with 110 lpcd.
The energy saving from the initiative is estimated at about 30 per cent because of the reduced pumping needed at the pumping station and the reduced need for households to pump water to their overhead tanks because of increased pressure.
Public officials of MJP, its then Chief Engineer at Pune, Rajendra Holani and his team, officials at MNP and elected representatives of the nagar/gram panchayat were the principal players in the transformation of the water scenario at Malkapur. The apprehensions of the elected representatives in the initial stage were addressed through a transparent process of engagement and dialogue with them. They were taken to Badlapur town near Mumbai where they could see a pilot project on 24x7 water and appreciate the benefits. A communication campaign was launched for other stakeholders, for example, citizens, media, and other civil society groups. A number of ward-level meetings were held to explain the benefits and the rationale of the telescopic tariff system.
A combination of motivation, sharing of knowledge, and imparting of skills was used to align the employees of MJP and MNP with the 24x7 initiative. The project received the Prime Minister's Award for Excellence in Public Administration in 2009-10, and was also the proud recipient of the Urban Water Awards for Technical Innovations in December 2011.
The benefits of continuous water supply systems for sanitation are well known. The enormous improvement in the quality of life resulting from 24x7 water has also been widely documented, particularly for women who bear the brunt of the burden when water is scarce. The Malkapur experience shows that the metered system has reduced the water bills of the poor, who would use less water but pay the same flat rate as others earlier.
The financials of the 24x7 project also have a story to tell. Because of leakages in the system, the non-revenue water in the earlier system was 40 per cent; this has come down to 12 per cent with the 24x7 project. The O&M cost recovery was as low as 36 per cent, and this has increased to 100 per cent in the 24x7 project. Prior to 24x7, MNP had a revenue deficit on water account of around Rs 30 lakh per annum; in its first year of operation after 24x7, this was transformed into a surplus of Rs 4 lakh.
The Maharashtra government is already working on similar projects in a number of villages, towns and cities. If Malkapur can do it, why not others?
The writer is chairperson of ICRIER and also former chairperson of the high-powered expert committee on urban infrastructure services