Complex webs of water distribution in urban India

Development Policy26 Feb 2013Laurens Higler

To be effective, strategies on providing drinking water in urban India should tap into complex formal and informal governance networks.

While doing research on the social networks underlying the provision of potable water in urban India, I realized how difficult it is for NGOs to play a meaningful role in this issue. To be effective, strategies for taking action should tap into complex formal and informal networks. This article presents a brief outline of the social networks that play a role in water distribution in Mira-Bhayandar, a rapidly growing city on the northern side of Mumbai. According to Jayaram from the TATA Institute of Social Science there is limited sociological knowledge about the sorts of urban social networks at play regarding water-distribution.1 The lack of this research makes it all the more difficult for NGOs to formulate effective strategies for improving urban water provision in Indian cities.

To start by sketching out the complexity of water infrastructure, there are roughly four different kinds of water used in Mira-Bhayandar. Potable water comes from bottles and municipal pipelines. Non-potable water comes from borewells outside of the city. This water needs to be purified before consumption, even though some people also drink it unpurified. Another option is to use water from wells. This water is contaminated, salty and cannot be drunk.

To make matters complicated, there are various ways to receive water in Mira Bhayandar. The easiest way to attain drinkable water is by acquiring connections to the grid of the city. Connections to this grid are difficult to obtain, and require financial resources, bribes, political influence and time to get approved by the municipal bureaucracy. Connections vary in size and only give water for approximately 2 hours every 36 hours. For apartment buildings this means they have to store the water before it is redistributed among the residents at times decided by them. In some slums groups of about 5 households have also obtained a shared connection, whilst in others a few individual households own a connection and make some money by reselling water to their neighbours.

Besides municipal connections there are tankers that bring water from borewells outside of the city. The tankers can be small rickshaws carrying 500 litres or big trucks carrying 10,000 litres. The drivers of the big tankers sell part of their load to the drivers of the small tankers for a small amount of money or sometimes even a pack of cigarettes. The small tankers resell this water directly to households, using an electric pump to bring the water to apartments. The big tankers sell water to apartment buildings which have their own systems installed to redistribute the water to the residents at fixed times. Small tankers are paid directly by the households, whereas big tankers are paid for by housing societies who pool together money from all the residents in one building.

Another layer of complexity is added by looking at the powerful groups within the networks. Relations with a local politician or a civil servant determine the amount of water various neighbourhoods receive. In the end the degree of self-organization of households determines the amount of money and effort people have to spend on obtaining water. Households that want to improve their water supply have to pool resources with other households to buy water on the private market and to be able to store it. According to Gandy these mechanisms create a situation in which public water provision is not a political priority, because the middle and upper class arrange their own water supply and thereby separate themselves from the urban poor.2

In addition, a questionnaire among 150 households living in six different neighbourhoods in Mira-Bhayandar shows that the urban poor tend to manage with the water they receive, middle-class households tend to find themselves in a position where they want to improve their water provision but are not able to, and the upper class is most likely to take action successfully to improve their water provision. The lack of proper water supply is often not experienced as a priority for slum-dwellers. Improved education, healthcare and a stable income are often given a higher priority.

Water issues in urban India are about unequal distribution of a scarce resource, rather than problems with the technical infrastructure.3 This distribution is the outcome of negotiations between networks, contacts with local politicians and the extent to which people are involved in social networks. Because the workings of local politics determine who receives water and under which conditions, I strongly believe that only strategies that tap into the workings of local governance will sustainably improve access to water for India’s urban dwellers. All action on improving water needs to be based on research, to reduce the risk of designing ineffective programs that help the wrong social groups. Actual demand for improved water access, together with the ways to cope effectively with existing practices should play a central role in such research.


  1. Jayaram, N. (2007) Revisiting the City: The Contemporary Relevance of Urban Sociology. Mumbai, India: TATA Institute of Social Sciences.
  2. Gandy, M. (2009) Landscapes of disaster: water, modernity, and urban fragmentation in Mumbai. Environment and Planning, 40: 108-130.
  3. Mohan, S. (2010) Issues in Water Governance: Service Delivery in Mumbai and Chennai. Journal of History and Social Sciences, 1 (1).