ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Confronting the Elephant in the Room

Drinking Water Governance Reforms and Diminishing State Capacity in Kerala

More than three decades of reforms in Kerala’s drinking water sector have neither resulted in greater decision-making autonomy nor improved the fi nancial status of public utility. In addition to stymying the devolution of responsibility to local bodies, reforms have critically unsettled the role of the state leading to erosion of institutional capacity in public utility. The greater prominence of non-state players combined with institutional denuding of the state points to an emergent crisis of democratic accountability in the governance of this sector.

The authors would like to thank the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay for supporting this research. The support extended by the KWA’s engineers and administrators during the primary data collection is duly acknowledged. The authors are also grateful for helpful comments from an anonymous reviewer. All errors and omissions are of the authors’.

Reforms have been an ongoing phenomenon in the drinking ­water sector globally for more than three decades. They sought to add­ress the multiple issues in the sector— poor coverage, financially inefficient public utilities, unsustainable resource use, and opaque and unaccountable ins­titutions. While urban areas were diagnosed with a specific set of issues, particularly the failings in managing the economic dimension of resource provision, the rural areas were sought to be governed through community management under a demand-responsive app­roach. We take stock of the governance changes in Kerala during this time to understand the effect of these reforms on the prevailing drinking water regime in the state.

The conventional grasp and public arti­culation of water reforms globally have been profoundly Manichaean, sha­ped by ideological positions. On the one hand, the dominant global reforms discourse invoked the idea of state failure and advocated market-based solutions. The oppositional discourse has largely tended to reduce the reforms as “water privatisation,” raising issues of economic sovereignty, ulterior motives of international financial institutions, and the spectre of multinational corporations taking over the water resources. While it is important to have oppositional discourses that highlight an alternative way of organising governance, they bec­ome sterile beyond a point and eventually become counterproductive.

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Updated On : 17th Oct, 2022
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