Mumbai’s Water Odyssey

Hans Schenk

What a coincidence! Two US-based anthropologists studied Mumbai´s drinking water provisions from several points of view and were during roughly the same time in the field. They were advised by the same mentor while designing their research, they may have met the same engineers and water-workers, and may even have attended the same meetings, without referring to each other´s presence in their respective books. Mumbai is a big and fascinating city indeed!

The contents of the books are soaked with water and show obviously quite some overlap. Both authors cover a wide spectre of issues related to municipal and other (drinking) water, ranging from, as they put it eloquently: ‘Water is extremely heavy and unwieldy, extraordinarily time consuming and expensive to move; once it has reached a resting point ... water tends not to go very far without significant financial, technological and political investment’ (Lisa Björkman, p. 14), to: ‘water is saturated with layers of meaning’, it is ‘a special material through which we can study the relations between politics, ecology, and social life’ (Nikhil Anand, p. 220).

Hydraulic citizens

However, water as such does not take a central position in both studies. A major focus – especially for Lisa Björkman, but somewhat less also for Nikhil Anand – is on the ways in which municipal water is brought to (on a rotating basis, pressurizing and depressurizing zones for a few hours) its intended destination: by iron and plastic pipes of all sizes and accompanying tools such as valves and pumps. And even then, the authors draw much wider circles around water and use it rather as the occasion to discuss important dimensions of Mumbai’s society. Björkman concentrates on a wide range of issues pertaining to the distribution of water - technical and political - while Anand is primarily concerned with citizens who receive, should receive or have to fight for receipt of water. In this manner Anand distinguishes between a formal citizenship and the practice of unequal claims on the resources of the state, leading to forms of unequal citizenship: roughly speaking the status of ‘settlers’ living in ‘unauthorized’ settlements, or rather, in ‘residential areas prior to formal state recognition’ (p. 5). In the context of his book, he chooses another specification of inequality: hydraulic citizenship defined as ‘the ability of residents to be recognized by city agencies through legitimate water services’ (p. 8). Mumbai’s settlers are constantly busy to become a hydraulic citizen and to remain one. The structure of strategic water-related encounters with politicians, engineers, and others form the bulk of Anand’s book in a series of chapters in which a wealth of details pertaining to a settlement in the North of the city are narrated and analyzed. Needless to add that clientelism, patronage, and money play a role in these encounters. He starts, however, with a useful background chapter in which he explores Mumbai’s historic search for water until the present: a number of artificial lakes and weirs that are over 100 km away provide water to the city through pipes, this to the detriment of local farmers who are suffering from water scarcity. Anand concludes cynically to the point: ‘Unable to compel the state for water the way that Mumbai’s residents do, many [local] residents ... now follow water to the city in search for work’ (p. 58).

The hydraulic puzzle

Björkman started her research by wondering how a city that aspires so much to gain ‘world-class’ status does not succeed in providing potable water to all its citizens, even though there is neither dearth of water, nor of money. Though the per capita allocation of water in slums is substantially lower than in other domestic areas in the city. Water, Björkman makes it clear from the onset in powerful one-liners that – what she calls – the ‘hydraulic puzzle’, is more complex: ‘the “formal” status of one’s home does not go far in predicting what comes (or does not come) out of one’s pipes and where water does not flow readily along class lines’ (p. 7) and, ‘speculating on the mysterious forces orchestrating the city’s capricious hydrologies is a pastime that transcends class and community lines’(p. 154). Anand’s lack of hydraulic citizenship is hence not only (though perhaps primarily) a matter of concern among unauthorized citizens – if one may say so – but of something else as well. Engineers of Mumbai’s Department of Hydraulic Engineering tell Björkman that the main challenge ‘is to make water flow to the unpredictable (and constantly changing) location of demand’ (p. 3). This is a major theme in her book as she presents her often flaming account of the events that played havoc in the water distribution of the city. In a nutshell: the rapidly changing city as a result of the liberalized real estate market[1] amplified by consultants and banks, has given rise to a growing incongruence of the above-ground built space and the below-ground flows of water since the 1990s. A major impact on neo-liberal Mumbai has been the rapid transformation of slums[2] etc. into world-class condominiums and malls, even though the provision of the needed piped water could not be arranged timely and may not be secured in the long run. Björkman’s account of this transformation reads like an unavoidable but sad soap (pp. 71-77), and includes a powerless and frustrated hydraulic engineering department vis-à-vis world-class hungry municipal planners and politicians, developers, and experts.[3] The more so since it became subject to disbanding of its survey section as infrastructural knowledge which was no longer seen as a marketable asset in market logics. What happened hence is the fading away of actual and precise knowledge of infrastructure: the location of the pipes in the form of updated maps. Instead, oral memories and sketch maps are replacing these lost maps as the department ‘lost track of the location of many older pipes due to changes in the above-ground built space’.[4] This all did not lead to less knowledge, remarks Björkman ironically, but to the blossoming of a ‘landscape of rumour, stealth and speculation’ (p. 130).

Pipes, valves, and chaviwallas

Anand and Björkman meet each other often in their respective accounts of the several dimensions of the distribution and access to water. Adding to Björkman’s ‘hydraulic puzzle’, valves may be obsolete and not obeying to the daily closing and opening of hydraulic zones by an army of chaviwallas, the manual handlers of underground valves. ‘A valve is turned somewhere in the city between one and two times every minute, all day, every day’ writes Anand (pp. 105-6). In an ode to the valves (and their operators), he makes it almost poetically clear: ‘As valves turn, water is channelled in different directions, constantly diverted and rearranged…. Pipes open and close. Leaks appear when valves are turned one way, and then disappear when they are turned off’ (p. 106). Moreover, suddenly leaking or gradually fading away pipes are difficult to trace without location knowledge. Anand has even given a detailed account in a full chapter on the often mysterious ways in which water gets lost in noticed and unnoticed ways: at least a quarter of the volume that enters the city does not reach taps. And then, besides leakages, water is illegally tapped. Finally, the department has not been able to get water priced though water meters. Meters are in large numbers absent or non-functioning. Hence the department knows a dual billing system according to the meter-value or at a fixed rate.

Both books are rich in contents and read very well. They share an interdisciplinary approach by mixing ethnographic insights of the triangle relations between water (including pipes, valves, and meters), residents in the fieldwork locations of the authors, and the engineers and workers engaged in the uphill task of arranging for the hydraulic well-being of Mumbai’s citizens, with a variety of accounts pertaining to urban planning, and notably the penetration of neo-liberalism in the local society. One may remark, however, that Björkman tends to look at the hydraulic department as staffed with Jules Romain’s ‘hommes de bonne volonté’ (men of good will), but passive against an environment full of neo-liberal jackals. What about the Hollywood paradigm: ‘When the going gets tough, the tough get going’?

P.S. And finally, there remains the question of which book to begin with to absorb the many-sided perspectives on piped municipal water in Mumbai in the best way. A logical choice would be to start with the distribution side. It might, however, be easier to digest the range of items that have come upon the dual scene by starting with Anand’s somewhat broader study. The more specified accounts of Björkman deserve to be followed.

[1] Björkman gives details of the mechanism to make this happen. In a nutshell: The city knows development control rules since 1967 including a ceiling on the amount of the buildable area per plot: the floor space index (FSI). Using ‘sanctioned loopholes‘ in the FSI rules (raising the FSI), developers were able to demolish (preferably centrally located) slums in exchange for rehabilitation of selected slum dwellers further away from the urban core, and the creation of open space for roads, etc. In this way transferable development rights (TDR) were created, using the now available land for high-rise buildings (see pp. 71-77).
[2] The market rationale is simple: slums are ‘built forms that economically underutilize the lands they occupy’ (Björkman, p. 123).
[3] An engineer said to Björkman: ‘We’re used to having to nod when economists talk, even when they say absolute nonsense’ (p. 45). Anand agrees wholeheartedly and quotes ‘his’ engineer: ‘If you look at privatization ... anywhere that management consultants have gone, these projects have failed’ (p. 161).
[4] It remains unclear what the engineers have done themselves to save their precious maps.