Aiming to uncover the everyday politics of water has been both an interesting and challenge path to tread. Such an innocent topic on the surface becomes imbued with the politics of class, caste, religion and gender; none of which are topics easily approached with often a complete stranger.
Being an ‘outsider’ my intention is both not to offend whilst uncovering some kind of truth to people’s ‘infrastructural lives’ – who gets what in society, why they get it and why others do not. These sins of society globally are often topics not discussed and rather forgotten. As such, I have definitely sound a quiet ignorance, but also acceptance in society of ‘the way things are’. People here are thankful for what they have, even if what they have is dealt by the denial of the things they do not.
Finishing my first week of research, slowly but surely these politics are coming to the surface, often better expressed by the things people don’t say than what they do. As such, interviewing can be harder than it seems – more than just a discussion about water, it is a polite and gentle push of the respondent to interrogate questions of politics and society often best ignored. This often involves asking difficult questions.
Varanasi’s waterscape is formed of ‘layers’, at the most basic level households have access to public wells and taps, in formal settlements there is the supply of municipal water which flows both in the morning and evening, facilitated by a household water tax. This public water supply is taken from the Ganga river, with the water polluted from factory waste in Agra and Kapur then treated just outside the city. However it is not just the quantity of this water which fluctuates, but also the quality. Those able to then install either hand pumps or electric pumps in their homes, giving them the option to then filter and purify the water themselves.
Otherwise it is the private sector which almost competes to provide filtered water to those who can afford it. ‘Water men’ deliver 10 litres of filtered water via trucks for around 15 rupees. Water stations or ATMs are set up to provide pure water on the streets at 1 rupee per litre or 10 rupees for 10 litres. And of course bottle water is sold at a much higher price.
As Graham & McFarlane write, in the Western world we are beginning to talk about fragmentations in the water supply, as neoliberalisation and privatisation take hold. However, by looking at the value of the resource from the position of the global South, it is clear that these fragmentations are not new but have always existed and reformed in both rural and urban societies.
The commodification of the right to clean drinking water means many private companies operate within the market, each providing their own price and service. While the water ATMs reduce the going rate there is the dual effect of reducing the revenue of local sellers and continuing to financially exclude those most in need. As such I have not yet found that the Clean India water ATMs extend the right to clean water, rather than simply reduce the cost for those more privileged.
“Cheap water is better than free water” is the response from Janajal, the company responsible for installing the ATMs. And to an extent I am inclined to agree with them. In a situation of ageing infrastructure and urban sprawl the task of home supply of free filtered water is definitely a long-term goal. However if their goal to extend water to those most in need is truly founded then the location of the government ATMs must be interrogated. Here I have found the pressure of politics bends the flow of filtered water towards the populations the governing parties electorate – in Varanasi’s case the Hindus – possibly explaining the lack of water facilities in the slum areas of Nagwa, an area with religious and caste diversity. Furthermore, the current ATMs are located in ‘popular’ places, which also form a popular pilgrimage route of both Indian and international tourists.
Political representation of the Dalits – the untouchable classes – has grown in recent years, with a Dalit female leader becoming politically powerful and Modi aiming to extend his pan-caste appeal. However a stigma still persists. This begs the question as to whether these people would feel comfortable travelling outside their communities to use water services even if they were able to afford it.
At the institutional level politics is also holding sway. In 2016 JanaJal’s plans to inaugurate 100 water ATMs in Varanasi, reported even in British news, seemed groundbreaking. Yet the hold of UP (state of Varanasi) by the BSP seemingly blocked these progressions at the time – fearing the water ATMs positive association with rival BJP under the Clean India Campaign.
What I am left with is a perplexing situation. On the one hand, the governments plan are progressing towards a state of clean water for all. In a situation where ubiquitous governmental provision seems a long-term goal. On the other, its religious, class and caste fragmentations which are operating in the undercurrents, along with the commodification of water, are fundamentally undermining this right to many in the city.