In India, water and inequality are intertwined

by Sonya Fatah

Comparing the Divide: Fernley, Nevada and New Delhi, India struggle with distribution of resources. In both of these places, water access and quality are matters of life and death. Fernley and India also share a close Gini coefficient: 0.370 (Fernley) and 0.368 (India).

NEW DELHI — Water has always flowed through India shaping its caste system, purifying believers and offering a font of political and industrial power.

In Kathputli Colony it trickles into the sprawling slum through a collection of thin pipes and hoses. They snake across potholed roads lined by open sewers, through narrow alleys where children in ragged clothes beg amid the stench of feces and urine carrying an illegal water supply to the people who live there.

Not far away, water soaks the sprawling green lawns of beautiful bungalows where corporate elites practice putting on well-watered golf greens all to the constant sound of ticking sprinklers. It’s not uncommon for urban settlements like Kathputli to crop up right beside the golf courses, some of them legal, others on usurped land.

In India, the top 10 percent of India’s wage earners make 12 times more than the country’s lowest 10 percent. Two decades ago, the top tier made six times more. As many of the world’s developing economies make progress on income inequality, Kathputli is a window into the reality of many neighborhoods across unevenly growing metros, overflowing with migrants from rural areas and poorer neighboring states as government policy lags behind.

“We had no access to water,” says Mohammad Maqsud, 33, the self-appointed people’s representative of one part of Kathputli and an electrician by trade. “So we discovered the city’s main supply line, which was running alongside the railway line. We dug ourselves to an access point and developed our own supply line off it.”

Prior to 2005, India had no legislation on mandatory delivery of basic services like water. Hence, those with limited or no access to water found ways to get those resources — whether building illegal lines or organizing politically to offer votes to leaders willing to make a deal.

“In reality — although there was no legal framework to provide water to illegal settlements — people did get services through various platforms that they negotiated with full collusion of the authorities,” said Gautam Bhan, who teaches urban poverty, housing and planning theory at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements.

Many parts of New Delhi suffer from water supply issues, explains Bhan. “I live in an upper-middle class neighborhood and I get water for 45 minutes in the morning and 45 minutes in the evening. Demanding 24/7 water supply in India is like flying in the air with no feet on the ground.”

The story of urban Indians, however, is a mere fraction of the larger reality of accessibility to resources that spans the country.

“The 2011 census showed that of India’s 79 million urban households 18.6 percent were without a toilet while for the 168 million rural households it was 69.3 percent,” explained Juan Costain, who heads the World Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program in India. More than 65 percent of the country’s population resides in rural areas where sustainable access to water is an even greater challenge. There is also the issue of quality — urban water is full of pollutants that vary by city. The country’s water lifelines — the Ganges, the Yamuna and the Kaveri rivers — carry waters deeply contaminated by untreated sewage. Towns and cities across India dump untreated domestic waste directly into the rivers.

In rural areas, water is laced with chemicals thanks in large part to agricultural practices that are heavily dependent on pesticides. The lack of access also puts the burden of collecting water on the shoulders of women and girls, who spend countess hours walking to far-off water sources and carrying it back for cooking, sanitation and drinking needs. Many girls sacrifice their education as a result, making it far less likely that they will ever be able to climb out of poverty.

According to the World Bank, India has made much progress in recent years to improve access to water from 63 percent of the rural population in 1990 to 90 percent in present day. Access to improved sanitation facilities increased to 23 percent over the same period, affecting some 150 million people. This year’s budget also allocated a significant increase in funding towards water and sanitation, reflecting recognition at government levels, that this is an issue of some importance.

This, however, just isn’t enough.

Despite healthy and exciting changes and projections in today’s India, and a growth rate that is the envy of many a struggling European economy, the glamorous buildings and the growth of big businesses don’t reflect the reality of basic health conditions across the country. There is not a single city across India that has 24/7 access to water, save for a World Bank project in three cities in Karnataka.

Nowhere is this imbalance more visible than in India’s rapidly transforming ‘corporate cities’ – places like Gurgaon in Haryana state, which borders the city of Delhi. Here there are a growing number of luxury developments. As the Delhi-Gurgaon Expressway leads into Gurgaon’s main strip, glass-façade corporate buildings line either side of the road. There are shopping malls aplenty filled with Indian and foreign-brand clothing, accessories and digital technology. There are also abundant new condominium projects offering city views, swimming pools, state-of-the-art gymnasiums and Jacuzzi-fitted bathrooms.

Rents for three- to four-bedroom flats at the fancier buildings start at about $3,500 per month. To the naked eye, the shimmering expanse of Gurgaon is a sign of new India, of wealth and success. But this visual of wealth and economic growth is something of a mirage. Behind each glamourous building lie small, messy slums. Electricity to the area’s posh residences is guaranteed only by way of large generator systems. And water can be seen ferried back and forth in large, relatively ancient tankers with drippy faucets carrying 10,000 liters of water for about $40.

One of the poshest offerings in Gurgaon is the Oberoi Hotel, where a single room costs about $550 a night. Interested in the Presidential Suite? For $5,500 a night, it’s yours. Catering to India’s growing corporate community and international business travelers, the hotel is built around a dramatic courtyard with reflecting pools and fountains. On one side a glass front Gucci store offers the best in luxury retail. In the early morning workers in gumboots tread carefully with long nets to fish out the day’s casual debris.

A Ministry of Urban Development study on 423 cities across India with populations of over 100,000 people discovered that not a single city qualified in the top tier in water and sanitation. According to estimates generated by the World Bank, poor sanitation costs India about 6.4 percent of its GDP every year. Of the 1.1 billion people worldwide who are forced – due to lack of access – to defecate in public, over 600 million are in India.

The history of access to resources like water can be tracked to certain exclusionary socio-historical forces.     

The Society for Promoting Participative Ecosystem Management and the National Conference of Dalit Organizations believe that water has been used as a “weapon to control and subjugate excluded communities.” Historically, villages had a hierarchy of access based on India’s caste system. Water sources such as wells, ponds and rivers were accessible first to higher castes so that members of lower caste communities would not pollute the water sources. The Dalits, or lower castes, built the water systems but could not use them.

In urban centers in India today much of this is broken down because of either state-provided resource delivery systems that don’t take caste or class into account. However, in many villages today access is still determined through hierarchy.

One of the major challenges India faces in virtually every sector is scale. Its size, population and complicated political and bureaucratic system make it difficult for water projects to have large-scale impact with any speed. However, there are plenty of small and medium-scale projects under way. One example of a successful water project is Arghyam, a public charitable foundation set up by technology and publishing entrepreneur Rohini Nilekani.

Nilekani set up the foundation in 2005 with an endowment channeled to “meeting India’s growing water challenges.” Arghyam is a funding agency that collaborates with government, NGOs and other institutions with the objective of achieving impact and scale. Its projects attempt to bridge the gap between rich and poor by focusing on “quantity, quality and access to domestic water in communities across the country.” Its tagline is “Safe, Sustainable Water For All.”

In 2011-2012 fiscal year, Arghyam had funded a range of water projects across 19 states through 53 projects, directly impacting 500,000 people.

Ninety percent of Arghyam’s funding goes into rural projects in partnership with NGOs or state players.

“The hesitation for funding in the urban space for water and sanitation because urban is a political minefield,” says Priya Desai of Arghyam’s India Water Portal, referring to the complexity of the urban areas where diverse communities compete for physical and political space. “Slums are usually not notified they don’t come under city development plans.”

But there has been a gradual shift in attention towards the urban space, as well as plenty of small civil society efforts under way. Soaib Grewal started Waterwalla in 2009 with a business-school team whose main objective was to find a solution to the urban clean water issue. In their drive for sustainability the Waterwalla folks tried to create a market-driven model to sell water filtration systems after educating slum-dwellers in Dharavi, Mumbai about the importance of clean water — some 1,600 people die every day as a result of drinking dirty water. 

What Grewal and his team learned was this: despite the size of India’s urban slum community, those in the business of making water filtration systems weren’t looking at that segment even as part of their corporate social responsibility programs. The filtration systems were too large for the tiny hut homes, and the literature, almost always in English, was targeted at the middle class.  

“Then there was also a cost issue. There aren’t enough micro-loan schemes in the urban areas for devices like this,” explained Grewal. “Unilever has been trying it out in rural areas but nothing in the urban areas.”  

This is changing today, with Tata introducing Swach, a fairly successful cheaper, smaller filtration system aimed at this target market. Others, like Eureka Forbes and Bajaj – all mass market companies creating filtration systems and other electronic items – are also beginning to look at slum communities as buyers and tailoring products like filtration systems to suit their needs.

In some parts of the country, there have also been community-driven solutions, like the Sarvajal, an initiative launched by the Ajay Piramal Foundation, which created large central filtration systems and allowed consumers to have cheap access to clean water by way of a Water ATM.  

“We need to change how we approach the entire issue, says Smita Misra of the World Bank. “There needs to be a statewide action plan on urban water and sanitation which is completely missing today. The states have not designed their own policy for service delivery. The focus has been on infrastructure development but not on service delivery.”

“The way forward is decentralization and the right kind of service models at the customer levels – efficient and accountable,” she continues. “There is a huge gap in infrastructure and service delivery in urban water supply and sanitation and rural water supply and sanitation and how to move towards efficient, managed service.”

In the absence of a comprehensive, country-wide approach, India will continue to project embarrassing figures for sanitation. It will also continue to suffer from water leakage and theft, as in Kathputli Colony. The entire city of Bangalore is served by the Caurveri River, which lies 100 kilometers away. Along its path to Bangalore the water pipes get punctured in numerous places along the way feeding communities with no official access to water. Like folks in Kathputli, who see little government interest in their community, they take matters into their own hands.

Because without water, residents say, comes a loss of dignity.

“Why do you identify yourself as a laborer?” shouts out one resident in Kathputli Colony at the community leader. Everyone here recognizes him as easily the most educated man in Kathputli. “You see, these people don’t get it,” he slurs. half-hiding his magic glass bottle. “As long as they keep identifying themselves as lowly, they’ll always be seen as lowly.”