I was sitting in the office of G S Manjunath, Assistant Executive Engineer of the Bangalore Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB), when a group of people came in with their complaints. This was a vocal group - predominantly women, and from a slum area, the Engineer told me later. Each of them had a water bill in hand; they were saying quite loudly that they had received no water for the last month but still had received a bill! A look at some of the bills, typically under Rs.100, confirmed their claim that they had received no water - the opening and closing meter readings for the month were identical. Manjunath promised to visit the slum the same afternoon, and sort out the problem. The exchange had been lively, but it was clear that the people had a genuine complaint, and the AEE was quick to accept that.

What turned the argument in favour of the slum dwellers? The bills, and the meter reading displayed in them. Metering is clearly beneficial to consumers; their consumption is measured reliably and they pay only for what they have used. With the meter reading on their bill, consumers now have a legitimate document to show their access or non-access to water. Consumers can also moderate their consumption, if they wish to keep their bills lower.

Pros and cons

Metering is also of considerable help to the water supplier, whose main concern is the measurement of leaks. Euphemistically called Unaccounted-for water (UFW), it is possible to know the extent of this loss only when the supplier measures both the volume pumped into the city as well as the total volume that is actually delivered to the end users. Without metering, it is virtually impossible to get a meaningful measure of transmission and distribution losses. With metering, the supplier can also understand levels of consumption and patterns of variation among consumers; with such knowledge, it can then fix volumetric tariffs that reward the water-efficient and collects more from those who consume more. Planning a water supply network becomes easier, in this scenario. Also, the legitimate consumer is rewarded when leaks are minimised and tariff collection is based on efficient water supply.

Despite its advantages, metering is by no means common; most small towns in India with piped water systems collect water payments as a cess on top of property taxes that are levied, and in some cases they have a flat rate tariff. In Karnataka, for cities that are not designated as corporations, the flat tariff is fixed as a minimum of Rs.45 per month. However the government, which has to bear the cost of supply itself if it is not paid for by users, wants to moved towards metering for all connections, and a volumetric tariff to determine the bill amounts for each user.

Not all customers petition the supplier to heed their complaints. Salma Sadiqa, who works with the board to improve access to water for low income groups, says people sometimes simply remove the meter, if they get no water. Without a meter, they expect they will not get a bill.

 •  Piped water or pipe dreams?
 •  Quality: Pipe dreams
 •  The privatisation debate

But metering has some disadvantages too. Since most towns and cities in India still do not have meters, there is a significant cost that will be involved in installing meters and thereafter maintaining them. If this cost is to be borne by the consumers - as in the case of Bangalore, which levies a one-time charge for meter installation; subsequent maintenance of the meter is the supplier's responsibility - this may end up inhibiting connections to poorer consumers. Meters also can break down. If there is intermittent supply they can show wrong readings. Meters also need people to record their readings, and this cost may be high. There is also the distinct possibility of tampering, to make meters show wrong readings. Collusion and corruption in metering and billing is also not to be forgotten. Advances in technology and e-administration are constantly tackling some of these issues, and these risks might diminish over time.

Meters and the right to water

Is metering in conflict with the right of people to get access to a minimum quantity of water for their basic needs? In fact the opposite is true. In South Africa, for example, each family is entitled to 6000 litres of water per month without charge, and it is the right of every family to access this volume of water. The UN Human Development report suggests 20 litres of water per capita per day as the appropriate volume to be provided by right. How do governments ensure that this right is met? How can the state be held accountable to such a promise? Meters - and working meters at that - could ensure that governments stand up to their commitments. Without such measurement, there is no way of knowing whether a specified minimum quantity is being supplied to every family.

How about connection charges? Should customers pay for connecting meters to a supply stream they're entitled to by right? For the poor, this may become a practical difficulty in exercising the right, even if it was protected under law (which it is not, in India). Subsidies will have to be worked out to overcome this. In Bangalore for certain geographical areas if the house plinth area is less than 600 square feet residents pay a nominal connection charge of Rs.800. The meter charge is Rs.550 and the sewage connection charge is Rs.250 A plan is also under consideration to waive completely the connection charge for those below the poverty line.

It is the same story in villages. The Gram Panchayaths have been handed the responsibility for maintaining the village water supplies, in the spirit of decentralisation. Many are now discovering the huge electricity bills they have to pay for pumping water from bore wells. This money has to be recovered from the end users, at least to cover the operations and maintenance cost. Devaraj Reddy, a hydro-geologist and a rainwater harvester of repute, quotes the example of Hebbali village in Hosadurga Taluk Chitradurga District Karnataka. About 250 families reside here. The water sources are two bore wells which pump water to an overhead tank of 50,000 litres. Water is then supplied to each household. The village water and sanitation committee has ensured connection to each household and metered it. People pay a water charge based on consumption, and the number of members in the family dwelling. The village water committee constantly strives to ensure equitable access to water for all and collects revenue to pay for the system maintenance. Metering has helped the system immensely.

The future

Surely metering will become the order of the day in both urban and rural piped water supply systems. Efficient and equitable use of water demands that this natural resource be managed sustainably, and metering is a key part of the solution to that challenge. Even when bore well is the source of water, whether for agricultural, domestic or industrial purpose, a meter will be the measure of water use and help manage water better. Understanding its advantages, and carefully planning to minimise potential problems, can help us move towards a metered regime faster.