Friday, July 14, 2006
The great WAT-SAN mafia
Many, many children die each day in India at a very young age, succumbing to entirely avoidable gastrointestinal and waterborne diseases because of lack of availability of clean water and basic sanitation. Each of their lives is too precious to be insulted by putting large numbers to this, which only serves to deaden one's sensitivity. But the numbers are indeed very large.
However urban water-sanitation is a very big business globally. Beginning with agencies such as the World Bank, ADB, DFID etc, there is a long chain of vested interests, including consultancy companies, engineering companies, research agencies, developing country politicians, bureaucrats, contractors, NGOs - who are all well-nourished by the water-sanitation largesse. Such projects originate with the goal of ensuring basic water availability and sanitation to all. However, once completed, though the project is deemed to be successful, and everyone in the chain is happy (and paid) - the basic goal of the projects - water + sanitation to the poor - continues to remain as elusive as ever.
The inherent structure, design and way of functioning of this chain of water-sanitation 'beneficiaries' - ensures that the basic goal will never be fulfilled. And the people for whom all this effort is directed - do not figure anywhere. Simple low-cost and tertiary-level solutions and initiatives, requiring an attitudinal shift - do not have any hope of materialising, because the expensive, beneficiary chain-gratifying solutions are so much more attractive in every way.
In 1992, following the critique of the Narmada Valley Dams Project, the World Bank had appointed the Morse Committee, and also initiated another review of its loan disbursement procedures. These reports severely critiqued the World Bank's loan-related decision-making and processes. Eventually the World Bank stopped its funding of the Narmada project.
Water-sanitation (WAT-SAN) - is a magic mantra for World Bank and other institutions. Huge amounts of money are spent on this - and at the end of the day everybody goes home happy, World Bank officers, politicians, bureaucrats, consultants, contractors (NGOs too) - but the poor children continue to die. A huge international scam. "Everybody is justified, nobody is just..."
An expose of the whole water-sanitation scam is awaited.
In West Bengal and Calcutta, we also have the wonderful Left Front rulers, whose actual practice of corruption, illegal transfer of public resources, and public fraud - must surely be unrivalled in India. Life here for the labouring poor - is very harsh, and the prognosis is only bleak. And nobody gives a damn. Voluntary civic activism - virtually non-existent, feeble, crushed.
Since 1996 I have been working in Muslim slums of Howrah. The key issue in such an environment is water-sanitation, owing to the absence of which the incidence of infant mortality and gastrointestinal diseases is very high. It did occur to me to write a book, called "Why the children die", giving a kind of X-ray / ultra-sound / MRI image, a sort of forensic flowchart, of how and why this happens; and how exactly it can stop and what must be done, at various levels, from institutions, to people.
Anyway, that book didn’t get written. I tried and I tried to make a difference, but failed completely, whether because of my own incapability or the sheer enormity and deep-rootedness of the problem, or serious systemic failures and widespread apathy - I don't know. I got completely burnt out in the process. But the effort continues in small ways, and surely big things take their own time to be cooked. A lot has been learned, a huge amount of rich experience has been gained.
I once told an activist friend in Oslo that when you work on the ground - you become silent.