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Small towns and the water sector – time for a focus to reform

December 29, 2012

Small towns and reforms

While big cities struggle to match their water and sanitation demand the situation has been worse in small and medium towns all across India, starved as they are for human resource skills and financial requirements. A slow transformation seems however to be occurring almost under the radar at least in some towns and it would be good to learn from these examples.

The town of Udupi in coastal Karnataka is one such example. the city has a population of 120,000 with about 50,000 properties ( http://www.udupicity.gov.in/ ) With an old and leaking water supply infrastructure sourcing water from a myriad open wells and bore-wells the system was difficult to manage. Revenue collection against expenditure was skewed with the town struggling to balance its budget particularly because the water sector was a drain on the revenue. It recently took up a systematic overhaul of its water supply and completed it. Sourcing water from a single source a river consolidated its supply. 2 Ground Level Surface Reservoirs were placed on the hills of Manipal adjoining the town. Water is pumped from the Swarna river 17 km. from the town to these reservoirs. From here they feed 12 Overhead tanks in the city by gravity. Water supply connections have now been dramatically increased and over 60% of the town households are now connected to the daily water supply which has a residual head of 6 metres thus filling up overhead tanks on single storied homes directly.

Leakage has been brought down from over 50 % to close to 25 %. Tariffs have been revised and collection has gone up. The town is recovering its Operation and Maintenance cost for water supply and thus in a better position to invest for other much needed infrastructure. Daily water supply of 135 lpcd is now a reality.

An underground sewerage system is now being placed which will collect sewage and treat it before releasing it into the environment. The challenge for the town will be to recover the O and M costs for sewerage collection and treatment and ensure that the treatment plants run effectively.

With improved water supply and sanitation property prices tend to go up thus ensuring buoyancy in property tax collection which it has in Udupi. Better services mean a higher quality of life and better revenue means that the poorer sections of the populace can be assisted with the monies now available. A recent initiative to provide health insurance to the SC/ST population through the City Municipal Council has been a pioneering one for the state and has become possible because of a balanced budget.

Ullal is another neighbouring town which too has replicated the effort of improved water supply and sewerage services. The town of Bantwal developed a hand held Simputer based water billing and collection system and thus upped its revenues. It now bills its households on site and collects monies at the house itself. This seems to be the first of its kind innovation by a small town in using a Simputer for this job.

The town of Maddur targeted 5 slums within the town and gave every household a water connection, toilets and sewerage connections. A dramatic improvement in quality of life is the result.

Towns too are learning to roll out a pro-poor water and sanitation policy. With the 22.75 % funds , by law meant to be expended on SC/ST category, towns are giving universal individual water and sanitation connections, funding toilets and even generating health insurance for the populace. This is social targeting of the vulnerable and helping them overcome infrastructure access hurdles at its best.

The interventions in small towns with a population of less than 100,000 seem to indicate that much less energy and capital is necessary for reform. Even a single committed politician or bureaucrat or engineer seems capable of bringing radical change and improvement. Of course institutional support from state level agencies like the KUIDFC and KUWS&DB is essential. The focus should be on unleashing innovations and supporting new ideas emerging from these towns.

By focusing on the 214 small and medium towns in Karnataka the budget to be presented next year can bring about dramatic transformation in the quality of life of people and draw investments away from the primary cities in the state thus ensuring a relatively more spatially spread urban development.

Water and sanitation services are key followed by roads, energy and solid waste management systems. Given a buoyant economy investments in these sectors can only spur employment and further economic growth. It is time we focused exclusively on small and medium towns and brought about a radical change in infrastructure. That would be water wisdom.

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