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Against The Flow

By Joe Athialy

16 October, 2005
Hindustan Times

In the last week of September, Canadian activists Maude Barlow and Tony Clarke received the Right Livelihood Award for 2005 `for their exemplary and longstanding worldwide work for trade justice and the recognition of the fundamental human right to water'. This once again brings in focus the upcoming WTO ministerial in Hongkong in December 13-18. On its agenda is the opening up of services for global trade. Among different services, the implications of privatisation and
commodification of water go far and wide, especially for the poor in developing countries like India.

Barlow and Clarke are known for their book, Blue Gold: the Battle Against Corporate Theft of the World's Water. Clarke's latest book Inside the Bottle highlights concerns about the bottled water
industry, its impact on the water resources of the poor and the fraud committed on the public. He quotes from a study by the US Natural Resources Defense Council in 1999, " quarter of all bottled water is actually taken from the tap, filtered, and then sold back to the consumer". The NRDC has estimated that bottled water is between 240 and 10,000 times more expensive than tap water. For Coca-Cola and Pepsi, who draw the water for their products directly from municipal
taps, the price mark-up is astonishing, Clarke writes. In an interview after receiving the award, Clarke said, "If privatisation is understood to mean the takeover of the delivery of drinking water by for-profit corporations, then we are opposed on several grounds. Water belongs to all people, plants and animals. It is an important part of the commons, to be shared by all, and must not be exploited by a few for profit."

The General Agreement on Trade in Services (Gats), a component of the WTO, deals with services as against goods. WTO ministerials have discussed the opening up of the service sector to private
participation. Practically all fields, from water and transportation to health, finance, postal delivery and education, are considered under Gats. The water sector includes water collection, pu rification and distribution.

In a Call for International Actions against GATS-WTO and the Privatisation of Basic Services in September this year, over 100 NGOs from 23 countries including India stated, "Any barrier to global capital in these sectors, including national safeguards against inhuman working conditions or environmental degradation will be steadily demolished. In fact, the very sovereign rights of nations to protect the interests of citizens and uphold their welfare, above all, have no place under the Gats framework."

The NGOs further say, "Gats-WTO limits developing countries' chances of development and survival. Water resources and services, recognised as crucial to development, are particularly in danger of
commodification and privatization. European water giants have already been making large investments in many countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The interests of firms like Suez, Vivendi and Thames Water are clearly behind the European Union's push for the inclusion
of water services in the coverage of Gats" The NGOs have declared December 14 as the International Day of Protest Against Gats and privatisation.

Proponents of Gats argue that governments can protect certain sectors from opening up and that privatisation of basic social services is not a Gats requirement. But over the years it has been proved that non-transparent WTO mechanisms favour developed nations and allow them to apply intense pressure on developing countries, thus severely affecting the poor and the marginalised.

In India, privatisation of water was intensely opposed, a few times violently. In June this year, five farmers were shot dead in Tonk, Rajasthan, during a protest demanding their share in the water from the Bisalpur dam. The Bisalpur dam started construction in 1989. Since then, the dam has displaced over 70,000 people from 63 villages. The dam was diverting water from villages to the city of Jaipur under an ADB project for water sector `reforms' in the state.

The Sonia Vihar Water Treatment Plant, a pet project of the Congressled government in Delhi, was awarded to a French company, Ondeo Degremont (a subsidiary of the water giant Suez Lyonnaise), for treating Ganga water to supply to upscale South and East Delhi colonies. The project,inaugurated in 2002, envis ages diverting 635 million litres of Ganga water per day for treatment.

In 1998, a 23-km stretch of the Sheonath river near Bhilai in Madhya Pradesh was leased out to Radius Water Company on a 22-year renewable contract by the state. The company prohibited local people and fishermen in the area from using that stretch of the river in order to supply water to high-end clients -- the cashrich, water-intensive industries of the region. However, intense opposition forced the state to cancel the contract and revert the rights of the community in 2003.

The struggle by the people in Plachimeda, Kerala has been synonymous with the opposition to commodification of natural resources by multinational corporations in India. Despite an insensitive state and a hostile judiciary, polonged local resistance resulted in the temporary closure of the Coca-Cola factory. The people's struggle is far from over.

What happened in Cochabamba in Bolivia is a testimonial to the consequences of privatisation. The water supply of this city was taken over by a subsidiary of the American corporation Bechtel in
1999. Subsequently, the water tariff was increased manifold. Water supply was disconnected to those who were unable to pay. This soon led to violent demonstrations, prompting the government to declare martial law. Bechtel was ultimately forced to leave Cochabamba in April 2000.

If rich corporations, using WTO as a shield, push ahead the agenda of privatisation of services, including water, the days ahead are sure to witness many more Tonks and Cochabambas. Ignoring the poor, pretending not to hear the opposition and forgetting the past would be suicidal. As Clarke says, "Water is a fundamental human right and must be made universally available to all people. Unlike the public water delivery, the market system distributes on the basis of the ability to pay -- those who have the ability to pay have access to quality water, those who are unable to pay go without."

Such a situation would be an unfortunate recipe for a fierce battle.











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