How do you introduce and sustain change in a society, like India, where there is a strong indigenous tradition and deep-rooted corruption? This research from the World Bank looks at efforts to reform the water sector in Delhi. It suggests that moving from policy rhetoric to its acceptance is always difficult. But instead of simply blaming the system for problems of implementation, it is important to analyse and work with the underlying reality.
In 2005, the government of Delhi decided to embark on reforms in its urban water sector with support from the World Bank. The reforms entailed harnessing the private sector’s technical and managerial expertise on a pilot basis for improved service delivery. However, the proposal, which was meant to enhance the lives of millions, has been put on hold in the wake of vocal opposition led by a misinformed non-governmental organisation (NGO). Those crusading against the reforms believe that, for example, they are “anti-poor,” and “promote the World Bank agenda”. Such arguments, founded on ideological conviction rather than fact, have put the issue of water reforms in the forefront of the public agenda. Similar situations are unfolding in other parts of the country.
The Delhi case shows:
- The problems caused by a lack of government commitment – even though the reform proponents had managed to make a case to the chief minister and had sought her endorsement of the need for reforms.
- Building trust takes time. It is a relationship that evolves from promise and performance. It was difficult to convince the public of the need for higher tariffs in the absence of immediate benefits.
- In a society like that of India, with a history of British colonial rule, the local populace may view international intervention as a threat to sovereignty. World Bank intervention allowed critics to suggest that reforms were a threat to local authority and competence.
Given the realities of contemporary India, where there are huge patronage obligations and a thriving civil society, any reform measure must appeal to the ethos of the people. Values matter more than facts and proactive framing of issues is essential.
- Give a menu of options, not a recipe for reform. Any IFI advice should be supportive of a wide range of policy decisions. Faced with resistance, it is important to sit across the table and deliberate on all available options. It is important to reflect on past failures.
- It is important to downplay the role of international financial institutions.
- Adequate information in the public domain about the need for reforms, distribution of successful case studies, and effective use of media could have helped build strong public opinion for reforms and curtail opposition.
- The timing and sequencing of reforms can be critical in building credibility. Any tariff hike needs to be preceded or accompanied by improved performance in service delivery.
- It is important to mobilise stakeholders effectively behind the project.
- Consultation is important, but it is unrealistic to assume everyone’s buy-in can be obtained. However, support from the highest echelons of the government is necessary for the implementation of reforms.
- To enhance credibility, the government needs to engage with the civil society and to create public space for the people to participate.