Invisible Cities: Part Six: Water

March 7, 2011

A people adrift: The slum-dwellers of Mankhurd are not only victims of repeated demolition drives but they are often in want of the most basic necessity of life: water.

On the 28th of July 2010, the General Assembly of the United Nations, recognized access to clean water and sanitation as a human right, with a recorded vote of 121 nations voting for the resolution, with none voting against, along with 41 abstentions.

India voted for water as a human right.

Meanwhile in Mumbai, as per the Maharashtra government and BMC rules, there is no need to supply clean water to slums that have been built after the 1st of January 1995. And where the government refuses to take responsibility for its own people, a private mafia has filled its shoes with a profit-motive that ensures that the U.N resolution is nothing but a faraway fantasy for millions of people.

This has left people in slum communities across Mumbai to spend hours walking kilometers to fill 35 litre drums with water, that may or may not be clean, for Rs.5 or Rs.30, depending on availability or source. Families that can barely make ends meet, have to pay exorbitant prices due to shortages of water, and women and children lose out on work and school, as sometimes water is only available between 12pm and 4pm.

According to a recent study conducted by Tata Institute of Social Sciences in over 21 slum communities of Mumbai, over 81% of the population needs to buy water, with 87.5 % of women taking responsibility of fetching water,  with an average monthly expenditure on water at Rs.600, for families that earn an average of Rs.3500 per month.

At the same time, according to an RTI response by the BMC’s Hydraulic Department, between January 2009 and February 2010, 2,95,576 kilolitres of water were used by seventeen bottling plants in Mumbai – for instance, Dukes & Sons (Pepsi), used 78,721 kilolitres of water, while Jayantlal Mohanlal (Bisleri) used around 42,403 kilolitres of water.

Jhopda aur Paani

In Mumbai’s infamous Ward M, Mankhurd, over 70% of the area is slums – and a majority of the residents have settled after 1995. In Sanjay Nagar, adjacent to the towering walls of trash of the Deonar Dumping grounds, the people haven’t gone to work for the last twenty days, waiting for the notice from the BMC to break their homes.

Almost all their homes were broken down in 2004 in the infamous drive that destroyed over 80,000 homes across Mumbai.

‘It took me two weeks to get all my possessions back, as they had bulldozed everything into the dumping ground,’ Said Mrs. Hussain.

And with the daily struggle for a  home,  there is the struggle for water.

‘My son had gone for water in the morning one day,’ Said Mrs. Hussain of Sanjay Nagar, ‘It was magrib and he hadn’t come back yet. I even went and filed a missing person’s report.’

Her son, Saddam Hussain, had to apparently go to Lotus Colony, some 2 kms away, and wait all day for water to come. And once water had come, he had to wait in line as hundreds like him had gathered from across Mankhurd, and paid Rs.5 per drum. Saddam, a name his mother has started to laugh about, would carry four drums of water back home by bicycle.

‘Water starts coming there at five in the morning,’ Says Gulaab Hussain, another resident, ‘And if it doesn’t come, a whole day of work goes as hundreds wait in line.’

Most of the residents who live on the periphery of the dumping grounds are ragpickers. And supply of water is not just essential for drinking, but even as essentially, for cleaning clothes and bathing.

‘I need to wash my clothes, I have one pair for ragpicking, and another for home.’ Say Shefali Abdul Kadir of Rafiq Nagar 2, ‘And I need to wash my ragpicking clothes every two days, of course, there isn’t enough water.’

Rafiq Nagar 2, not just lacks access to drinking water, but it lost access to water. It is well known in the area that an independent corporater called Suresh ‘Bullet’ Patil, an ex-policemen, and encounter specialist once ran for the MLA elections and lost. He blames the people of Rafiq Nagar 2 for not voting for him, and is allegedly responsible for cutting off their water supply.

‘All the pipes were ripped out and taken away by truck,’ Continues Shefali.

Rafiq Nagar 2, is also the capital of malnutrition deaths in the financial capital of India. 25 children have died in the last 2 years in Rafiq Nagar 2, and diarrhea is rife for a particular reason too – the water is not always clean. In no slum surveyed by TISS or by this reporter was there any slum that didn’t have access to water that was clean, or didn’t have any cases of water-borne diseases.

In Anna Bhau Sathe Nagar, 35 year old Sushila Mata Prasad, had a severe bout of jaundice, and then pneumonia since november of 2010, and had to spend over Rs.19,000 in various hospitals on tests and medicines. Her husband works as salesman for incense sticks and could not afford his wife’s treatment, and only managed to pay for it after taking loans. To make matters worse, he fell ill himself and could not get to work.

In Anna Bhau Sathe Nagar, apart from pipelines that supply water to the homes that have existed before 1995, there are around 30 small wells dug within people’s homes for water.

‘We don’t drink that water though.’ Says a resident, ‘We have different sources of water for different things.’

‘The BMC fellow comes every week and puts powder in these wells.’  Said another resident. Everyone is aware that ground water around the Deonar dumping grounds are massively contaminated due to seepage of waste along with rainwater.

The pipeline connection was another story altogether. It was only after a ‘rasta rokko’ in 2007, that the government established a water connection for the people. A pipeline ran parallel to the basti, and while there was a pipeline that led to them, it wasn’t connected by the BMC – it ran dry.

‘Rasta rokne ke baad, policewalle sab aa gaye the,’ (after we blocked off the road, all the policemen showed up), Said Santosh Thorat, of Anna Bhau Sathe Nagar, ‘ACP aur inspector ne chehre se dekha hoga, yeh sab andolanwalle log hai. Aur agar woh hame aaj bhaga denge, hum kal bhi aayenge.’ (The inspector and the ACP had probably just taken one look at us and realized that we were andolan people, and if they drove us away today, we would have come again tomorrow.)

The government assured them that they would connect the two pipes for water within eight days – yet surprisingly, the government did that in just six.

The Politics of Water

There is no secret in Mankhurd, and Ward M, that the private mafia is run by local politicians especially those from the Samajwadi Party, who often bring trucks of water from Ghatkopar or have given water tanks and taps to their own party workers who charge the residents Rs.5 or Rs.30 for water. Any complaints against any party worker ends up with the party worker, and is often a futile exercise that the residents do not indulge in – a silence that gives the party a strong foothold in the area.

So why is the Samajwadi Party, a party generally ‘stronger’ in Uttar Pradesh, in power in Ward M?

‘Yaha par, bina jhopda, aur paani  ka issue, koi bhi election nahi jeetega.’ Said Muhammed Umar of Mandala.

While the Samajwadi Party promised residents water and homes, there are others who believe that the main reason the Samajwadi Party is in power is because of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena.

‘Raj Thackeray just gifted the election to the Samajwadi Party and the water mafia,’ Says Atique, a resident, singer and activist of Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao andolan.

A majority of the people living in Mankhurd are migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and the MNS’s loud and vocal calls against North Indians settling in Mumbai, ensured that the election was won by Abu Azmi of the Samajwadi Party.

Demolition Drive at Sant Nirankari.

‘Where else will we go?’ Asked a resident living on Sant Nirankari, on the dumping ground of Deonar.

On the 10th of February, 2011, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation demolished over a hundred  homes in Sanjay Nagar’s Sant Nirankari basti. The residents claim that the BMC had not given them a notice prior to demolishing their homes, and that they didn’t even know what slum they were demolishing.

‘I asked one of the BMC fellows if he knew which slum he was demolishing, and he said he was demolishing Sanjay Nagar, but we were in Sant Nirankari!.’

The majority of the residents were ragpickers who earn a living from the dumping grounds, and are now living under tarpaulin sheets or amongst the debris and trash off their own homes. In eleven days after the demolition, there wasn’t a single news reporter or politician who visited the slum, even though dozens of homes were broken down.

Amongst the debris, water cans were broken, crushed by bulldozers.

Next to Sant Nirankari, Sanjay Nagar is now waiting for its turn for demolition. And again, it won’t be the first time.

‘We haven’t seen demolitions for three years.’ Said Gulaab Hussain, ‘We get  a notice from them, and we go to court.’

The ultimate irony in Sanjay Nagar: children were playing with little toy bulldozers.

And while the state deems all these settlements illegal, the people express their constitutional rights – ‘the freedom to reside and settle in any part of the territory of India which is also subject to reasonable restrictions by the State in the interest of the general public or for the protection of the schedule tribes because certain safeguards as are envisaged here seem to be justified to protect indigenous and tribal peoples from exploitation and coercion.’

But to the government, ‘reasonable restrictions’ ensure that life for the poor in Mumbai is almost un-livable.

Photography Post-Script

The aftermath of the demolitions on Sant Nirankari.

Update: On the 4th of March, 2011, Chikalwadi, also bordering the Deonar dumping ground was demolished by the BMC.


  1. […] the full story by Javed Iqbal here. https://moonchasing.wordpress.com/2011/03/07/invisible-cities-part-six-thirst/ […]

  2. […] The plight of the people of Rafiq Nagar, like that of Chikalwadi is not a new one. There have been three demolitions in the last 10 years at Rafiq Nagar 2 and the government does not recognize the settlements as slums as per the Maharashtra Slum Act, 1971. Therefore, not only does the settlement have to deal with regular demolition drives, but the settlement is not eligible to basic amenities such as water or electricity. Water, that is universally regarded as a human right, is not one in Rafiq Nagar where, the people have to pay for it. […]

  3. […] Invisible Cities: Part Six: Water […]

  4. […] The plight of the people of Rafiq Nagar, like that of Chikalwadi is not a new one. There have been three demolitions in the last 10 years at Rafiq Nagar 2 and the government does not recognize the settlements as slums as per the Maharashtra Slum Act, 1971. Therefore, not only does the settlement have to deal with regular demolition drives, but the settlement is not eligible to basic amenities such as water or electricity. Water, that is universally regarded as a human right, is not one in Rafiq Nagar where, the people have to pay for it. […]

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