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Of Pipes and Slums: Understanding Mumbai’s Proposed New Water Rules for Residents of “Illegal Structures”

Lisa Björkman
March 23, 2015

Two decades ago, a dramatic shift took place in the rules governing the provision of piped municipal water supply in Mumbai. In this shift, access to municipal water for residents of the city’s popular neighborhoods and “slums” became linked to the rules governing eligibility for inclusion in slum rehabilitation housing schemes. The linking of water access – previously governed (at least in theory) by spatial and hydraulic logics of infrastructural planning and service delivery – to eligibility for inclusion in a slum redevelopment scheme has had disastrous hydraulic implications, criminalizing water access and forcing city residents and municipal staff into legally-wooly and hydraulically-dystopic terrain of infrastructural practice – of duplicate documents, unauthorized suction pumps, and all manner of piecemeal intervention. Last week, following two years of discussion and debate – and on the heels of a long-awaited High Court ruling on a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) – 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.

Until the 1990s, the Mumbai water department did not concern itself with questions of eligibility, the complexities of tenure arrangements, building occupation certificates, or other measures of the lawfulness of the various structures in which city residents live. 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 whomever agrees to pay for it. Sometime in the 1960s, the engineer recalled, the water department decided that the Municipal Corporation Act gave the department the right to sell water even to residents of unauthorized structures (or “encroachments”).

Before the 1990s, moreover, the Municipal Corporation’s water rules made no mention of water supply to “slums,” presumably since – prior to 1991 – 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 under-served urban areas. Until the early 1990s, that is, identifying a neighborhood as a slum served as a way of identifying it as deprived of civic amenities, and therefore eligible for programs to redress this lack through infrastructure and upgrading schemes. Since the 1990s, however, slum policy in Mumbai has become effectively synonymous with slum redevelopment – that is, with demolition and rehousing in mid-rise tenement buildings – 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 tenement-style slum redevelopment housing incentive development rights as a kind of housing cross-subsidy. Compensating builders with development rights, it was hoped, would make tenements available at little or no cost to the state government. The basic idea behind the Slum Rehabilitation Scheme was to demolish and rebuild all of the city’s slums as mid-rise tenements using exclusively market mechanisms. But in order to legitimize a policy that detractors feared would actually encourage the construction of new slum housing (in order to get a house in a redevelopment scheme), political leaders sought to prevent any new slums through a two part strategy: first by excluding from rehabilitation eligibility any household which could not provide documentary proof of residence in the structure in question as of a January 1, 1995 cutoff date; and secondly, through Circular issued by the Government of Maharashtra in 1996 on the heels of the new Slum Rehabilitation Scheme that disallowed even the provision of civic amenities to areas and people whose structures, and whose residence in those structures, could not be proven to meet the cutoff date of eligibility for slum rehabilitation.

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, which is home an estimated half-million people in the M-East neighborhood of Govandi. Shivajinagar-Bainganwadi is municipal colony, planned out in the 1970s and 80s.  Over the following decades a number of unplanned areas were constructed on the edges of the colony, outside the gridded area. The neighborhood of Kamla Raman Nagar, for instance, was officially “declared” a slum in the 1980s under the provisions of the Maharashtra Slum Act of 1972. The declaration of Kamla Raman Nagar as a “slum,” it must be noted, did not function to distinguish “legal” from “illegal” land uses, but rather facilitated the planning and provision of municipal services – water, roads and sewerage – to this infrastructurally under-serviced neighborhood. In the 1980s, for instance, the water department systematically planned for and laid a new water main through the neighborhood, thereby relieving pressure on the overburdened distribution network in the planned colony of Shivajinagar-Bainganwadi. The infrastructural challenges posed by popular neighborhoods like Kamla Raman Nagar, in other words, were thus treated by municipal authorities primarily as engineering challenges rather than as legal problems. 

Most of the neighborhoods at the edges of Shivajinagar-Bainganwadi, like Kamla Raman Nagar, preexist the cutoff date (both the earlier 1995, as well as the newer 2000 cutoff date) for slum rehabilitation eligibility, meaning that, today, 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. These are two common practices in an area of the city where sudden and dramatic population increases in recent years have stressed locally-available water resources, leading to lower pressures in 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.

By spring 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 neighborhood’s entire below-ground distribution network, and to transfer the approximately six thousand 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 neighborhood 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 – free of cost – 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, labor 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 unauthorized and therefore ineligible for the free transfer to the new network. In the event the old network should be decommissioned, these expensive, temperamental taps would dry up completely. Fed up, senior water engineers urged the Municipal Commissioner to request that the Government of 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 Public Interest Litigation (PIL) filed by the Mumbai-based organization 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 attentions back to water supply planning, hydraulic engineering, and to the much-needed work of infrastructure upgrading, maintenance, and repair.

Lisa Björkman is a Research Scholar at Transregional Research Network (CETREN), University of Göttingen, Göttingen, Germany. She is a CASI Spring 2015 Visiting Scholar.


India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania and partially funded by the Nand and Jeet Khemka Foundation. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI and the Khemka Foundation. IiT articles are re-published in the op-ed pages of The Hindu: Business Line. This article can be read here.

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