Rajasthan: Gehlot's Free Water Scheme Benefits Neither Consumers nor the Exchequer

The scheme is only applicable to those consumers who have a metered connection, leaving a substantial number of people outside its ambit.

Jaipur: In March, ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, chief minister of Rajasthan Ashok Gehlot had announced a free water scheme, under which, the consumers in the urban areas would not be charged for using water up to 15,000 litres a month and in rural areas, supplies up to 40 litres per capita per day would be free of charge. The scheme was due to come into effect on April 1 this year.

For consumption under the limit of 15,000 litres of water per month, prior to the scheme, the consumer was charged a total of Rs 127 per month – Rs 55 as water charge, Rs 18.15 as sewerage charge, Rs 22 as meter service charge, Rs 27.5 as innovation charge and Rs 3.96 as an interest charge. After the scheme, the consumers are required to pay only the meter service and innovation charges, totalling to Rs 25.96.

However, the scheme is not as beneficial it appears. After the announcement, the Public Health and Engineering Department of Rajasthan (PHED) decided, in a meeting held on June 18, that the scheme would be made applicable to only those consumers who had a metered connection. The idea behind this was to monitor the water consumption levels through the meter and subsequently check whether the consumer fell into the exempted categories and be billed accordingly.

This would leave a substantial number of consumers out of the benefit of the scheme. As per the latest data of the PHED department (up to August 2019) on the total consumers and functional metered connections of Jaipur, there are about 1,91,689 consumers in the capital alone who don’t have a metered connection.

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With regards to domestic consumers in the city of Jaipur, there are 45,257 consumers and the corresponding functional meters are 27,859. This implies that the government has no means to track the water consumption of roughly about 38.4% of the consumers in Jaipur itself. As per the PHED officials, the condition of metered connections in other parts of the state is far worse than Jaipur.

Even months after the free water scheme was implemented, the Rajasthan government has made no attempts to install water meters across the state. Speaking to The Wire, Devraj Solanki, additional chief engineer at the PHED in Jaipur said, “So far, we have no information of what is to be done for the consumers who lack metered connections.”

Last year, under the Vasundhara Raje-led BJP government, 70,000 water meters were announced to be installed under the smart city project under the name of non revenue water (NRW) scheme. However, officials felt the target fell short of the requirement.

“Under the NRW scheme, 70,000 metered connections were declared to be installed in three divisions of the Jaipur region, but the requirement is of at least two lakh meter connections. Even out of those connections, only half of them are installed,” said an official at the PHED department on the condition of anonymity.

Apart from the lack of directions from the government, there are other challenges that the department faces in order to effectively install the required number of water meters. Each time the department floats a tender for the installation of meters, the workers go on strike. “As the tender mentions that the company will be given the responsibility of both installing and reading the meters, the workers fear that they would lose their jobs and the process halts in between,” said another PHED official.

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Apart from the metered connections, the department has also exempted flat-rate connections, which are mostly found in the slum areas and have no meters attached. The billing for these connections is done on a standard rate set by the department. There are about 21,866 flat rate connections in the city.

The water charge for the flat rate connections was fixed at Rs 240 and innovation charge at Rs 110. After the implementation of the scheme, the water charge is made zero while the innovation charge is still intact.

Reducing revenue of the department already in loss

The free water scheme is bound to put a financial burden on the PHED department that has traditionally undertaken losses. As per the progress report of the department, revenue and expenditure have shown huge gaps over the years. For instance, in the last financial year (2018-19),  the revenue generated was Rs 390.07 crore while the expenditure stood at Rs 2,412.98 crore. A similar trend was seen in the past few financial years, so much so, that the revenue never exceeded the expenditure.

As elaborated in the progress report, the department in 2018-19 had to spend Rs 1,146.14 crore on electricity charges, Rs 1,453.18 on salary, Rs 24.62 crore on maintenance and repair, Rs 48.50 crore on contract charges, Rs 41.29 crore on improvement in the delivery system and Rs 12.31 crore on chemical charges, while, the only source of revenue generation had been billing.