Opinion

Access to water is a basic right

LISA BJÖRKMAN | Updated on January 24, 2018 Published on March 29, 2015

The elixir of life: It's everyone's right SUSAN QUINLAND-STRINGER/SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

A court-ordered rule change by Mumbai’s civic body has far-reaching implications for those living in illegal structures in slums

Two decades ago, a dramatic shift took place in the rules governing the provision of piped municipal water supply in Mumbai. Access to municipal water for residents of the city’s popular neighbourhoods and slums became linked to the rules governing eligibility for inclusion in slum rehabilitation housing schemes. The linking of water access to eligibility for inclusion in a slum redevelopment scheme has had disastrous hydraulic implications, criminalising water access and forcing city residents and municipal staff into legally-woolly and hydraulically-dystopian terrain of infrastructural practice – of duplicate documents, unauthorised suction pumps, and all manner of piecemeal intervention.

Last week, following two years of discussion and debate the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s (BMC) department of hydraulic engineering submitted to the standing committee their proposed new rules for infrastructural planning and water provisioning to slums, proposing to delink water access from eligibility for slum rehabilitation schemes.

The slum policy

Because the Municipal Corporation Act of 1888 gives the BMC the right to sell piped water as “moveable property,” a senior, now-retired municipal engineer said the water department is actually allowed to provide water to whoever agrees to pay for it. Sometime in the 1960s, the water department decided that the Municipal Corporation Act gave the department the right to sell water even to residents of unauthorised structures.

Before the 1990s, the corporation’s water rules made no mention of water supply to slums, presumably since the whole business of declaring slums was wrapped up with a host of national and State-level initiatives defining the category in the first place, largely in order to provide civic amenities to underserved urban areas. Until the early 1990s, identifying a neighbourhood as a slum served as a way of identifying it as deprived of civic amenities, and therefore eligible for programmes to redress this lack. Since the 1990s, however, slum policy in Mumbai has become effectively synonymous with slum redevelopment with eligibility decided by a so-called cutoff date.

In March 1991, the government of Maharashtra launched a new set of development control rules that granted private sector developers of housing incentive development rights as a kind of housing cross-subsidy. It was hoped this would make tenements available at little or no cost to the State government. The idea was to demolish and rebuild all of the city’s slums as mid-rise tenements using exclusively market mechanisms.

But in order to legitimise a policy that detractors feared would encourage the construction of new slum housing, political leaders sought to prevent any new slums through excluding from rehabilitation eligibility any household which could not provide documentary proof of residence in the structure as of a January 1, 1995; and through a government circular that disallowed even the provision of civic amenities to areas and people whose structures could not be proven to meet the cutoff date of eligibility for slum rehabilitation.

The water-rehab link

This linking of water access to slum rehabilitation eligibility has presented an increasingly acute problem for the water department.

Take, for example, the municipal colony of Shivajinagar-Bainganwadi, planned in the 1970s and 80s, and home to an estimated half a million people. Over the following decades a number of unplanned areas were constructed on the edges of the colony, outside the gridded area. The neighbourhood of Kamla Raman Nagar, for instance, was officially “declared” a slum in the 1980s under the provisions of the Maharashtra Slum Act of 1972. This declaration did not function to distinguish “legal” from “illegal” land uses, but rather facilitated the planning and provision of municipal services to this infrastructurally underserviced neighbourhood.

In the 1980s, the water department systematically planned for and laid a new water main through the neighbourhood, thereby relieving pressure on the overburdened distribution network in the planned colony of Shivajinagar-Bainganwadi. The infrastructural challenges posed by popular neighbourhoods like Kamla Raman Nagar were thus treated by municipal authorities as engineering challenges rather than legal problems.

Most of the neighbourhoods on the edges of Shivajinagar-Bainganwadi existed before the cutoff date for slum rehabilitation eligibility. This means there should be no reason to deny metered water supply to residents who wish to either apply for new or additional water connections, or to have their existing connections transferred to higher-pressure points on the distribution network. However families today, who are either renting their homes or have more recently purchased houses in the area’s extremely liquid housing market, have little choice but to either use spurious documents in arranging for water work to be done, or to work through a broker to arrange for an undocumented water connection.

Too many contradictions

By about the middle of 2014, the contradictions of the water rules had become politically and hydraulically impossible to ignore in Shivajinagar-Bainganwadi. The policy framework was fast undermining the water department’s decade-long project to systematically replace and upgrade the neighbourhood’s entire below-ground distribution network, and to transfer the approximately 6,000 individual metered connections from the old defunct grid to the new distribution network.

Indeed, when the day finally arrived last year to close the valves and decommission the old network of steel pipes, the sub-engineer who had been tasked with the valve operations met with a not-so-happy crowd of angry neighbourhood residents, demanding that the crew reopen the valves to allow water to flow back into the defunct distribution system.

The sticking point is that while the municipal corporation transferred thousands of metered water connections from the old network to the new grid, there are an equal number of unmetered connections which remain connected to the old distribution network. These are connections in which residents have invested large sums of money for brokering fees, labour costs, expensive long-distance steel piping, and pressure-enhancing suction pumps. But because there exists no policy framework through which these residents can apply for regular, metered connections, the connections are unauthorised and therefore ineligible for free transfer to the new network.

In the event the old network should be decommissioned, these taps would dry up completely. Fed up, senior water engineers urged the municipal commissioner to request that the Maharashtra’s urban development secretary “review the policy of water supply in slum colonies and to delink the water supply with the legality of structures”.

On December 15, 2014, in a long-awaited ruling on a PIL filed by the Mumbai-based organisation, Pani Haq Samiti, the Bombay High Court ruled that “the state cannot deny the water supply to a citizen on the ground that he is residing in a structure which has been illegally erected”, directing the municipal corporation to formulate a new policy. The delinking will once again allow municipal staff to turn their full attention back to water supply planning, hydraulic engineering, and to the much-needed work of infrastructure upgrading, maintenance, and repair.

The writer is a research scholar at Transregional Research Network (CETREN), University of Göttingen. Article is by special arrangement with the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania

Published on March 29, 2015
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