Vivian Fernandes is a senior journalist with nearly 30 years of practice, 19 of them in television, all of which he spent at TV18. Vivian’s last assignment was as executive editor of a book on India and China written by the founder of the Network 18 group, Mr Raghav Bahl. He has been an observer of Indian business and politics, and had reported on economic policy making as reporter, chief of Delhi bureau of correspondents and economic policy editor. Vivian has traveled abroad with Prime Ministers Narasimha Rao, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. He was also reported on the World Trade Organization’s trade talks from Cancun, Hong Kong and Geneva. He continues his association with the Network18 group, but not as an employee.
A kind of McCarthyism seems to be operating in the country. Just as the US Senator who gave the term its name saw communists lurking everywhere in the early 1950s, Arvind Kejriwal sees corruption behind every deal.
He wants electricity consumers in Delhi not to pay bills, claiming that they are over-stated. He cites the cut in tariff which the former chairman of Delhi's electricity regulatory commission, Berjinder Singh, had recommended. The government did not accept the advice because the power distribution companies were reeling under losses and said they would be unable to assure supply. The two other members of the commission did not give their assent. So Singh's order was not valid. Subsequently, the regulator hiked rates (which had been withheld for many years). Kejriwal finds that sinister.
It is true that the privatisation of power distribution has not gone according to script. Power losses in Delhi, mainly because of theft, were as high as 60 percent in East Delhi. (The people of Delhi, I dare say, are generally lawless and they will not balk at stealing). To prevent tariff shock, the government subsidised power rates by Rs 3,000 crore. The distribution companies were to repay this loan in subsequent years from reductions in transmission and revenue losses. This they have not done. One of the power distributors was also caught fudging the value of investments it had made.
Berjinder Singh himself did nothing to give electricity consumers the choice of distributor though the 2003 law provides for it. A former chief secretary says he did not implement time of day metering which the Delhi government had recommended. Neither did he set up a centre for testing electricity meters to address widespread concern about inflated bills caused by fast-running meters. Why he advised a massive tariff cut just when he was about to retire, is a mystery.
In 2002, Delhi's Sheila Dikshit government wanted to improve the management of water supply, following the privatisation of Delhi's electricity distribution. Private contractors were to do the job in two South Delhi zones. They would be paid a fee upon satisfying certain performance criteria. Delhi is supposed to have enough water for continuous supply (it get interrupted supply instead) but at least 40 per cent of it is said to be lost because the leakages and wastage. The water board cannot invest in upgrades because it makes losses; it makes losses because it charges low rates, which in turn encourages overuse. Continuous supply would also prevent contamination (which gets sucked in when pressure drops in the pipes). A regulator was to be set up. The assets would remain with the water board. Access to the poor, now neglected, was part of the deal. The private guys were to upgrade the skills of staff, and teach them customer service.
But Kejriwal put up a spirited fight against the move. Invoking the right to information, he reportedly secured about 4,000 pages of documents, which apparently showed that the World Bank had 'arm-twisted' the government into appointing a consultant (PWC India) for a 'hefty' fee. He termed the entire exercise as an attempt at privatisation of the Delhi water board. UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi's advisors on the National Advisory Council (almost all of them suspicious of private enterprise) also pitched into damn the project. How can a substance as essential to life as water be privatised for profit, they cried? Lacking the stomach for a fight the Delhi government backtracked.
The World Bank's country director, Michael Carter, put out a lengthy statement, where he said that the Bank itself did not in fact recommend privatisation. The entire effort was to improve the efficiency and quality of water supply, charge realistic rates to encourage conservation of water and secure the financial health of the utility, and also to ensure access to the poor. The best international practices in selection of the consultant had been adopted, he said. It was only because of the World Bank, that an 'Indian' consultant, PWC India, had been brought in, and it had won the consultancy contract because it had quoted lower than the two others in the fray.
It is no secret that anti-corruption crusader Prashant Bhushan had a deep suspicion of private business, which he believes is chromosonally corrupt. One suspects that his colleague, Kejriwal, also shares that belief. They would rather countenance public sector inefficiency than tolerate profit by the private sector.
What can't the public sector do that the private sector can? they ask. Well, it cannot manage. Many years ago, I came across a taxi driver who was full-time at work in our company but was also a permanent employee of the Delhi Jal Board in Chittarrajan Park (a Delhi enclave that was originally given to displaced persons from East Pakistan). 'Maine setting karke raka hai,' he said, when asked how he managed to be at two places at the same time.
If proof is needed of what the private sector can do in the area of water supply, one only has to visit Jamshedpur in Jharkhand. Of course it is too small a township, but it suggests the possibility.
If Parliament's auditor, the CAG, were allowed to do an audit of the presumptive financial and welfare loss that Kejriwal's actions have caused, he will have much to answer for.
This is not to detract from Kejriwal's anti-corruption campaign. We need iconoclasts like him, who are unsparing of all those in positions of influence, who think of self-aggrandizement as an entitlement. He must see the market as a friend. Big government and corrupt cronies walk hand in hand.