Although Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has kept Aam Aadmi Party's pre-poll promise of providing free water to Delhi, questions are being raised whether it is a case of politics trumping fiscal prudence.
On Monday, the Delhi Jal Board announced that 700 litres of water would be given free to every household in Delhi with functioning meters from 1 January.
The obvious argument against this decision is that providing free water will only worsen the financial condition of the Delhi Jal Board, the regulatory body that ensures supply of water to the national capital. And as one former bureaucrat pointed out, it wouldn't help further the cause of water conservation.
"This is setting a bad precedent because instead of educating people to conserve water, there would be massive wastage. People will tinker with the meters to keep it below 700 litres a month," former Delhi principal secretary, power and industries, Shakti Sinha told CNN-IBN during a panel discussion on the show India at 9.
The former bureaucrat also pointed to the poor fiscal health of the water supplying body.
"The Delhi Jal Board is not in a position to even return loans it had taken. Moreover, thousands of crores are needed to replace old leaking pipes," he said.
Others argued that providing freebies to Delhi's residents, including those residing in posh localities was unacceptable given they could afford to pay for water.
"Giving anything free is anathema to economy. This is equivalent to crony socialism. They should figure out who is giving how much? Who is getting how much? Water to Delhi is coming from miles away and is not free," Shankkar Aiyar, journalist and author, said.
"AAP should focus on providing piped water to everyone rather than offering free water. Those who can afford to pay must be made to pay," he said.
Himanshu Thakkar, from the NGO South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People, said that instead of giving freebies the AAP should instead ensure transparency in the supply of water.
"It is the governance of Delhi Jal Board that needs to be changed. It is the most inefficient, unaccountable and non-transparent organisation. AAP needs to reverse that. However, their intention is clear. They want to give water to everyone at affordable prices but they must keep in mind that India is a water scarce country," he said.
"Why are we giving it free when Delhiites have the capacity to pay? Perhaps 50-100 litres per capita per day should be subsidised and not beyond that," Thakkar said.
However, the AAP says that this is just a short term measure that is part of a larger plan for Delhi.
"We have a complete road map for water...In any case, Delhi Jal Board had a surplus of Rs 400-500 crore in the last 2-3 years. The decision that we took today is just 1-1.5 percent of the total budgetary allocation. We believe water is for everyone as a right to life and this allocation is thus desirable," said AAP member Praveen Singh.
He also said they had a monitoring system in place to ensure water is being wasted.
"Moreover, we have plans to put in place bulk meters at all major centres like treatment plants, storage tanks so that we can keep a tab on how much water is actually used," Singh said.
The Congress, which has promised issue-based support to the AAP, has said that it is still keeping a close watch on the AAP for now.
"Ignoring fiscal prudence usually hits political parties hard. The UPA did not give subsidy sops because at the end of the day it will retaliate in the form of inflation. The decision on free water may have serious financial implications and it may boomerang on AAP. The Congress will watch how it succeeds without bleeding the economy," said Congress spokesperson Sanjay Jha.
Jha, however, took exception to the manner in which some Delhi Jal Board officials were shunted out. Former bureaucrat Sinha backed him on this.
"Within five hours of taking oath, how did the chief minister assess the officers and shunted them out? This sounds incredible," Sinha said.
Defending Kejriwal's decision, AAP's Singh said, "Delhi Jal Board is a den of corruption. These officials were shunted out because they were probably in cahoots with the Congress, BJP and the tanker mafia."
However, the AAP's own move may end up furthering corruption, some have pointed out.
"This is politics of patronage and culture of subsidies renewed. Since there is sudden availability of free water this might actually embolden the tanker mafia. People in the slums should have got piped water first. Why not upgrade the distribution network? Why not privatise Delhi Jal Board? AAP is behaving like socialists and Marxists in disguise and as a McCarthyism of corruption," said senior journalist Vivian Fernandes.
But the AAP is not overly bothered by the criticism and pointed out that its decision would be reviewed in three months and the decision to provide free water was "experimental and eclectic". But, for now, some Delhi residents can reap the benefits of the AAP's political largesse.
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Updated Date: Dec 31, 2013 11:56:14 IST