What’s in a Metre? Water and Power in Mumbai

Caroline Knowles

Rahul looks up from fixing a motorbike outside the cluster of a 7 story building in Sangharsh Nagar, Mumbai. The bike isn’t his — he is a mechanic in his mid-twenties who lives in a one-roomed apartment with a kitchen and bathroom on the 5th floor with 9 other members of his immediate family. Their tiny, cage balcony bursts with plants, clothes his mother has just washed and doubles as a storage space for things they cannot fit inside. A teenage bowler and batsman turn the bare patch of earth next to where Rahul works into a cricket pitch. Girls hang about the edge in small groups in the gap between school ending and their evening duties. Space is at a premium where people live in the sky but also need room to live and make a living on the ground.

Through the gloomily lit hallway I can see through the window bars that one of the flats has been turned into a garment factory with half a dozen sewing machines, now silent at the end of the working day. Sangharsh Nagar is one of the Slum Rehabilitation Area (SRA) developments in central Mumbai. Thousands have been rehoused here. Its concrete pillars are black from air pollution. For its residents, shifted from their old slum to make way for the modern city and its state of the art metro system, the new vertical slum perpetuates the cramped conditions of the old one, along with additional drawbacks like poor ventilation and rising rates of TB.

Despite having inside plumbing, Rahul tells me and two PhD student researchers that they get only 30 minutes of water a day, usually between 10 and 10.30 at night. This means everyone rushing to fill all of their water containers from their household tap as well as the tap on the roof, where they must que up along with their neighbours, attempting to meet their water needs for the next twenty-three and a half hours. They pay Rs500 a month for this, a considerable hit to their precarious finances, when added to the Rs1500-Rs2000 they pay for electricity. The researchers are part of a study led by Tracey Crosbie at Teesside University with partners at the Indian Institute for Technology Bombay (IITB), funded by British Academy under its Global Challenges Research Fund Urban Infrastructures of Well-Being Programme[i].

The research team is concerned with social equity in basic infrastructure and the situation of women. They are documenting existing water and electricity provision and discovering some of its inequalities in terms of access and pricing. These matters are especially acute in informal (slum) settlements and in redevelopments like Sangharsh Nagar, where residents have insecure supplies and yet pay relatively high prices, especially if their incomes are factored in. In some of Mumbai’s informal settlements, both water and electricity are routed through local community leaders, or ‘strong men’, who control supplies and the price at which both resources are resold, meaning that the poorest residents of the city pay the highest prices for unstable supplies of basic infrastructure. Metering of water and electricity are seen as a potential technical fix, but the researchers are keen to uncover the unequal social worlds behind the metres, as well as think about their environmental and ecological consequences. Their data suggest that improved metering may be a solution to these infrastructure deficits, as each household is connected to a meter and one of the private companies supplying electricity directly, and not through secondary manipulated markets.

Infrastructure deficits and unequal access are not easily solved. Mumbai is a rapidly expanding megacity with a population estimated at between 14 and 18 million. Demand far exceeds the capacity of the Bombay Municipal Corporation (BMC) to provide basic infrastructure, like water and energy. These challenges are particularly acute in low-income informal settlements, where 50% of Mumbai’s population live and are the areas of Mumbai (and other Indian cities too) which are growing most rapidly. Mumbai is a modernising global financial megacity in construction, with its programme of slum clearances, metro lines, and upscale housing, all of which exacerbate displacement of low income populations in central parts of the city. Water and power are crucially important in developing the modern city and these researchers are keen to see that both are distributed in ways that are fair and sustainable. Women, in particular, who in low income informal settlements spend many hours a day queuing for water and timing food preparation to coincide with power availability stand to lose and gain the most in these struggles over basic infrastructure in India’s burgeoning cities.

[i] ‘What’s in a metre? Working towards efficient, socially inclusive, and environmentally sensitive energy and water structures in the global south. The research team is led by Tracey Crosbie (PI Teesside University, with Dana Abi Ghanem, Gobind Pillai and Dorothy Newbury-Birch with a strong local team at The Indian Institute for Technology (IITB) in Mumbai including Arnab Jana, Santanu Bandyopadhyay, Krishna Priya and Neenu Thomas. Doctors For You, a local NGO is helping the team to access local communities.

Caroline Knowles is the Director of the British Academy’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) Urban Infrastructures of Well-Being Programme and a Global Professorial Fellow at Queen Mary, University of London. An urban Sociologist with research experience in a number of cities, she is the author of many books and papers, most recently, Flip-Flop: A Journey through Globalisation’s Backroads, published by Pluto Press (2014 & 2015) www.flipfloptrail.com and Serious Money: Walking Plutocratic London, published by Penguin (2022) https://seriousmoneybook.com



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store