My first observation of the waterscape here in Banaras was that water is not physically scarce. In contrast to this observation, a drive around any part of the city in it’s twilight hours will reveal people queuing at a number of different water sources carrying bottles, buckets or anything else which can transport it in.
These two statements are contradictory but telling of the water issues in Banaras and India more generally. What people are worried about is the quality of the water, and the quantity of this water which is of sufficient standard. Water from a Western perspective is a homogenous public good, yet in Banaras it is multi-dimensional and controlled by varied and often conflicting stakeholders.
The thing which comes to mind when we think of water access is the taps in our homes. As such, municipal water supply is provided to each ‘official’ residency in the city – this means any legally built property – through the collection of water tax, which is currently calculated as approx. 12.5% of ‘house tax’. In Banaras this municipal water is pumped from the River Ganges into water treatment plants outside the city, before being distributed.
At this level both quantity and quality is problematic. Water supplies are only available from in home taps for several hours in the mornings and evenings and during this time the water supply to each home is unlimited and households are able to fill storage devices to preserve the water for the remainder of the day.
The bigger issue is the water quality. While perhaps the majority of those in Banaras do drink the municipal water supply, ageing infrastructure, increased pollution of the river which supplies the cities water, and an increase in civic awareness over water quality has created a population rapidly loosing trust in the governments’ provision.
Despite this water in the city is not physically scarce, but intwined with broader discourses of struggle as people supplement the inadequate water supply. While municipal water is used for all other domestic uses, for those without privately installed in home pumps (a clear minority), drinking water is often sought outside the home or brought from ‘pani wallahs’. As such, in the mornings and evenings people can be seen queuing at water taps, pumps, wells and ATMs gathering drinking water.
All of these sources utilise ground water stores to meet public demand, but other than the ATMs none of the water from these sources is filtered. What is interesting is that the perceived quality of the drinking water from each source differs between individuals, with some happily drinking water from pumps and wells, as they have for generations and others swearing by filtered ‘RO’ water. Yet one thing is unanimous, all of it is better than the municipal water supply, and therefore worth queuing for.
Water privatisation has been a widely speculated agenda recently. With clear challenges to providing a water supply which is sufficient in both quantity and quality – made worse by challenges in tax collection, as demonetarisation has worked to fix. While the assumption is that currently water is not privatised, to what extent is this the case?
Those who use the taps and hand pumps along the road side are both those who due to informality and exclusions do not have in home access, or those whom in the absence of personal water filtration systems are ‘educated enough’ (as people will commonly distinguish) to demand drinking water cleaner than government provision. Wells, taps, pumps and ATMs all use groundwater – currently the biggest source of drinking water in rural and urban India. Under the prevailing British Common Law the right an unlimited quantity of this water lies with whoever owns the land, in some cases this is the government, but in many it is private actors. Furthermore, the selling of filtered water is becoming big business, with filtered water being distributed at varied chargeable rates.
The use of this groundwater coupled with the pollution of rivers and natural lakes makes it an overexploited and unsustainable resource. Water recharge from the rock formations found beneath the ground here is low, and water is being consumed at a rate much faster than it’s replacement.
As a result, coupled with the discourse of water rights comes an inseparable articulation of responsibilities. An increased civic awareness of hygiene and health is coupled by a feeling of duty towards the sustainable management of water. Ultimately a reliable, good quality and sustainable water system is what the population want to see in their daily lives, which are currently spent utilising and negotiating water systems of varying quantities and qualities. The commodification of water, making it a chargeable resource by even small amounts is seen as instilling in it a ‘value’, restricting its demand to preserve its supply – “charging for water means it is valuable, that means you do not waste it”.
Some here believe that an affordable, reliable clean water system pumped directly to homes is an impossible challenge, while others place hope in the next generation, who are engaging in Modi’s ‘new’ mentality towards water, hygiene and responsibility. However, this obligation towards water management and water awareness is coupled by a responsibility of the government to uphold the rights of it’s population. The biggest barrier to this progression currently is the structure, corruption and power which lies at a number of different levels in the Indian governance system.
While Modi’s plans are noble, funding for long-term and short-term infrastructural projects must trickle down through state and municipal governance before it reaches the community. With corruption and conflicting interests, it is estimated that less than half of this money manifests on the ground into better publicly funded water on the ground.