Water privatization in India

Photo By Zach Forstrom

Water. It sustains life, but it is not available to everyone. Scholar-in-residence David Selvaraj talks about water issues, other dangerous effects that market-led globalization is having on India and the lack of awareness surrounding the issue.

Selvaraj recalls the effects of globalization in India and asks students to be engaged. Selvaraj is the founder and director of an institute for development and peace studies and action in southern India called Vishtar. So far this semester, he has taught a few classes, consulted with faculty on gender and diversity issues, assisted with LeadNow activities and worked with local non-profit organizations, he said.

C: Where did this idea to privatize water consumption originate in recent history?

S: There is a lay person’s reading of economy and a reading from the perspective of the poor, the ones who are excluded from the development process. Privatization in recent history dates back to 1991. The country opened up its economy from being a fairly protected economy and one in which only Indian companies could have the majority shares. This opening up included a liberalization (reduction in government control) and privatization with non-state actors investing in key sectors.

The government of India, perhaps wisely, had followed a model of setting national and regional targets and growth indicators for a young nation in the making. We had pursued a model of 5-year plans, an idea we had borrowed from the erstwhile USSR. The dismantling of the USSR and the pressure from the International Monetary Fund resulted in a major dismantling and a realignment of the Indian economy. Immediately, one observed an unapologetic focus to fit in with market demands, most of the time external to domestic needs. This is an economy of the market, which negates life as a whole. We need to reclaim an economy of life, economic processes that are embedded in values of sustainability and fair play.

C: How would this “economy of life” look in daily life?

S: At the outset, let me make [it] clear that I am not against the market as an institution [but]… I see myself as a social entrepreneur. My conflict is with economic activity that makes people invisible and completely detaches itself from ethics. In the process of wealth creation, people who subscribe to a neo-liberal approach and a global capitalism that is governed by principles of aggressive profiteering and limited accountability do not contribute to life and [the] well-being of the community and the earth as a whole.

We must retrace our steps to small enterprises, cooperative economic activity and laying an emphasis on meeting domestic needs. Gandhi said it best when he said [there should be] production for the masses and not mass production. My own emphasis would be, not only for but include, wherever possible, by the masses.

C: What does the modern “economy of the market” look like in daily life?

S: Over the last twenty years, we have seen a commoditization of land. This means large tracts of agricultural land is being converted into Special Economic Zones for major industries. We see emerging cities within cities, housing offices, housing and related services, to those in the service sector. At another level, we see a shift in agricultural pattern, a movement from food crop to cash crops. This leads to mono-cropping and crops with a focus on the export market as opposed to domestic food needs. Thirdly, we also observe a phenomenal business activity in real estate. While this might make for a huge profit for a few, it comes with a much bigger cost: social, cultural and environmental. Large numbers of people have been displaced, forests denuded and scant respect paid to [the] human rights of the citizen.

Given the structural nature of things, [multinational corporations]… work hand in hand with the Indian state in the plunder… of the natural resources and its people. This maybe harsh, but from the perspective of those in the frontline, I am barely scratching the surface. The economy of the market is a dragon with many heads.

C: What can [Concordia students] do about it over here?

S: I believe the first step is to become aware. Awareness [of] the realities I spoke about are not [only applied] to India. A lot of this is happening in your own backyard, be it issues of migration, refugees [or] displacement. Poverty must be understood as a structural issue. Policies of the [United States] can and does affect our local economies…

Did you know that [Americans spend] 8 billion [dollars] per year on cosmetics, and [America and] central European countries spend 17 billion [dollars per year] on pet food? Compare this with what is needed for basic health and nutrition for [those denied it in the world]—13 billion dollars… The annual estimated cost for all denied water and sanitation is 9 billion dollars…

This not to guilt trip you… on the contrary, I count myself alongside you as the privileged and ask how else should I respond. [Beyond being aware], I am realizing the most important [thing] is to express solidarity with those in pain… Challenge authority on matters of life, life of the community of peoples and the earth.

C: Other than being aware, how can we act?

S: Become aware and look at your lifestyle to make personal changes. Look at consumption at a collective level, and be prepared to challenge your own government policies. Let your congressmen and congresswomen hear your voices. Let them know… that you are aware of what is happening. Make them go back to the capital and ask these questions. Does it seem fair to you that people should come in and drill water from our wells, from our rivers? Make the connections. Think globally and act locally. When you are looking at water issues there, look at the ways we use water on campus… by taking an action locally, you are saying to friends in India “we are in solidarity with you.”

Concordia efforts to address water issues are a part of the Sustainability Task Force established in 2007 in a response to Concordia’s Roadmap to Sustainability, according to Concordia’s website. The task force has five areas: food, water, transportation, buildings and waste. Michelle Marko, assistant professor in biology, is a co-chair of the water task force with Jan Pranger.

“We’re looking to see that our water use and our water resources on campus are being used in a more sustainable manner,” Marko said.

They are currently working on decreasing water bottle use while researching for larger projects, such as additional rain gardens, Marko said.

“Also when we hear of another water resource issue [such as India],” Marko said, “we try to publicize that… think globally, act locally. We’re trying to live that out.”

For more information about Selvaraj, read the archived article “Concordia Names First Scholar in Residence” at www.theconcordian.org.


  1. Is Mr. Selvaraj still in the FM area or did he already head back to India at the end of the spring semester this year?

    1. No, Sudhir Selveraj has been back in India for a few months now.

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