By Lohita Turlapati:
For over three years, while on my way to school, I have regularly noticed slum dwelling women collecting water in bottles of bisleri that are attached to long wooden sticks by dipping them into the manholes on the sides of roads, to wash their clothes. I’ve always wondered who these women were, where they came from and why do they not receive sufficient water supply in their own residences.
I can recollect another instance of a rickshaw driver yelling at his wife over the phone for finishing off their water in 3 days and complaining about the high prices of water. On further enquiry, he told me that the water they receive at their home is nowhere close to potable and therefore, he finds the need to purchase drinking water from cheap sources to satisfy his family’s needs.
Mumbai has a population of 15 million, more than half of which lives in slum settlements. It is worth remembering that, according to official data, residents of Mumbai get 158 litres of water per day per person on an average. Statistics such as these, however, conceal the reality of the excessive inequality in the distribution of basic services and the consequent hardships faced by the poor who collect water from public standpipes, manholes or borrow from nearby public structures to get their daily household chores done. The difficulty, humiliation, inconvenience and stress they go through in scrounging for or buying this water often goes unrecorded.
What the local slum dwellers have to say about this inadequacy is that, in spite of the existence of Acts that enables local authorities to provide resources and services such as water, electricity and so on in slums, certain government agencies that provide land for slums do not permit the BMC to carry out ‘improvement’ of slums on their land. The role of politicians becomes very critical for these people because, for them, access to these basic resources is more through political, rather than other channels. The system is such that when politicians need support, they receive it through patronage and favours or promises of these.
The question is not just about availability of water, but of clean, uncontaminated water. This scenario can be seen in most major cities of India, the population explosion and enhanced need from the higher income groups seems to be a huge reason for this lack of supply of water to the underprivileged. Simultaneously, the alarming rise in pollution levels in surface water bodies and even in groundwater is adding to this situation. Even a school going child is aware that water and sanitation is a basic human right, as stated by the UN. However, in spite of the existence of various non-political bodies and NGOs that assist slum dwellers with their resource- related problems, this issue seems persistent. As Abdul Sharan, a professor at TISS, Mumbai rightly states, “What we need is a better water policy in larger cities that can cater to the growing needs of citizens. The prevailing ‘adhoc-ism’ in protecting, enhancing and conserving water needs to be done away with”.