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Volume: I, Issue: I, July - December 2010



Water in the 21st century is what oil was to the 20th century: the valuable commodity that determines the wealth of nations. Considering, both the enormity and the significance of the issue, this work is an attempt to look at the politics and governance of water in the city of Mumbai and Chennai in the context of increasing urbanisation, liberalisation and compulsions of globalisation from the 1990s onwards, and their impact on water governance. The work is essentially a comparative multi-disciplinary study, with a descriptive-analytical framework.

Keywords Content

Water, like religion and ideology, has the power to move millions of people. Since the very birth of human civilization, people have moved to settle close to it. People move when there is too little of it. People move when there is too much of it. People journey down it. People write, sing and dance about it. People fight over it. And all people, everywhere and every day, need it. We must treat water as if it were the most precious thing in the world, the most valuable natural resource

-Mikhail Gorbachev, President of Green Cross International quoted in Peter Swanson's Water: The Drop of Life, 2001.

This paper attempts to examine, analyse, critique and offer recommendation with regards to the following aspects, viz.:

First and foremost, how launching of Structural Adjustment Programme [SAP], in 1991 has led to the consequent decline in public sector investment in social infrastructure and basic services, giving rise to increasing water scarcity in an increasingly urbanising world. Second, concerns of International Organisations towards issues of water and developments thereby. Third, debate on the changing paradigms of governance with specific reference to water governance. Fourth, highlighting possible and workable alternatives toward making water both available and water governance sustainable. Finally, it looks at how knowledge of water governance from each city can be replicated in the other for a better, effective and efficient service delivery in the two cities of Mumbai and Chennai.

Increasing Water Scarcity in an Increasingly Urbanising World

As the world population tripled in the 20th century, the use of renewable water resources has grown six fold. [Kindly see annexure 1 for facts and figures on Urbanisation] Today’s world water crisis is defined by insufficient access to safe drinking water for over a billion people, and inadequate basic sanitation for half the world’s population.


While more than 70 percent of the earth's surface area is covered by water, less than 1 percent of the world's water is available for human consumption. The result of this scarcity that is unevenly distributed makes the most marginalized populations more vulnerable to illness. The World Health Organization for instance reports that 25,000 children die daily from illnesses associated with drinking water. Approximately 4 billion cases of diarrhoea occur each year, killing more than 2.2 million people, and some 1.7 billion people, more than a third of the world's population, live without access to a safe water supply more than five million people die from waterborne diseases each year - 10 times the number of casualties killed in wars around the globe.1


Over the next 25 years, 95 percent of urban population growth will take place in developing countries. This urban population will roughly double in size, to nearly 3.5 billion people. By 2015, one out of five people will live in cities with populations of over 10 million. There are 19 ten million-plus megacities, out of which 15 are in the developing world. Even more challenging will be the growth of 564 cities with more than million people by 2015 and half of the world population living in cities will be poor Catley-Carson [2000:12].


India in an Urbanising World

The National Census 2001 puts India's total population in March 2001 at 1027.02 million. The percentage of urban population to total population of the country in 2001 stood at 27.8 per cent whereas in the 1991 Census it was 2.5.7 percent showing an increase of 2.1 percentage points in the proportion of urban population during 1991-2001.


Urban centers in India present a grim picture with regard to availability of basic infrastructure. At the aggregate level, 21 per cent of the urban population is living in squatter settlements, where access to basic services is extremely poor. Though projections vary, India’s population by 2050 will in all probability balance between the low variant of 1,345 million people and the high variant of 1,581 million people. The fact that most of this population growth will be accounted for by urban areas will add to the existing water crisis in the cities.  [Kindly see Annexure No.2 for worldwide water availability per person per year].


According to the Ministry of Water Resources [MOWR], in India, the total water resource potential of the country is estimated to be 1,953 billion km. Of this amount, only 1,122 billion km can be utilised under current economic and technological conditions. At present, the amount derived from water resources, which have been actually developed is only about 644 billion km. [about 57 percent of utilisable potential]. The following table clearly elaborates the annual rainfall, availability of water and estimated utilizable water. Ministry of Water Resources decided to declare the year 2007 as "WaterYear", with a view to address the water related issues in a focused manner, ensure successful implementation of policies and programmes and to launch a massive awareness programme all over the country. 2


Between Cherrapunji’s 11,000 mm and Jaisalmer’s 200 mm, India averages 1,170 mm of annual precipitation. Yet several regions, in what are by any standards one of the wettest countries in the world, experience desert-like conditions. Thanks to an electoral politics that sustains itself on subsidies, an inefficient water bureaucracy, and a multi-ethnic society that is wasteful in its habits, water has become the scarcest resource in India.3


Water is a subject in the state list under the Constitution in India, the Water Act is a central law enacted under Article 252[1] of the Constitution. Article 252 empowers the Union government to legislate in a field reserved for the states, where two or more state legislatures consent to a central law. Thus, the National Water Policy was passed in 2002. It provides a significant role for the public sector in fostering more sustainable water, while at the same time calling for stronger private sector participation and further use of participatory approaches in water resource use. Towards operationalising the changed policy, several legislative measures have been taken by states such as Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra.


Since the 1990s, there have been changes in the water policy and the statutes that have been proposed and adopted at the union and the state level. These changes have been broadly in the area of regulation of groundwater, setting up of water regulatory authorities and the introduction of participatory irrigation management through the setting up of water users’ associations.4


The availability of water in Indian cities also varies with socio-economic groups and areas. Households with incomes below Rs. 3,000 a month, spread over 72 percent of households suffer as due to a lack of sufficient water, as one of the latest report on households in Major Cities. Shaban and Sharma [2007: 2190-2197].


The present scenario is a reflection and consequences of urban explosion of this exceedingly important recourse amplifying both the enormity of the problems of both urbanisation and availability of water of an ever-growing population. The demand for fresh water is expected to increase sharply and rapidly because of the growth of population, the pace of urbanisation and the processes of economic ‘development’, increasing the already severe pressure on the available [finite] supply. In this view, water scarcity is a natural phenomenon.


Water mismanagement has thereby become a ‘crisis of governance’ that has already begun to impact heavily on public health, environment, while heightening tensions and conflicts over this waning reserve. The utmost brunt of this situation is already felt by the poor, who are most vulnerable.5


Given the enormity and complexity of the problem relating to water, international organisations have also shown concern and have become very receptive to this crisis. As a result, it is very important as well as heartening to record the role played by International organisations towards water governance.


Initiatives and Concerns of International Organisations towards Issues of Water

This first United Nations World Water Development Report [WWDR] is a joint undertaking of twenty-three United Nations [UN] agencies, and is a major initiative of the new World Water Assessment Programme [WWAP] established in 2000, with its Secretariat in the Paris headquarters of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization [UNESCO]. This report is organized in six main sections: a background, an evaluation of the world’s water resources, an examination of the needs for, the uses of and the demands on water. 6


The International Conference on Water and the Environment in Dublin in 1992 set out the four Dublin Principles that are still relevant today. For instance, a look at the four principles demonstrates its significance and contemporary relevance:


Principle 1: ‘Fresh water is a finite and respected resource, essential to sustain life, development and the environment’.

Principle 2: ‘Water development and management should be based on a participatory approach, involving users, planners and policymakers at all levels’.

Principle 3: ‘Women play a central part in the provision, management and safeguarding of water’;

Principle 4: ‘Water has an economic value in all its competing uses and should be recognized as an economic good’. 7


The UN Conference on the Environment and Development produced Agenda 21, which with its seven programme areas for action in freshwater, helped to mobilize change and heralded the beginning of the still very slow evolution in water management practices. Both of these conferences were seminal in that they placed water at the Centre of the sustainable development debate [1993: UNCED].


One of the most significant outcomes of this resulted in 2002 when water was declared a human right. The Millennium Development Goals set at the World Summit of Sustainable Development in 2000 set out to halve the proportion of people without access to clean water by 2015.


The Millennium Development Goals [MDGs] also outlined in the Millennium Declaration, set an ambitious agenda for improving the human condition by 2015, and achievement of a large number of those goals is dependent upon the access to safe and sufficient water; in effect, the progress of a country towards the MDGs can partly be measured by assessing that country's water situation.  [Kindly see Annexure No 3 for an elaborate account of the UN and International Organisations’ Initiatives].


The increasing debate and significance in international forums attached to governance in the realm of basic services clearly highlights the importance of these services in general, and water in particular. This has been associated with an increased concern on the side of the international community not only to understand but also to improve the general conditions for policy making encompassed by the values of participatory democracy, social justice and environmental sustainability. These deliberations have resulted in an overarching concern regarding the most appropriate governing strategies to promote responsibility and synergy among different social and political actors.

Perspective on Water

From the above mentioned theoretical formulation of governance it could be inferred that Water governance refers to the range of political, social, economic, and administrative systems that are in place to regulate the development and management of water resources and provision of water services at different levels of society. In the emerging situation of water scarcity, the crucial issue is that of redefining water governance. We need to look at alternative institutional and policy arrangements to make water governance both meaningful and viable. Critical to this will be the formulation of credible and workable principles that addresses the environmental, equity and sustainability concerns. Further, there is also a crucial need to strengthen local government institutions, usher in institutional reforms; introduce differential water pricing and make water conservation mandatory. Unless the above mentioned concerns are addressed and mandated meaningfully, problems of water will not cease to trouble the vast majority.


Water governance therefore, determines who has access and under what conditions it exists, how the quality is maintained and who makes the decisions and how allocations are made in case of water shortage. The current water crisis arises from improper governance, rather than from shortage of water per se. The focus has to shift to ‘who makes the decisions, who uses water and how it is protected’ according to G. Venkataramani, [2003] an expert on the subject. He further notes that one of the difficulties in water governance is that every agency thinks the water belongs to them — but nobody wants to protect it.

Water governance therefore refers to the range of political, social, economic, and administrative systems that are in place to regulate the development and management of water resources and provision of water services at different levels of society. Water governance determines who has access and under what conditions, how the quality is maintained and how decisions are made and allocations done in case of water shortage.


According to Ravi Narayan of Water Aid, 8 the single biggest cause for failure in providing safe water to people is lack of good governance. According to him therefore ``what is essential in the governance discussion is first to accept access to water as a human right and determine the ownership of water. Water is a public good and belongs to the people that empower the Government to govern it wisely. One of the difficulties in water governance he add on, is that every agency thinks the water belongs to them — but nobody wants to protect it. It can be mentioned without any exaggeration that in the 21st century world, water has become the most contentious of issues with inadequate laws governing water.

Water therefore has multiple dimensions and is perceived in varied ways. It has multiple aspects or dimensions. It is perceived very differently by different people and at different times, and is used or dealt with by a multiplicity of people and agencies in many diverse ways, at various levels, and on different scales. It is considered as sacred resource, basic, fundamental or human right, a common pool resource, an economic commodity and a social good. In other words, different stakeholders view water for different purposes. These differences have also led in some ways to important differences in both people’s perspectives policy prescriptions on water. This is mainly concerned with the issue of conceiving water being under the control of the State or private ownership, property rights, water markets or commodifiction of water that have dominated most debates concerning this basic recourse.

The right to adequate access to water, both in terms of quantity as well as quality is a basic fundamental right. Whether water is a social good or commodity and therefore an economic good has always been a bone of contention between those who support the role of private sector in water delivery and the others who want this resource to remain within the realm of government to be delivered by public delivery system. These two clearly different polarised positions one, that water should not become and should not be treated as a commodity and should be dispensed by the state, and two, that it should be allowed to become a full commodity is the core of the pro-privatisation school argument. The next section deals with the issue of water governance in the commercial capital of the country.

Mumbai the first Megacity of the Country

“Mumbai is a great city - but a terrible place” is a common sentiment shared by most inhabitants. It is a place too complex, too diverse and truly full of paradoxes, where every description and its opposite, finds a place. This image of the city theoretically fits into the description of Manuel Castells and Mellonkoph [1993:399-418] cities with extreme hierarchies, polaralisation and occupational distribution’. This financial capital is probably the best-known face of India to the global community. The city has expanded from being a small fishing village to becoming one of the biggest metropolitan regions in the world.


The Mumbai Metropolitan Region [MMR] MMR is much larger than the main city and is set to become the world’s second most populous megalopolis, with some 27 million residents by 2015. It extends over an area of 4355 sq.km. It comprises Municipal Corporations of Greater Mumbai, Thane, Kalyan, and Navi Mumbai; 16 municipal towns; 7 non–municipal urban centres; and 995 villages. Metropolitan Region [BMR] was constituted in June 1967 to include Bombay, and these adjoining areas. Its administrative limits cover Mumbai City and Mumbai Suburban Districts, and parts of Thane and Raigad Districts. The Metropolitan region alone is considered to be one of the most crowded cities with a population of over 14 million in an area of 1,467 sq.km.There