Waiting for water. The experiencie of poor communities in Bombay



Water is a scarce commodity, getting scarcer each year. The problem is not just the quantity of water available but the basis on which distribution networks are worked out. In most cities in the Third World, distribution networks have been grossly over stripped by the growth in numbers. Neither the quantity of water available, nor the way in which it is supplied, is adequate for the residents of these cities.

The people who bear the brunt of this, however, are the poor. Living in overcrowded shanty towns they are not supplied an assured or clean supply of water. They end up having to either buy water or steal it. The price they pay for this water, the daily struggle it entails and the cost of ill-health in such communities due to lack of clean water need to be factored into any planning for water supply and distribution in a large city in a poor country.

Unfortunately, the existing systems tend to exacerbate inequities rather than bridge them. For instance, the city of Bombay has different norms for the amount of water that ought to be supplied to people with individual connections and those who share community standposts, 120 litres per capita per day (Ipcd) for the former and only 50 (Ipcd) for the latter.

Although in the past, communities or individuals could work out water-saving or water- use strategies and survive, today that is not possible. Water scarcity is a reality in many cities and demand has outstripped supply to such an extent that existing plans have become hopelessly inadequate.

Local authorities need to devise systems of water supply and distribution that accommodate the needs of the increasing number of urban poor in every city in the developing world. Unless this is done in time, with imagination and in consultation with the affected communities, much of this precious resource will continue to be wasted – literally flushed down the drain – while the poor continue to beg for or steal water from any source accessible to them. Even the least enlightened would see that this is not an idea way to run the cities of the future.


We, in SPARC (Society for Promotion of Area Resource Centers), believe that the issue of urban water supply cannot be discussed unless it incorporates the situation of half the population of that city, which happens to live in slums and on the pavements.

This study was undertaken in order to understand the actual struggle of poor people in a large metropolis like Bombay to obtain adequate supplies of water and to study the ways in which lack of information skews official schemes in such a way that the poor are left open to the worst forms of exploitation.

Another objective of this exercise is to make available to poor communities as much information on the issue of water as possible so that they can use it to negotiate with the authorities for a better deal for themselves. Lack of information on both sides and the absence of communication results in inappropriate and unworkable solutions being implemented.


To understand the views of poor communities in Bombay, we worked alongside Mahila Milan, an organization consisting of women pavement dwellers and the National Slum Dwellers’ Federation, SPARC’s partner organisations. We visited six settlements of the urban poor and spoke to representatives of the communities, particularly the women. They were asked from where they collected water, how far this was from their settlements, how much time was spent in the process, how much they collected each day, where they stored the water, what was the quality of the water obtained, how much they had to pay for it ” daily, weekly, or monthly — and how much they felt they would ideally like.

We also spoke to officials in the municipal corporation, obtained all the available data of water supply and distribution and the schemes devised for the urban poor.


The above report covers important aspects on the subject of water availability for poor communities in a large urban metropolis like Bombay. There are many more aspects of water supply, quality and distribution that need to be studies in greater depth. For instance, Bombay has a number of fresh water wells that have been capped because the local authorities did not want to take the responsibility for their maintenance. In the past, and even today, these wells have been an important additional source of water for the poor.

Also, there is little data available on the amount of wastage of the water that comes into the city. According to some rough estimates, up to 30 per cent of piped water is wastage due to bad maintenance and pilferage. If plans were made to check this waste, through badly maintained and leaking pipelines, a greater quantity of water would be available for distribution.

Apart from shallow wells, the ground water can be tapped for non-drinking purposes. This has already been done in a number of slums. But once again, due to inadequate maintenance, many handpumps have fallen into disuse, thereby denying these communities an important source of additional water.

However, even in this limits survey of six locations in the city, which represent a cross-section of slum and pavement dwellers, several facts stand out.

The poorest, the pavement dwellers, pay the most for water. Even a minimum daily supply is not assured to them. They pay around Rs 30 a month per family at the rate of Rs 10 per 1000 litres, a rate which is 20 times higher than the official rate for water.

Those in regularized slums are being exploited due to their ignorance about water supply schemes. The municipal corporation has introduced the scheme of metered connections for groups of 15 households who together have to pay Rs 1500. Instead, many households are paying Rs 1500 each to get an individual connection only to find after paying the amount that there is not water at the end of the pipeline. If one multiplies the experiences of the people quoted above, plumber and elected representatives from these slum areas must have pocketed thousands of rupees by exploiting the ignorance of the slum dwellers.

There is a marked difference between the amount pavement dwellers and people living in unrecognized slums pay for water and those in regularized slums. While pavement dwellers could pay up to Rs 30 per month, those with metered connections in regularized slums only pay Rs 10 per month on an average although some of them paid an initial amount of Rs 1500 when they ought to have paid only Rs 100.

Many communities, such as the railway slums, survive because there are still some traditional sources of water like the shallow wells from which they draw water for bathing and washing. No one takes responsibility for these wells even though, if maintained well, they could provide a valuable additional source. Similarly, many slums have been provided with hand pumps and bore wells for water that can be used for non-drinking purposes. But many such pumps have fallen into disuse due to bad maintenance. As a result, even if households get 8 to 10 handisor 120-150 lpd, it has to suffice for all purposes including bathing and washing.

While information about water supply schemes, better maintenance of hand pumps and wells, and better quality of water would help those living in regularized slums, it is clear that the authorities must devise strategies to meet the needs of those living on pavements and in unrecognized slums. One can understand the fear of the authorities that providing these people basic amenities would lead to permanence. However, for reasons of humanity plans cannot be laid without incorporating the needs of this important section of a city.

With the speed with which urbanization is accelerating in developing countries, it is incumbent on the State to formulate plans for basic urban services, such as water supply, sanitation and health, which place the needs of the poorest as the first priority. Unless this is done, the existing inequities will continue to grow. And given that the urban poor cannot be wished away, their distress will ultimately affect the life of even ostensibly prosperous cities.