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Where The Water Flows: The Politics Of Water Distribution In Mumbai

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By Neelanjan Sircar:

“Look, when the water comes, it’s because of politics, and when the water doesn’t come, it’s because of politics.”

In “Pipe Politics, Contested Waters: Embedded Infrastructures of Millenial Mumbai”, Lisa Björkman conducts an extraordinary ethnographic study that takes us through the complicated social and political processes that undergird water distribution in Mumbai. And it is complicated! In unravelling Mumbai’s hydrological mysteries — not the least of which is why a city that gets so much rain has so little water — Björkman deftly moves between a political history of Mumbai, the everyday functioning of Mumbai’s water bureaucracy, and the unseemly world of petty entrepreneurs and brokers (who ultimately decide how and when water flows to many of the city’s residents).

There are no clear villains in Björkman’s story, but there are plenty of idiots in it. “Pipe Politics” describes a series of inchoate, piecemeal infrastructural policies due to, among other things, idealism, money grabs, and populism — but almost always insufficiently attuned to the hydrological and engineering challenges of water distribution in Mumbai. This sort of policymaking leads to a nearly impenetrable set of logic and contradictions that make the water flow in Mumbai and that can never be fully comprehended by a single person, exacerbating what Björkman calls the “fragmentation of informational infrastructures”.

It is a failure to appreciate these complexities that leads international consultants, bureaucrats dropped in from Delhi, and middle-class activists to come up with stupid idea after stupid idea in their attempts to make Mumbai a “world-class city”. And it is no wonder that when push comes to shove, the bureaucracy is forced to rely on the few labourers who spend their whole lives in a municipal ward working on pipes or chaviwallas — literally “the people who hold the keys” — to make the water flow. Ultimately, as the author narrates, “The everyday risks of water shortage that infuse the city’s hydraulic landscapes across class lines are managed and mitigated by the forging and maintenance of elaborate knowledge-exchange networks.”

Photo by Kalpak Pathak/Hindustan Times via Getty Images.

Björkman traces the chaos in Mumbai’s water distribution system to the early 2000s, a time marked by great aspiration to remake Mumbai as a “world city” — largely through privatisation in water distribution spearheaded by the World Bank. Amid growing pressures brought on by chronic understaffing in the water department, the city began to look to a combination of technological and private sector solutions to ease the burden. By the mid-2000s, some amount of privatisation seemed inevitable, as private contractors and consultants descended upon Mumbai with a bevvy of new ideas and high-tech solutions. But, in a story that seems all too common, city bureaucrats allege that private contractors and international consultants lacked the expertise and attention to ground realities to genuinely address Mumbai’s challenges.

One major flashpoint seems to have be an audit study conducted in Mumbai’s K-East ward by international consultants funded by the World Bank which yielded implausibly high estimates of leakage from Mumbai’s water distribution system, as well as insufficient attention to the murky legal residential status of many of Mumbai’s residents that determines access to water. But, even as Mumbai ended this dalliance with privatisation on a large scale, the damage was done. As Björkman notes, during the period of privatisation the “policies did not add up — either in theory or in practice — in any sort of coherent way, resulting instead in a somewhat bizarre amalgamation of contracts, high-tech gadgets, and half-formed initiatives that would combine in unanticipated ways to unintended ends.”

In parallel to attempted privatisation, came what Björkman terms the “marketisation” of land acquisition. One of the largest challenges all across India is the acquisition of land for the purpose of public projects, which is made especially difficult in a city like Mumbai due to the density of the population and the complexity of tenurial rights. In the enthusiasm over free markets in the wake of India’s 1991 economic liberalisation reforms, Mumbai began to introduce “transferable development rights” or TDR. To understand the concept of TDR, one must begin with the standard model of land acquisition — in which the government acquires through eminent domain and develops the land for public purpose while compensating the original landowner with cash.

Due to the difficulty of setting a fair market price for the land and the well-known “holdout” problem, the Mumbai government began to experiment with ways of giving incentives to landowners and real estate builders. The first set of incentives given to the sellers was a bump up in the “buildable” area allowable on land by allowing for some contravention of floor space index (FSI) restrictions. But soon the city looked for ways to get private players involved in building up the city. Instead of simply compensating sellers with cash, the city began offering TDR — which allowed those selling land for public purposes the rights to build on land elsewhere in the city. These TDR could be bought and sold on the open market as well.

Björkman follows the historical development and debates around TDR in precise detail, far more detail than can be discussed here. But a few important points emerge from her discussion of the issues. First, land given for slum redevelopment projects became particularly lucrative. In particular, builders could procure land in less desirable slum areas and then give them over for (the public purpose of) slum redevelopment, generating TDR in more desirable areas to build. Second, the city had to enumerate which slum residents would be legally entitled to slum redevelopment. This created strange distortions in legality and illegality of tenure, but also created complicated demands for the “cutoff date” before which residents are considered legal.

In retrospect, the tensions are easy to see. There is presumably pressure from slum dwellers to move up to a more recent cutoff date (originally set at 1985 and then moved to 1995) to legalise the tenure of more citizens. Interestingly, moving up the cutoff date is also favoured by the real estate builders as it is effectively a windfall of TDR for them. On the other hand, residents of Mumbai, because of anti-migrant sentiments and because of haphazard building across the city generated by TDR, began to protest this politics of cutoff dates. Nonetheless, the extraordinary volatility in residential settlement generated from the TDR regime wreaked havoc on water distribution in Mumbai. There was no way a pre-planned water piping system could deal with this mess.

MUMBAI, INDIA – OCTOBER 31, 2011: BMC workers carrying out work of repairing the pipeline at Nana Chowk which leaked creating shortage of water in the southern part of Mumbai on Monday. (Photo by Kalpak Pathak/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

At this juncture, the book shifts to a close look at the M-East ward in Mumbai, and the Shivajinagar-Bainganwadi colony more specifically. The colony is interesting in that it clearly seems to be planned and built before the cutoff date of 1995, but is increasingly seen as an illegal slum settlement because as one bureaucrat noted (as summarised by Björkman), “Although Shivajinagar-Bainganwadi is not an illegal area,…it was probably included in the (slum) survey because, well, it seems like a slum (emphasis in original).” To add to the problems, murky tenurial status means that many residents of the colony do not have the appropriate papers to show their (pre-1995) legal status. And with murky legal status comes problems with availing of water from the city.

The difficulty of getting consistent access to water in Shivajinagar-Bainganwadi has given rise to petty entrepreneurship. As an example, Björkman highlights two residents simply referred to as “Paniwali” and “Paniwala (literally water woman and water man) by their neighbours. This wife-husband duo own a working tap, and they lease out time on the water tap to residents for a profit. Having a working tap is not an easy matter; it requires the right connections (in human form and in piping) and generally entails all kinds of illegal accoutrements to make sure the water is sufficiently pressurised to flow from the tap. Of course, because everyone’s water connection is de facto illegal, government raids can shut a water connection at any time — this is exactly what ends up happening to Paniwali.

What results from this juxtaposition of social and political processes is a bizarre game of government whack-a-mole. Illegal piping, motors, and other paraphernalia fundamentally affect the ability of the water department to provide water across the city. As people avail of illegal devices, water dries up in certain colonies, and residents in those colonies begin to avail of illegal paraphernalia as well. As government raids shut down illegal connections, the flow of water changes once again. By the end of this game, as Björkman describes in humorous detail, no one, including the engineers, can easily predict how or why water shows up in certain taps and not in others. With such unpredictability and fragmented knowledge, where the water will flow becomes a matter of rumour, spectacle, and politics.

One of the major unintended consequences of this book is to show just how limited and problematic our use of “market” and “private” is in this context — unfortunately, how one uses these terms is extraordinarily dependent upon disciplinary boundaries. While one often saves the word “privatisation” for public-private or corporate provision of infrastructure, Björkman’s description of informal water provision is nothing short of an incredibly competitive private market for water. Indeed, at one point, the author gets into the complex details of the economics of opening a tap and the market for privately provided water.  Of course, the use of marketisation and privatisation is used to describe a certain set of policy prescriptions, but it can be argued that even if their policies failed, the World Bank and those pushing for private solutions ultimately got their way.

By simply rendering the state incapable of providing water for its citizens on any consistent basis, the haphazard liberalisation era policy reforms ushered in an era of highly private provision of water. This book also lays bare the sheer incompatibility of the fair provision of water and private “interference” in residential or infrastructural access. Ultimately, heavy infrastructure like water piping requires a level of pre-planning and stability that cannot easily accommodate the patterns of privatisation and marketisation described by Björkman. The losers in the system are, unfortunately, usually the most vulnerable.

To my mind, the largest contribution of this book will be what Björkman has termed the “fragmentation of informational infrastructures”. It is a theoretical concept that throws up a serious challenge for most political economy models of public goods provision. Most models of public goods provision assume that a small set of actors, be they politicians or bureaucrats, have the capacity to bias distribution of public resources to certain areas or individuals, usually in exchange for votes (but contingency need not be required). What this book teaches us, however, is that even if politicians want to steer water to certain colonies and away from other colonies, it is unclear that the engineers have the capacity to make that happen. While it is rarely a part of the standard academic discourse, it should be obvious that in a context of weaker state capacity the kind of infrastructural control required for clientelism or pork simply may not be available to the politician or the bureaucrat.

On the face of it, this book is part of an exciting new trend of ethnographies on infrastructure. But even for the reader outside of political anthropology, this work will prove to be an invaluable resource on the politics of infrastructural delivery in the developing world. For those unaccustomed to detailed ethnographies, or without a working knowledge of Indian cities, this book may be a tough read. But the struggle is well worth it, and it will leave you thirsting for more.


Neelanjan Sircar is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi. His recent work has focused on electoral behaviour and urbanisation in India.

Purchase the book on Amazon here

Visit Lisa Björkman’s website here

Visit Neelanjan Sircar’s website here

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