A Problem Political

Story by Joshua Holmes

Kemps Corner – a suburb at the southern end of Mumbai made up of picturesque colonial buildings dating back to British settlement, is the embodiment of old-money and wealth. It’s also the perfect example of a well-regulated community with access to clean potable water available in abundance for cooking, cleaning and bathing all hours of the day. It’s what one would expect of a city considered world-class.

Ganpat Natil Nagar, by contrast, sits on the fringes of North-west Mumbai, and is characterised by its profusion of make-shift housing recently reclassified by the government as illegal. Here people live in hutments, created out of whatever materials they can find, connected via an entanglement of dirt pathways and tight semi-paved roads. The population of this community is constantly growing as families move to the overpopulated big-city with opportunistic hopes of finding work and a more permanent home within the inner city’s confines. Here water is a precious commodity, brought in by tankers supplied by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), the city council that controls Mumbai’s water policy, ground-wells and pumps. With local bore-water only suitable for cleaning, the little supply residents receive from the tankers and pumps is carefully saved for drinking and cooking.

Much like the veins in our body pumping blood throughout the systems that keep us alive, Mumbai has an intricate network of pipelines and pumps that are meant to keep the city thriving and water flowing to all its citizens. But current water policies mean supply is patchy. Like an artery bypassed or a limb amputated, water is not reaching all who live in this major city.

Mumbai has a water problem, but what has been commonly misinterpreted as merely a lack of supply in the city and greater Maharashtra, is now widely seen as a crisis of distribution and accessibility caused by outdated and unenforced water policies. 

PHOTO: Dylan Crawford / Mumbai, India

Policies & Bureaucracy

Whilst there is policy in place to discourage a disparity of water access between the haves and have-nots, the intent of the policy differs from the reality.

Technically the BMC charges domestic consumers in the upper and middle class districts one rupee more for 1000 litres of water than those who live in the slums where they pay around 2.50 rupees. But when the average income of these significantly different socioeconomic groups are taken into account, 1000 litres costs only 0.0057% of the average income for the upper and middle-class, compared with 0.05% of income for slum dwellers – making water comparatively more expensive the poorer you are, despite the unit cost being cheaper. 

A more recent BMC initiative requires water harvesting technology to be built on the rooftops of buildings over 300m2 and built after 2012. It is the perfect example of a great idea that lacks full execution. Out of the 6855 buildings that have gone up in Mumbai since 2012, only around 55% actually obey the policy in place and have the technology required to harvest rainwater. 

There’s also a problem of what some have called irrational policies. The BMC still has laws in place that prevent water being connected to unnotified slums – informal settlements that have not been recognised by government. According to Observer Research Foundation (ORF) Vice President Dhaval Desai this law exists to limit population growth in the city by creating uncomfortable conditions – and yet the population in Mumbai and in unnotified slums continues to swell unabated. Critics argue the government needs to focus on supplying water to its people rather than judge their right to access based on their living situation.

There are also issues around the BMC’s organisational capacity and professional knowledge of the city pipelines. According to a 2016 report by the ORF, the BMC’s water department is only running at 60% capacity, with a total workforce of around 7000, leaving the service 40% understaffed with about 5000 positions vacant. What’s more, there has been no fresh recruitment uptake in the past 16 years.   Given Mumbai is a city running on 4000km of pipelines, some of which are up to 150 years old and leaking about 25% of the 3920 million litres of water that the city uses daily, this lack of manpower, and loss of skills and knowledge as staff leave and are not replaced add preventable pressure to a failing system.

While  Brihanmumbai Municiple Corporation insists management and policy play only a minor role in the city’s water woes, and argue the key problem is decline in supply; experts and activists in the field of public policy and social rights say there’s no getting away from the politics, systemic failures and mismanagement.


Entrenched problems

Professor of Economics and Public Policy, Abhay Pethe sits in his office, the afternoon sun falling on the economics textbooks and policy papers that litter his work space in Mumbai University. 

“The way we’ve set up our bureaucracy, water is the only sector where the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), the standard bureaucracy, is not in charge – it is the hydraulic engineers who are in charge,” Prof Pethe says.  

He says the Chief Hydraulic Engineer, a position usually considered a sub-discipline of civil engineering, and not a leading corporate role, acts as the head of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s (BMC’s) water department. This essentially gives a select group of high-ranking engineers the power to control and implement water policy in and around Mumbai.

By contrast officers from the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), which is a representative arm of the Indian Government, do not have the same level of authority as the Mumbai engineers despite technically being in a superior position and wielding government power. 

“IAS officers are transferable, so they don’t want to take up any issues with local postings. They’re looking at doing their own job and moving onto better postings…,” Prof Pethe says.  

The professor’s calm demeanour begins to erode and his frustration becomes clear as the conversation progresses. Water policy and bureaucratic failure is a crisis he’s been aware of for many years and he describes the situation as one which can only be changed by the voice and actions of a unified public. 

In an attempt to make sense of the “basket case” that is Mumbai’s unusual water management structure, Prof Pethe describes a highly politicised environment which discourages the municipality from taking back control to provide equitable access.

“They say, sure, we can supply water if we want to, but there is a political economy at play, where political representatives come in and say ‘don’t provide water to everyone because that would be detrimental to the monopoly and the profits being made by the tanker lobby’,” he claims.

Prof Pethe argues there is little incentive for change, and says the current political climate is the driving force behind the continuation of a system that withholds proper water access to the poor and those who live in the slums.

Godfrey Pimenta is an advocate for the Watchdog Foundation, operating from a small legal firm in the thick of East Andheri. A stout man, who’s pristine button-up dress shirt and slacks are sharply juxtaposed against the grimy tight streets and old buildings that lead to his offices. 

He is known as one of the 2017 heroes of Mumbai for his efforts to clean up environmental policy, and he has no shortage of comment on the shortfalls of Mumbai’s water distribution system, citing a lack of pre-emptive forward-thinking water policies to combat population growth as a key issue.

“The BMC’s current policy is not geared to handle population growth and sustainability… Why is the BMC allowing the creation of more buildings if they can’t even provide access to the municipal water supply?” Mr Pimenta says.

The Observer Research Foundation claims the population of Mumbai is currently around 20 million with overpopulation a major cause of sanitation problems in the city. Mr Pimenta believes water policies currently in place aren’t worth a cent and only act as a façade for the public.

“It’s only for public perception…in reality the politicians are making money out of it, nothing more.”

For Prof. Arund D Sawant, the president of SOCLEEN, a non-government organisation tasked with raising awareness of Mumbai’s environmental issues, Mumbaikers would also benefit from better education – not on environmental issues interestingly, but on good governance.

“There is a need for communication and education in schools to help fix the problem at the beginning,” he says. “If each generation were to be properly educated on the need to sustain quality political frameworks and focus on long-term solution-based learning, the next cohort of politicians and public sector workers may be the generation that sees positive change.”


The Have-nots

The slums of Mumbai act as population sponges where a majority of the residents are made up of hopeful families who aim to make a living in India’s biggest metropolis, but do not have the money to immediately find their forever home. Housing is generally impromptu in nature, with small shanties built from whatever materials can be found.  The residents are typically hardy and willing to live in the harshest of conditions in the hope of striking luck in a city that advertises itself as a haven of opportunity and prosperity. But despite their strength of character and perseverance, water policies which limit access or force them to utilise expensive blackmarketeers, often result in financial and health pressures that serve only to make their lives harder and their dreams more elusive.

Khalid Khan, a 32-year-old construction worker and father of two sits peacefully on the side of one of the many dirt paths that make up the unnotified Ganpath Patil Nagar, Dhaisar slum, in north western Mumbai, his crisp white shirt flapping in the hot breeze. 

With some prompting he opens up about the water policies that have affected his relatively small family. “The BMC does not do anything,” is the very first thing he says.

“We have wells, where sometimes water does not come in. For each well there is about 40 people but only five people can get water per day.”

If he’s lucky and is one of the few families able to collect his share in water for the day he will get around five or six 40L cans of water for two day’s use. 

The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs believes the minimum sufficient amount of water per person is 50 to 100 litres a day. But on a good day Mr Khan’s family receives just 30 litres per person a day. Mr Khan believes this distribution inequality can only be set right if there is the political motivation to create new or at least renew water infrastructure around the city. 

But as he notes with his parting words: “Politicians would much rather fight with each other than actually get anything done.”

Sound technician Gopi Peje, 55, shows off his office. A hard-working man who was born and raised in Mumbai, he is the perfect example of the city’s middle-class. He has many stories to tell of the struggles he’s had and is still having with water while living in the developing suburbs of the Dadar district, explaining that water restrictions and a lack of council action are everyday scenarios he must face. 

The 210 occupants of Mr Peje’s residential building, a housing development built by the Slum Rehabilitation Agency (SRA), have tried to contact the BMC’s water department to resolve the water issues many times – all to no avail.

“We haven’t gotten a proper response,” he says. “Every time the body corporate do get a response we are always told there is not sufficient water in the lakes and that’s the reason why the BMC aren’t able to supply enough water.”

He is highly sceptical of the repeated responses he and his neighbours have received over the years because, he explains shrewdly, if there really was a lack of water, there wouldn’t be any areas in the city with a 24-hour supply.

“The water cuts are only faced by people who are not wealthy, while the rich people definitely have unrestricted access to water.” 

He says there are solutions to the systematic problems of supply, if only there were the will to enact them. 

 “Policies are made and just left there, there is no action that’s being taken so the basic requirements are not being fulfilled for any individual. It really doesn’t matter if they have old policies or new policies, they need to start acting upon them. That’s when there will be a change,” he says. 

It’s a sentiment not only shared by the people of the city, but a good many academics and activists who agree that this city’s water woes have been caused not just by  a lack of available water, but by political inaction. 


The Haves

On the other side of the water supply spectrum wealthy and  upper-class Mumbaikers, are aware of water issues elsewhere in the city, but having unlimited access themselves, often concede they don’t  truly know how bad it can get. 

Ina Jain, 23 is a student in the midst of her university studies and lives in one of the upmarket suburbs of Mumbai, Kemps Corner. She speaks of having 24-hour access to water for as long as she can remember. 

“In my area I have never faced water restrictions or water being turned off, it’s always been very good,” she says.

In a place like Mumbai, the disparity between the haves and the have-nots is illustrated clearly through water distribution and access.  In this situation, the roots of the issue can be found in the city’s political frameworks themselves, catering to the wealthy while failing to resolve the basic problems which highlight such a stark socio-economic gap.

For a city that considers itself world-class Mumbai needs to be able to distribute life’s necessities equally in a way that doesn’t leave any group short-handed. 

Ina has never experienced the 15% daily water cut the BMC currently imposes on the majority of Mumbai, but she knows it exists and acknowledges she comes from a fortunate family and feels guilt for a situation she cannot control.

“The BMC is treating me fairly, but when it comes to the entirety of Bombay I think the water supply is not very fair between all the classes,” she says. 

The upper-classes of Mumbai don’t really maintain a political position with respect to the distribution of water in the city, which is understandable when they have not faced any restrictions themselves.

“I’m not very aware about how bad the water supply is in other areas, but it looks like people are suffering from water scarcity… we can’t really blame the BMC for whatever goes wrong in Bombay, because if we have to move a city forward it has to be a collective effort,” Ina says.  

But she is unsure what that collective effort might look like. She speaks of the population and maintains that realistically right now it is too high to supply everyone with equal amounts of water per day.

“If we talk about policy… I think the BMC should work towards equal access rather than cutting the supply of the places where water flow is 24/7,” she says. 

One thing is for certain, Mumbai’s water story can only end well if there is a combined effort to work towards either political action or a complete restructure and implementation of current water policies.

As an observer to the water crisis playing out in this city, the depth and complexity of the problem is cause for reflection, and for those of us in an environment where bottles of clean drinkable water are readily available, as is 24-hour access to showers, sinks and flushable toilets, the question arises “Are we part of the problem?”


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