Category Archives: Poverty

Is water a human right in India?

On June 18, 2014 the Blue Planet Project, the Detroit People’s Water Board, the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and Food & Water Watch submitted a report to Catarina de Albuquerque, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Right to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation, urging her to take immediate action to help restore water services and stop further cut-offs in Detroit (http://www.canadians.org/blog/violations-right-water-detroit). In their submission they say that Detroit is trying to push through a private takeover of its water system at the expense of basic human rights – right to water, in this case. Residents of Detroit city, the United States and the United Nations have been grappling with this issue for the last couple of months. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department says that half of its 323,000 accounts are delinquent and has begun turning off the taps of those who do not pay bills that total above $150 or that are 60 days late. Since March, up to 3,000 account holders have had their water cut off every week. The Detroit water authority carries an estimated $5 billion in debt and has been the subject of privatization talks. (For more on this see http://www.democracynow.org/2014/6/24/water_is_a_human_right_detroit).

This act is being considered a violation of the human right to water with the argument that the U.S. has international obligations in terms of people’s right to water. Activists are now putting pressure on the United Nations to put pressure on the Federal Government and through them on the State of Michigan to take action.

As I was reading this I was thinking about the right to water in India and the associated inequity. Millions of urban and rural poor do not have access to drinking water on a daily basis irrespective of whether the country has had a good monsoon or not. No water (both in cities and villages) is a general condition. Standing in long queues to get 2 pots of water is normal for the vast majority of Indians. Why is it that nobody in India has challenged the Government on behalf of these people?

In our corner of Rayalseema, like in many other villages, drinking water is just not available in the summer months. Over the last 3 months people have been receiving water in tankers probably once in 3-4 days and each home can fill only 3-5 pots of water which they have to use for drinking, cooking, washing, cleaning, bathing and for personal hygiene. There are not enough water sources available to fill the tankers. People approach the Panchayat which had no funds till a week ago. The Water Supply and Sanitation Department which is responsible for providing drinking water and sanitation to the villages Panchayat does not seem to think this is really an important issue…but considers it a routine matter that has to be dealt with in the course of time. Desperate some families try and get water from the agricultural borewells of neighbours who provide the water as an act of compassion at no cost! When these agricultural borewells started failing several people from some of the villages marched to the local Mandal Development Officer and expressed their anger and frustration. A special officer who has been posted to manage watershed development in the area took action last week which has provided some relief to some of the villages. Why is it that these small farmers, who produce 50% of the food in India, have to work so hard chasing the Government functionaries to get what is a human right?

This begs the question for India and particularly its poor….do we not consider access to water to be a human right? Why are we not demanding this of our Government? Maybe it is time for all of us to appeal to the United Nations to help us help our urban and rural poor to assert their right to water.

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Why do we really want to know who is poor?

In the shrill rhetoric surrounding the “counting of the poor” in India, the question that is not being asked is – Why count the poor? or more specifically Why do we want to know who is poor? What is anybody doing with this information? There are several answers to these questions – politicians, Governments, the World Bank want to know how many poor are there so that they can show that their policies or programmes have reduced the number of poor (nobody really wants to show how their programmes have increased the number of poor!). There is clearly a certain kind of politics at play here in how “poor” are defined. Another reason to define the poor is (one hopes) to allocate resources (read finances) in a just manner so that inequity can be reduced. Again, the smaller the number less competition for the limited resources. In this counting game nothing changes for people on the ground who are deprived of basic “roti, kapda aur makaan”. In fact in today’s economic climate, things are getting worse and poverty is degenerating into severe deprivation.  Isn’t it time therefore to move away from this numbers game? Politicians and international agencies are not going to move away from the numbers game – it is too inconvenient. In this situation, what is the alternative?

The second part of the question and in my mind the REAL question is – Why do we need to know who is poor? or how many are poor? Related to this is an even more important question – How do we define “poor”? What are the criteria? The multidimensionality of being poor has been addressed for the first time by the MPI developed by Alkirie et al (http://www.ophi.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/OPHI-MPI-Brief.pdf) based on Sen’s ideas on the multidimensionality of poverty. The next step to build on this “more multifaceted
and more accurate tool for measuring poverty” is to qualify the quantitative values of the health indicators. If poverty is to be eradicated and people are to move from deprivation to a life of dignity and well being in India one of the first things that needs to be addressed is the idea of nutritional adequacy in the measurement of malnutrition. Knowing that somebody is anaemic, or has low body weight, or is stunted is not enough. We need to know why and understand the role of environmental, social and cultural factors in defining nutritional adequacy and how these factors can be used in creating an enabling environment to ensure nutritional adequacy.    

Closer home the effective use of multidimensionality of poverty has been done through the Kudumbasree Model in Kerala and this was fully conceptualised and implemented in Kerala as early as 1998 (indiagovernance.gov.in/files/kudumbashree-casestudy.doc). For some reason the economists and planners at the Planning Commission and others working in the area of “poverty alleviation” have not included it in the ongoing debate on poverty indices and lines. The HDI performance of Kerala State should be proof enough of the effectiveness of this Model.

Unless the politics of counting is replaced by the real work of defining poverty, deprivation and well being in a multidimensional, linked and realistic manner AND we are able to answer the question WHY? Why are we trying to count the poor? this meaningless exercise will go nowhere and we will continue to drive more and more people deeper and deeper into an abysmal existence while we argue over the theoretical inconsequentialities.