What it takes to get water connections for 800 families in Andheri’s informal settlements

An interview with Sitaram Shelar, co-founder of Pani Haq Samiti, on the long fight to get water connections in Siddharth Nagar slums.

Homes in Siddharth Nagar, a slum in Andheri West, might soon get water connections after a 9-year long struggle. Members of Pani Haq Samiti, an organisation fighting for universal access to water, held a ‘Jal adhikari satyagraha’ on November 15th, after which the Assistant Commissioner of the K West ward promised to write to the Municipal Commissioner (MC) for the connection. The approval of Iqbal Chahal, the Municipal Commissioner, is imminent.

2 million people in Mumbai are denied a legal water connection. This dates back to a policy by the Maharashtra Urban Development Department (UDD) in 1996 that cut off municipal water supply from ‘unauthorised slums,’ in order to discourage them from settling down. Pani Haq Samiti was founded partially in response to this, and has made strides in overturning the policy.

Sitaram Shelar is one of it’s founders, and is actively involved in fighting for water connections in informal settlements. Below is an edited interview with him.

How did you come to fight for Siddharth Nagar’s water connection?

Siddharth Nagar is just one of the 54 communities we’re working with across the city. It’s a clear example of how water supply is used as a weapon to curb housing rights. Some MLAs and parties have their eye on the land. They’re afraid that the slum will be regularised if the community, living there since 1993-95, gets basic services like water, sanitation, drainage, etc.

Siddharth nagar slum satyagrah for water supply
“It’s time to teach BMC the constitution, Water is fundamental right to life.” Photo: Pani Haq Samiti

What’s the process been like till now?

We applied for water supply in Siddharth Nagar in 2013. We were refused, on the grounds that it is mangrove land. But in December 2014, the Bombay High Court ruled that water supply is a fundamental right, regardless of whether the house is legal or illegal.

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) sanctioned a ‘water for all’ policy in 2016. But that too has exclusionary riders; for example, the requirement of a NOC by the land owner if the slum is on private or central government land, which is unlikely to be given.

In 2017, we applied again and got permission from the hydraulic department. They extended the main pipeline into the area but then, all of a sudden, they used the lack of a drainage system and question of land ownership as an excuse. This is despite knowing it is Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA) land, and that a stand-post connection, used in slums, doesn’t need a drainage system.

In 2020, the collector gave a response in writing that it is not his mandate to give an NOC for water supply. Because of the pandemic, we approached them again on humanitarian grounds. They started sending a tanker a day for the 800 families. It wasn’t enough, but they managed.

What has the satyagraha achieved?

We started digging for the pipeline, but the police intervened and took our delegation to the Ward office. The assistant commissioner promised to set up the water connection, but because he is under political pressure, he will write to the Deputy Hydraulic Engineer and Municipal Commissioner (MC).

If they don’t follow through, we will take the satyagraha to the Municipal Commission headquarters.

Read more: An appeal from Golibar residents to move towards a ‘slum-free’ Mumbai

How do slum residents manage without tanker water?

Every morning they have to beg from nearby communities for water. If unsuccessful, they have to buy bottled water. It’s very inhuman. Sometimes tankers come, but the same 1000 litres that costs us [those with water connections] Rs 5, costs them Rs 700, which is 120 times costlier.

What are the roadblocks in the process of applying for a slum to get a water connection?

There is corruption. After a minimum of five families submit their proof of residence and personal IDs, a licensed plumber is needed. He is a middleman. Officially, only Rs 8000 is needed, but he asks for any amount from Rs 30,000 to Rs 1 lakh for one connection. This gets distributed among officials.

We’re pursuing 2000 applications in 17 wards, and all of them are delayed. If you pay the plumber, you’ll get a water connection in two days.

A resident of Siddharth Nagar explains the tactics used to deny them water and electricity. Credit: The Sabha

What is the long term solution to ensure water access?

We are challenging the procedure with the BMC. The riders in the water policy and standard operating procedures (SOP) should be dropped, so universal access to water is possible.

Water connections on humanitarian grounds are given to elites, whose buildings are in violation of the rules of the Development Plan. Humanity doesn’t work for those who dwell in slums. That’s why we say that water is a right, not charity. You have to fight for it.

What are the human costs of not having accessible and adequate water supply?

It is organized exploitation. Slum residents don’t know when the tanker will come, so they have to be present at all times. This compromises their options for earning a livelihood and their children’s education suffers. If they have to go without cleaning themselves for 2-3 days, they develop skin diseases and UTIs.

In a report we published last year on the impact of the lockdown, we found out many had to wait for hours and were harassed by police and security guards when filling water. Women are the main water collectors and were forced into unsafe conditions.

Have any of your campaigns to get slums water connections been successful?

Yes. We’ve been fighting for 12 years and we have gotten 5,000 households water connections.

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