Fix first, politicise later

Indian politicians have an uncanny knack of turning the hardships they foster on electorates into political issues that preclude problem solving. The recent Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) report revealing the abysmal quality of Delhi’s drinking water has sparked just such a political controversy and has diverted attention from the search for solutions. Last week, the BIS report showed that the National Capital Territory’s (which is Delhi’s) tap water was the most unsafe among 21 state capitals. The state failed on all 19 parameters, with Mumbai (no failure), Bhubaneshwar (one failure), and Hyderabad (one failure) coming up trumps. For any responsible state administration, the report should have encouraged some serious introspection. It certainly reflects poorly on the ruling Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). The BIS report is particularly embarrassing for AAP because it discredits Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s controversial 2015 move to distribute water free or at hugely subsidised rates — which prompted the resignation of at least one senior bureaucrat in protest — and the matter was compounded by mandating a wholesale waiver of water dues earlier this year.

In effect, the Delhi government has been distributing contaminated water — albeit mostly free — to the denizens of the city-state for the past five years. Investment in more robust water treatment plants that the pricing of water would have enabled (not to speak of promoting conservation in this parched city) is an obvious solution but probably unviable, with Assembly elections just three months away. But like most politicians caught in a populist trap of his own making, Mr Kejriwal has chosen the default position of aggressive denial, accusing the report of being “false and politically motivated”. Apart from revealing institutional distrust in the government’s standards-setting body, Mr Kejriwal has not explained why other state capitals ruled by opposition parties should have done better than his city. He would have done well to accept the BIS study and work with the administration to work out ways to fix the system instead.

Union Consumer Affairs Minister Ram Vilas Paswan has sought to politicise the issue by issuing a challenge to name officials to a joint team to re-test drinking water in the city. It is unclear why this exercise should be necessary, although Mr Kejriwal has chosen to take the bait and issued his own counter challenge. This absurd trading of charges between the two politicians best placed to actually address the crisis takes place even as Delhi’s poorer denizens continue to imbibe water contaminated by hazardous metal traces and E-coli bacteria (the rich can afford water-treatment devices). These are the same poor people from which politicians will solicit votes in a couple of months. As with air pollution, the political battle over water quality underlines the moral bankruptcy of India’s leadership. Mr Paswan may be gleeful at the BIS revelations and its impact on AAP’s electoral prospects. But when set against his own government’s pledge to provide Clean Drinking Water for All by 2024, he may need to pause and assess the similar risks inherent in this plan. As he will discover, air pollution and water contamination are politically agnostic issues.

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