Politics of water in Mumbai

Rajji Desai, Mumbai Community Manager
Mumbai, 26 September 2016

In 2010, the United Nations General Assembly recognized access to clean drinking water and sanitation as a fundamental human right. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also said, "Safe drinking water and adequate sanitation are crucial for poverty reduction, crucial for sustainable development and crucial for achieving any and every one of the Millennium Development Goals."

With more than 58% of Mumbai’s population living in shanties and informal settlements, a majority of the urban poor do not have access to official drinking water and often rely on illegal, alternate sources of water. In most parts of the city, people living in unauthorized settlements and slums end up buying water from private water tanks and pay up to 50 times the water prices than the people with regular water connections, or up to 15% of their income, according to a study. Water is available for only two to five hours in a day and in most of the cases, this water is contaminated with bacteria causing a potential threat to life. In addition to this, women and children have to travel long distances to fetch drinking water everyday. In some parts of the city, like Ambujwadi in Malvani, residents of this informal settlement end up paying as high as Rs. 1 per litre compared to Rs.0.00324 per litre paid by a slum dweller with a registered water meter.

Mumbai receives 3,750 megalitres of water per day (MLD), with an average of 268 litres per person per day as against the national average of 135 litres per person per day. Sitaram Shelar, of Paani Haq Samiti, an NGO working extensively with the rights of the citizen's access to water, states that there isn’t a shortage of water in the city but the problem lies with the water distribution system from the main source in the city. Almost 27% of the water is lost due to leakages and misuse during its supply and 40% of the 386,971 connections are unmetered or faulty.

In 2014, Pani Haq Samiti filed a public interest litigation (PIL), challenging the municipality’s circular to various state bodies which prohibits them from supplying water to illegal settlements and slums in the city, stating that the right to water was a fundamental part of the "Right to Life" under the Article 21 of the Constitution of India. The government cannot differentiate amongst citizens in the provision of water based on the legality of their homes, as denying access to water is as good as denying access to life.

On December 15, 2014 the Bombay High Court passed a landmark judgment, stating that Mumbai’s official water service provider, the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, must formulate a policy to supply water to unauthorized slums and informal settlements in the city that have come up post January 1, 2000. This judgment was passed after a PIL was filed by Paani Haq Samiti. This ruling helps safeguard the right to access safe drinking water and sanitation to all and helps prevent privatization and commodification of a shared public resource.

Inclusive urban development strategies must be undertaken in order to ensure equitable distribution of resources to all the citizens of the city, including the urban poor living in informal settlements and slums. Judgments like these serve as an important precedent in safeguarding our fundamental rights to survive in the city and forming guidelines for sustainable development in the future.

Photo credit: Thomas Leuthard

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