Anticipating the Unintended #54: Missing the Ocean for the Water Purifier

This newsletter is really a weekly public policy thought-letter. While excellent newsletters on specific themes within public policy already exist, this thought-letter is about frameworks, mental models, and key ideas that will hopefully help you think about any public policy problem in imaginative ways. It seeks to answer just one question: how do I think about a particular public policy problem/solution?

PolicyWTFs: The Critique Of Pure Ban

This section looks at egregious public policies. Policies that make you go: WTF, Did that really happen?

— Raghu Sanjaylal Jaitley

India loves a ban. Barely a week passes without the state banning something. This is the reason we advocate for ‘ban gan man’ as a more appropriate national anthem. This will take time though. That’s fine. We appreciate public policy advocacy is a marathon.

A Short Story About A Ban

This is what we banned last week — RO purifiers that demineralise water. As long-time connoisseurs of the language in government notifications, we reproduce excerpts below from the 12-page document from the Ministry of Environment & Forest (MoEF) including Schedule 1 (section C, subsection 2).

The prose is incandescent. And I also learnt what flocculation is. No, it is not what it sounds like:

“Installation or use of MWPS shall be prohibited, at the Point of Use or at the Point of Entry for purification of supplied water which is subjected to conventional flocculation, filtration and disinfection process or is from any sources which are in compliance with acceptable limit for drinking water prescribed by Bureau of Indian Standard 10500:2012”

“BIS shall develop system and procedure to monitor, assess, certify the type and process integrity of the MWPS for compliance of provision of Schedule – I in consultation with CPCB. The validity of the certificate shall be as prescribed in the guidelines prepared by BIS. The certificate shall have mention of date of certification, its validity, treatment technology used, recovery efficiency, and other terms and conditions as specified by BIS. BIS shall develop such system and procedure within a period of six months from the date of publication of this notification in official gazette.”

The draft notification is available here. It has 25 items of definition and a list of 59 responsibilities spread across 11 different players (Port Authority also features among them). Here’s our understanding of the rationale for the ban:

  1. RO purifiers reduce total dissolved solids (TDS) in water. This process leads to water wastage. Some estimates suggest for every 100 litres of water purified, about 80 litres of water is wasted.
  2. In locations where the TDS in piped water is already below 500 milligrams per litre (mg/litre), RO water purifiers might ‘demineralise’ the water. This isn’t good. Some minerals in water are important for the human body. Taking them out leads to mineral deficiency with long-term health implications.

So, the ban on RO water purifiers in locations where TDS is below 500 mg/litre. The notification has the usual quota of coercion applied to every stakeholder in the ecosystem – domestic and industrial users, manufacturers, importers and water supply agencies. The National Green Tribunal (NGT) has given the government until the end of 2020 to implement the ban. In a previous hearing, NGT had sent out a tough message to the Ministry of Environment & Forest (MoEF) to implement the ban. It had warned:

“…failure of the concerned officers to comply with directions of the tribunal can lead to punishment under Section 26 of NGT Act, 2010 also by the way of imprisonment, and that December 31 is the deadline for MoEF to comply else from from January 1, concerned officer in charge will not be entitled to draw salary and further coercive measures may be considered.”

There. You can draw some solace. The ministry is getting coerced too.

A Beautiful Ban

The 59 responsibilities outlined in the notification include a bewildering array of inspections, permissions, reports, licenses, standards, monitoring mechanisms and deadlines. To wit, this will need enormous state capacity across agencies to implement.

Like we said earlier, we have a ban in India almost every week. But once in a while, there comes a ban so perfect for explaining what ails policymaking in India that we light three diyas (always in triplicate) at the altar of our public policy kul-devata to express our gratitude. This is that kind of a ban. On the surface it appears like the right thing to do. Anyone who has an RO purifier at home (and who hasn’t in India?) is aware of the water that’s wasted. The intention of the ban seems good.

But we never tire of emphasising, intention counts for nothing in public policy. We will see why in this case.

Voting With Their Feet

Yesterday, I finished Shankkar Aiyar’s excellent new book, The Gated Republic. It has a self-explanatory subtitle – India’s Public Policy Failures And Private Solutions. It is a well-researched, wonderful addition to what I call the ‘Indian republic/state as an adjective’ genre of book or papers (refer to the comprehensive list at the end of this post).

The book begins with making a case for the role of the state in providing for education, health, security, water and electricity. Aiyar quotes Adam Smith from The Wealth of Nations:

“… the sovereign or the government has three duties of ‘great importance’ to attend to. First, the duty of protecting the society from violence and invasion of other independent societies; secondly, the duty of protecting, as far as possible, every member of the society from the injustice or oppression of every other member of it, or the duty of establishing an exact administration of justice; and, thirdly, the duty of erecting and maintaining certain public works and certain public institutions which it can never be for the interest of any individual, or small number of individuals, to erect and maintain; because the profit could never repay the expense to any individual or small number of individuals, though it may frequently do much more than repay it to a great society.”

Aiyar has two central arguments in the book. First, the Indian state has ‘flailed or failed’ in the ‘third duty’ outlined by Adam Smith above. The history of independent India is dotted with public policy failures in delivering basic governance. Second, the citizens of India have normalised these failures and the moment they can afford it, they check out from the state. They find private solutions for education, water, electricity and security while paying their taxes to a state that should be providing these. Aiyar calls it a ‘ceaseless secession”:

“The many failures of public policy are propelling a ceaseless secession.”

“… The voice of the average Indian is not heard and the wait has been too long. And so Indians are desperately seceding, as soon as their income allows, from dependence on government for the most basic of services – water, health, education, security, power – and are investing in the pay-and-plug economy.”

The Problem Of Water

Aiyar starts his book looking at the promise of clean, drinking water to every Indian. He is unrelenting in his analysis of many policy failures, unfulfilled promises and the sheer incompetence of the state in managing water and its supply in India. There are delightful stories on how private solutions like bottled water (Bisleri), RO purifiers and overhead water tanks (Sintex) emerged to fill in for the state. But these have further exacerbated the class divide leaving a large section of the population in abject ‘water poverty’.

Read the full edition here.

Disclaimer: Views expressed on Anticipating the Unintended are those of the authors’ and do not represent Takshashila Institution’s recommendations.