History of water supply in Mumbai and BMC’s bizarre policy

These are the sort of issues we need a much deeper understanding. Instead of obsessing over MPC, we need city wise WPCs (Water Policy Committees) informing citizens over what is going on. India’s water crisis is matter of time and we need to be really serious about it.

Here is a insightful article on Mumbai’s water supply and how policy makes a mess of things as necessary and vital as water:

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 anynew 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.

Ideally, BMC should have acted on the illegal constructions. But those continue given the huge monies involved. I mean how do you deny water in such a case?

This policy had huge ramifications. Led to all kinds of illegal ways to get water connections.

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 purchasedhouses 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.”

The Court has ruled against this policy but will take something to correct the errors of the past:

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.

Such articles tell you how misplaced our priorities are. Instead of focusing on new smart cities or making old cities smarter, we need to look at all these draconian policies which are all over the place. Make our urban hells, a basic living first before we talk all about kinds of fancy things..

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