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Everyday Sanitation: A comparative study of Mumbai's informal settlements

Water Wars

In the winter of 2010, amidst concerns over poor monsoons and 'water shortages' in the city, the BMC carried out raids against 'water theft' within Mumbai's informal settlements. Rafinagar, and other nearby neighbourhoods around Shivaji Nagar, Govandi - which are located in the poorest of the city's municipal wards - were amongst the worst hit. The raids were backed up by new legal moves to criminalise people 'stealing' water.

Water pipes destroyed in BMC raids, Rafinagar.

Water pipes destroyed in BMC raids, Rafinagar.

These acts were portrayed in mainstream discourses as a necessary response to the threat that 'water theft', particularly by slum dwellers, and the 'water mafia' were posing to the 'formal, legitimate and law-abiding city'. What such discourses occluded were the ways in which current systems of urban water provision work to systematically deny water to urban slum communities and derive massive profits from them. While acknowledging the complicity of the state in perpetuating the 'water mafia' and 'water theft', these discourses portrayed slums as inhibiting adequate access to municipal water for deserving residents, rather than as the victims of an iniquitous water system. No political effort was made to address the causes of these practices of 'water theft' in slum communities. No adequate alternative, public or formal water supplies have been made available for the communities whose water supplies were destroyed in the raids.

It is important to remember that in Mumbai's informal settlements only households that can prove their pre-1995 residence are entitled to metered group connections, shared between 5-15 households, which are supposed to provide 45 litres per person per day (as opposed to 135 litres per person per day in residences in the 'formal' city). However, these connections don't always materialise and when they do, they don't always provide adequate water. In such a context, the demands amongst slum dwellers for a minimum amount of water has provided the motivation for the growth of the complex world of the so-called 'water mafia.'

In Rafinagar Part-1, obtaining a legal water connection from the BMC usually involves having to resort to a 'middleman' and paying between Rs. 20,000-60,000 to organise a connection from the distant public mains. Not all residents can afford a legal connection and are forced to depend on those who can incur such costs (also the case for those who cannot prove their pre-1995 residency status). The middleman, who is sometimes a plumber, organises the installation of the water pipe, giving a cut to local state officials, hydraulic department officials and the police. Even after this, there is no guarantee how long the pipe will provide water or at what pressure, and often residents have to spend another large amount to "transfer" their pipes further downstream on the public mains. Having incurred these high expenses, these "tap-owner" residents then sell water at high prices to others in their neighbourhood, in order to recover their investment, pay the BMC's water bill, as well as make some cash for themselves. Alongside such formal connections are 'illegal' connections organised by middlemen for some residents, who similarly sell water at prices that rise and fall with the seasons and the extremities of the water crises. Most residents therefore paid between Rs.5-20 for a 35-litre can of water - between 30 and 200 times more than the official municipal water tariff for slums. Given that the so-called 'water mafia' involves loose collections of middlemen, municipal officials, politicians and the police, there is often a vested interest in raids in removing legal connections as well as illegal ones.

It was in such a context that the BMC raids removed improvised water pumps (on 'legal' and 'illegal' connections) that pull water from the city's formal water system, disconnected supposedly illegal pipes, arrested many people for having 'illegal' connections or 'illegally' using water pumps and/or 'illegally' selling water to others. Raids are not new to Rafinagar, but this time they were carried out at a larger scale, with more intensity, and also for the first time involved police facilitation. In addition to arrests, the police harassed ordinary residents trying to now obtain water from surrounding localities. The already existing water problems in Rafinagar followed by the raids demonstrate the costs of such processes of casting out the majority urban poor in the megacities of the world: in public health, death-rates and communicable and water-borne diseases; in the burden of waiting for and carrying water, especially for women and children; in the struggle of incurring high expenditure on water; in water extortion against the poor by predatory mafia-style rackets; and in the miseries of systematic dehydration.

Bringing back water from adjacent localities.

Bringing back water from adjacent localities.

Some of our interviewees spent over Rs. 600 per month on minimal water supplies, out of a total monthly income of Rs. 3000-4000. After the raids, many more residents than before were forced to rely on sources of water outside their neighbourhoods, accessing these by time-consuming and exhausting 1-5 km journeys by foot or cycle. Many women and young girls went by foot with water pots in search of water while many men and boys went by cycle with water cans. The BMC and police then started to confiscate cycles and water-cans and even punctured water-cans, making it harder to obtain water even from nearby localities. Large numbers of private water tankers began to come into Rafinagar, often selling lower quality water at high prices.

Private water tanker, Khotwadi - private water tankers supply water to many informal settlements and even formal residential localities in Mumbai and operate through mafia-style arrangements that flourish because of the water inequities in the city.

Private water tanker, Khotwadi - private water tankers supply water to many informal settlements and even formal residential
localities in Mumbai and operate through mafia-style arrangements that flourish because of the water inequities in the city.

The water raids have had public health impacts as well. Doctors of the Niramaya Health Foundation in Rafinagar have had to treat increasing cases of diarrhoea, dysentery, scabies and typhoid. There are reports from throughout the area of people resorting to digging shallow wells and drinking contaminated water, with rates of diarrhoea, cholera, hepatitis and, most disturbing of all, polio, rocketing as result of such desperate measures.

Two weeks after the raids, the BMC did install two temporary water storage tanks just outside Rafinagar. However, beyond the burden of long hours queuing, even this completely inadequate supply was unreliable because the BMC tankers (to fill these tanks with water) arrived only sporadically. When the tankers finally arrived, physical struggles often occurred as residents fought over inadequate water supplies. "Either beat up each other for water or die [without water] yourself," a Rafinagar woman remarked to us caustically. "Those whose mouths have strength [to speak up/shout]," recounted another, "those whose bodies are strong, those who can curse, they are the ones who can fill [water from the tanks]."

Rafinagar residents waiting at one of the temporary water storage tanks for the BMC water tanker to come and fill it.

Rafinagar residents waiting at one of the temporary water storage tanks for the BMC water tanker to come and fill it.

In Mumbai's water wars, it is the poor and vulnerable who suffer most, exacerbating the profound public health, social and economic inequalities in the city and fermenting deep feelings of outrage and alienation amongst vulnerable residents of the city.