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'Right' is right but what is left...
By Sudhirendar Sharma

UN General Assembly in July 2010 adopted a resolution to recognize water as a fundamental human right, but does it make any difference to the nearly 900 million people without access to clean drinking water?


Over 128 million people in India do not have access to safe drinking water

For them the law of the land does not exist. Ever since discharge from a sugar mill first reached the village in 1955, Kalapani has continued to remain a cesspool of effluents. Apart from the households located on raised land, the entire stretch of cultivable land in the village has been waterlogged. Women use boat to ferry themselves out of the village to take the nature’s call. Collecting drinking water remains an ordeal as there is no end to water woes for the villagers.

Situated along the embankment on river Baghmati in Sitamarhi district of Bihar, the village has literally been trapped between the devil and the deep sea. If it were not the raised embankment, the effluents would have drained into the river. But that was not to be and with the law favoring the powerful, the industry has been able to secure cushion for its reprehensible attitude. Neither the state nor its administrative machinery has been able to uphold the constitutional provision of a right to water in Kalapani

Unlike most countries where the lack of explicit reference to a right to water in the national legislation necessitates creativity in enforcing the right through the courts, the constitutional provision (Article 21) wherein a right to water has been subsumed under the ‘right to life’ has long been violated across India. The right to water has existed in letter but not in spirit. No surprise, therefore, that over 128 million people in India do not have access to safe drinking water and this number is growing.

Is a right to water legally enforceable? Can a complaint for human rights violation be filed for non-compliance? The 1990 Kerala High Court judgement in Attakoya Thangal v. Union of India recognized the fundamental importance of the right to water but could not go beyond mere assertion that “...the administrative agency cannot be permitted to function in such a manner as to make inroads into the fundamental right under Article 21.”

Ironically, even if a right to water becomes legally enforceable it neither ensures quantity nor quality of water. The state is under no obligation to ensure either.

The court was hearing the petitioners who had claimed that a scheme for pumping up ground water for supplying potable water to the Lakshadweep Islands in the Arabian Sea would upset the fresh water equilibrium, leading to salinity in the available water resources and causing more long-term harm than short-term benefits. In its judgement, the court could only request deeper investigation and monitoring of the scheme as it recognized the right of people to clean water as a right to life.

The crux is that while the state has several basic obligations to provide their citizens with drinking water, the affected persons have ineffective possibilities to claim these rights in the court of law. Because the right to life is understood in a very narrow sense, individuals can only file a complaint if their life is threatened through the lack of access to water. However, if those who complain can get water from another place their claim can no longer be held valid.

Does adoption of a resolution by the UN General Assembly in July 2010 to recognize water as a fundamental human right make any difference? Experts argue that the adoption of a ‘human right to water' by the UN General Assembly may seem a breakthrough but in reality it is no more than a statement of good intent. The existence of right to clean drinking water, reflected within a right to life, in Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights hasn't made any difference thus far.

As the state cannot be held accountable for non-delivery of water (both in quantity and quality) to peoples’ doorsteps, it leaves people with little option but to rely on bottled water as a reliable source of drinking water.

Such legal provisions notwithstanding, the irony is that world over 884 million people have no access to clean drinking water. According to legal experts, international laws give little scope for individuals to achieve government action by emphasizing individual claims. Since such laws cannot force the state to fulfill its duties, the World Health Organization (WHO) is in favour of an enforceable right to clean drinking water.

Ironically, even if a right to water becomes legally enforceable it neither ensures quantity nor quality of water. The state is under no obligation to ensure either. As geogenic contamination is getting widely prevalent in groundwater and anthropogenic sources are polluting most surface water sources in the country, reduction in fresh water supplies is leaving the population at a higher risk. Not without reason are 21 per cent of all communicable diseases attributed to contaminated water supplies in India.

The varied implications of a constitutional provision of a right to water, enshrined in the right to life, leave the citizens in a precarious condition. As the state cannot be held accountable for non-delivery of water (both in quantity and quality) to peoples’ doorsteps, it leaves people with little option but to rely on bottled water as a reliable source of drinking water. Millions of people already do so, as a right to water has essentially meant a right to buy water.

The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.

Sudhirendar Sharma  |  sudhirendarsharma@gmail.com

Dr Sudhirendar Sharma is an environmentalist and development analyst based in New Delhi. Formerly with the World Bank, Dr Sharma is an expert on water, a keen observer on climate change dynamics, and a critic of the contemporary development processes.

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 Other Articles by Sudhirendar Sharma in
Human Development  > Water and Sanitation > Water Quality and Access

Use soap, even if it pollutes water!
Friday, October 15, 2010

The handwashing campaign pushed by the international development agencies conveniently ignores the fact that contamination by soap will put additional stress on limited availability of clean drinking water and will leave poor more vulnerable to diseases.
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The bad news is that corruption has not only sustained but has grown in size and stature in the country. With scams being a regular feature, seventy per cent respondents in a survey have rightfully opined that corruption has continued to increase in India. One in every two interviewed admit having paid a bribe for availing public services during last one year. Transparency International's latest survey reveals that the political parties top the chart for the most corrupt public institutions, followed by police force and legislatures. No wonder, India continues to make new records on the global corruption arena!

The shocking revelation is that the health and education sectors haven't remained untouched by this phenomenon. With 5th and 6th positions respectively for these sectors on the public perception chart on corruption, corruption has crept insidiously into these sectors of hope for the masses. With bureaucracy being fourth in the list of corrupt institutions in the country, corruption seems to have been non-formally institutionalized with little hope if public services would ever be effective in the country. With economic growth having literally institutionalized corruption, are we now expecting corrupt to be socially responsible - a different CSR.

Poor. Who?

Not giving 'aid' to India is one thing but calling it 'rich' is quite another. If one in three of the world's malnourished children live in India, what does average daily income of $3 indicate? It perhaps means that there is a relative decline in poverty - people are 'less poor' than what they used to be in the past. But having crossed the World Bank arbitrary threshold of $2 a day does not absolve the 'developed' countries of their obligation to part with 0.7 per cent of their Gross National Income in development aid. Should this three-decade old figure not be revised?  

An interesting debate in UK's House of Commons delved on future of development assistance by the British Government. While prioritizing limited resources has been a concern, there has been no denying the fact that development aid must be guided towards tangible gains over a short period of time to start with. There are difficult choices for elected governments to make - should they invest in long-term primary education or in short-term university scholarships? Which of these will bring gains and trigger long-term transformation in the society. As politicians continue to be divided on the matter, poverty persists!!   

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