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“Political Willingness backed by good governance is the only solution for water sector”

In conversation with Sustainability Outlook, Mr. Patrick Rousseau, Chairman & Managing Director at Veolia, India, shares his thoughts on the trends, outlook and challenges for water treatment sector in India.


What is the status of water treatment sector in India? What is the key challenge that impedes its growth? 

India is gifted when it comes to water resources and yet, the nation is on the verge of becoming water stressed. The major problem that plagues the nation is not really water scarcity; it has more to do with water management. The water networks of the country are really old causing leakage and loss of water up to 60% during transmission. Loss as high as that is definitely a serious problem and needs immediate attention. Frequent cases of droughts, floods, farmer suicide are alarm bells that the country is endowed with enormous resources of water and yet is not being able to manage it well. Over the last couple of years, I have seen major initiatives backed by good intentions. At the central level there is a clear understanding of the necessity to develop water and wastewater infrastructure in the country. However, I’m still awaiting the results.

Initiatives like smart cities or Ganga rejuvenation aiming at providing improved facilities to people are indeed good initiatives but the actual alleviation of the problem entirely depends on how well these initiatives are implemented. The concept of smart cities in India is very different from that of the western world and hence can’t be compared; nonetheless it is a big leap towards making the country proficient in water usage. Smart city promises access to uninterrupted potable water to inhabitants and I believe it should be of foremost priority even before censors, smart metering, etc. are installed. Amravati in this particular case has high potential considering that everything will be started from scratch.

I am optimistic that the initiatives would result in desired outcomes, but conflicts between states need to be resolved and addressed. There is clarity as to what is to be done but inter and intra state conflicts have encumbered growth. As per the constitution of the country, water is a state subject and unfortunately, at the local and state level there are more discrepancies and unwillingness which have been impeding the achievement of the desired results. 

Water and waste management are major challenges for the country and political willingness backed by good governance is the only solution

However, Nagpur for instance is an exception; we have developed our biggest project in Nagpur because there is political willingness, cooperation from the municipal authorities and they are open to let the private sector get involved to improve the situation. Good governance is the key to infrastructure development which is imperative in India. Water and waste management are major challenges for the country and political willingness backed by good governance is the only solution. Nagpur is an exemplary example of how cooperation holds the key to proper implementation and a lot can be learnt from it. 


What are the key focus areas for Veolia in India? 

Water, energy and sanitation are key sectors of development to enable the country to grow in the next decades. In India there are opportunities on both potable water and sewage treatment due to increasing awareness on hygiene and environmental issues and due to the demographic push that India is witnessing. For the moment Veolia India is mainly focusing on municipal supply of water.  
 
In India, water management is a major roadblock and the country needs proper water networks and an efficient management of the network. When you lose 60-70% of water through network leakage, the action point should be to reduce leakage to achieve international standards which is around 15-20% loss. Though installing new STP’s is a great opportunity for technology providers but the approach should be to improve the network and ensure its professional management. 
 
The networks are very old and have not been maintained or upgraded over the years. Thus, there is a need for robust networks thereby reducing water loss through leakages during transmission. One option is to go for operation contracts which can be executed through various means like BOT, performance contract, etc. 

When you lose 60-70% of water through network leakage, the action point should be to reduce leakage to achieve international standards which is around 15-20% loss

Veolia as a leading water treatment technology provider is greatly in favour of performance contract. I don’t believe it is the role of the private sector to finance the public assets as they should be financed through public funds. Our job is to build, operate and transfer innovative technologies on performance basis. It is important for the government to understand that the private sector can take risk only up till a certain extent and hence steps should be taken to ensure that we are not exposed to risk beyond our risk taking abilities. 


What are the key levers which will help the water sector achieve its goals of providing high quality and continuous water supply? 

The major factor to ensure achievement of the goals is political willingness. Water should be above politics, as that affects the proper management of the resource. The private sector was opposed initially in the country but it is important for everyone to realize that India is one of the few countries where citizens lack access to clean drinking water. Intervention of the private sector is required not because of ideology but because the private sector, and more particularly international companies have the technical, economic and social expertise of managing water and waste water services. Political support and right intent can help go a long way and hence initiatives should be taken to ensure that people have access to clean water and sanitation.

There is no resistance for new technologies in the country; the difficulty lies in willingness and governance, which if handled adequately would catalyze development of the nation.

 Secondly, local governments should properly utilize the funds provided to them for sectorial development purpose. The constitution has given restricted power to the central government to monitor the utilization of funds at the state and local level, hence it is imperative that these funds should be well utilized and there should be enhanced coordination to ensure achievement of the goals. There is no resistance for new technologies in the country; the difficulty lies in willingness and governance, which if handled adequately would catalyze development of the nation. 

Structure of contracts is also an important factor in the growth of this sector, especially from the perspective of private sector participation. At present the contracts are unbalanced and most of risk is on the private sector players. There should be a national draft agreement for contracts which acts asa baseline like the one in France and can be customized and tweaked as per the requirements of the local governments. 


What is your outlook for India?

People in India are increasingly becoming aware of their rights and what their counterparts in other nations have access to. Hence, I strongly believe that though it will take time, at some point India will have to provide the basic services to its people which would require strict and dedicated efforts from the government. There is need for real change, capacities enhancement and physical development in India. There is a huge gap as of now but it has to be plugged and there is definitely potential to do so. Sanitation stays also a big challenge in India today. There are some loopholes which need immediate attention but I am hopeful that a lot is being done and this would garner the required results. 

Author: sustainabilityoutlook