Delhi’s water plan doesn’t address the poor, study says
May 30, 2013, Delhi – Public utility authorities in Delhi, India, are planning to implement a range of technical solutions to improve water supply in the city, but research in Kathputli Colony suggests that such developments will not address the underlying problem of access to water for the urban poor, the study reports.
Documented in the current issue of Urban Water Journal, concludes that a multisectoral response, encompassing numerous government departments, will be essential to deliver safe water for all and a long-lasting solution to water-related conflict in the city.
Kathputli Colony is a certified slum in northern Delhi, characterized by cramped quarters and depleted living conditions. The main ghetto area of the Colony, Kathputli Basti, has approximately 2,500 households, but there is no drinking water pipeline and only a few public water standposts. The nearest drinking water supply tap is located outside the Colony under the flyover near Shadipur Bus Depot, where residents have to queue for two to three hours during summers.
Writing in the current issue of Urban Water Journal, Deya Roy of the Center for Studies in Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University, compares this situation with the legal requirement that:
“… All inhabitants of Delhi, whether living in planned colonies, resettlement colonies, illegal colonies or ‘notified’ slums have a right to expect the government agencies to provide clean drinking water.”
The water authorities in Delhi are planning numerous technical fixes, including installing a Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system to map all transmission lines, constructing three new water treatment plants and underground reservoirs, and are working with the Japan International Co-operation Agency (JICA) to help prepare a master plan 2021 to tackle the capital’s water crisis.
But Roy’s analysis, underpinned by a detailed assessment of recent literature on the situation, is that the technological fixes will not resolve the core issues:
“While upgrading technology is necessary to improve services, none of these proposed reforms address the problem… Policy makers need to take the realities of the marginalized communities in access to water into account while framing their policies.”
Roy uses a case study of the situation in Kathputli Basti to explore the political failure and policy conflicts that have such a dramatic impact on the city’s poor inhabitants. She explains that, in Delhi, urban water is not just a “public good”, but it is also both an “economic good” (because access to water depends on the ability to pay) and an important religious symbol in Hindu mythology, through which social differentiation is perpetuated.
This means that water is frequently at the center of socio-spatial, cultural, political and ecological tensions in the city:
“The marginalized populations … are not ‘passive victims’ of this unjust environmentalism, as we have observed in Kathputli Colony. The poor put forward a counter politics to power politics in the city. Water becomes both the symbol of, and the reason for, social, political, economic and ecological conflict in the fast urbanizing Indian city, such as Delhi.”
Roy’s paper, “Negotiating marginalities: right to water in Delhi”, argues that a full understanding of these competing factors is a crucial element to the design and implementation of successful water supply strategies. At the heart of the problem lies a dichotomy between the state discourse on water as ‘water crisis and scarcity’ which then becomes a way to justify increased investment in water infrastructure and the privatization of water supply, compared with the slum-dwellers’ belief that water is ‘a necessity’ and ‘government should supply water to all’.
Describing extensive fieldwork carried out over several months in 2010 in Kathputli Basti, Roy explains that ever since the ghetto sprang up in 1972 residents have been waiting to be relocated to a different place; and this constant threat of relocation deters people from organizing themselves to improve access to public services.
Deya Roy’s paper argues that, through its ability to legalize (or make illegal) certain practices and spaces, the State controls the right to potable water in the city, but policies need to be informed by an understanding of the complex connections between water, institutional knowledge and local perspectives.
In presenting this case study of the Kathputli Colony, Roy opens a timely debate on how best to improve access to potable water, which has been enshrined in law by the Supreme Court of India, which stated in 2002 that: “Water is the basic need for the survival of human beings and is part of the right to life and human right as enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution of India and can be served only by providing source of water where there is none.”