Alternative World Water Forum

The decision of the Aam Aadmi Party government in Delhi to provide 666 litres of free water a day to each household was a landmark and progressive development. This will remain one of the key interventions of the short-lived AAP government. Yet, the idea of providing free water has also been roundly criticised from a variety of angles. It is thus important to consider its rationale in detail so that the potential benefits of this measure outlive the AAP regime that only sanctioned free water until the end of March.

The sensitive nature of the Delhi government’s intervention is due to the fact that water is a fundamental right. At the most general level, no one would question the existence of the right. Controversy erupts when ways of realising it are discussed and the single most controversial element in recent years has been free water.

The Delhi government’s decision thus forces us all to examine what we understand by a fundamental right to water. Unsurprisingly, the realisation of the right to water has long been a priority of governmental agencies. For decades, the policy framework concerning drinking water was based on the premise that it was the government’s duty to provide the necessary infrastructure allowing individuals to access sufficient safe free water for their domestic use. This is, for instance, the policy that was followed in rural areas where the government made an immense difference to people’s lives by installing millions of hand pumps.

In other words, the government provided means to access free water to the great majority of people for many years before this came to be understood as being part of the fundamental right to water whose existence was first confirmed by the Supreme Court in 1991 in the Subhash Kumar case. More recently, in the 2006 Vishala Kochi Kudivella Samarkshana Samithi case where people of West Kochi were complaining of inadequate water supply, the High Court of Kerala castigated the government for not giving ‘foremost importance to providing safe drinking water even at the cost of other development programmes’. The judiciary has thus in part reinforced what the government was already doing and in part given the government the central duty to realise the right to water. It is in this light that the decision of the AAP government is a momentous one. In effect, it reverses the tendency in recent years for the government to progressively disengage from the provision of drinking water, either by letting water-users take on an increasing share of the financial and managerial burden or by bringing in water services companies.

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