Water security issues in peri-urban areas

6 min read
Image: WaterAid/Ronny Sen

Some key takeaways from the SaciWaters Conference on issues of water security in peri-urban areas (26-27 July 2017) as we build our approach towards them.

The SaciWaters Conference was rich in terms of detailed and diverse case studies coming from the peri-urban areas of Hyderabad, Chennai, Bangalore (specifically, Nelamangala), Pondicherry, Gurugram (next to Delhi), Rajarhat (Kolkata) and even covered rapid emergence of small towns in Odisha and West Bengal. There was also a larger presentation around Telangana Government’s ambitious Mission Bhagirath to provide drinking water to all by 2018 and the relevance of water security planning of peri-urban areas in that respect. There were separate sessions on media and with young researchers to visualise peri-urban as an emerging category in these spaces. Some key issues seem to emerge from these set of presentations and discussions around them, which may demand our attention as we build our approach towards them.

They are:

The overall nature of peri-urban space as a category itself needs to be studied in detail

It is a space, which is forever in transition, where the cities are expanding or new towns are coming up. Hence, even as in due process, peri-urban areas may get completely urbanised, there will always be newer areas coming under this category. We have a category, therefore, which is transient and yet perennial in nature. Secondly, we need to look at this space in its variability, its specificities. So, while there are peri-urban areas coming up as a result of expansion of the metropolises, coming up of small towns in pre-dominantly rural locations (an ongoing study by Tathagata Chatterjee and his colleague from XIMB on small towns of Odisha and W. Bengal is quite illuminating) due to surplus investment coming from the rich farmers would be another end of this spectrum. The same study pointed out how between the two census periods (from 2001 to 2011) the number of census towns had almost tripled from 1362 in 2001 to 3894 in 2011.

A third but very critical aspect of this is the changing nature of political economy of this space, which stands in the midst of rural-urban continuum. Almost all the papers emphasized, that from being a source of subsistence for local communities, resources like land (for real estate) and water have become commercial commodities for larger exploitation to serve the main city’s inhabitants on one hand, while also creating an informal market around poor, migrants, etc as the population in these peri-urban area expands. The latter is the second aspect of the changing nature of the peri-urban space where you see a large influx of migrants changing the socio-economic profile of the space altogether. All of this needs more in-depth study, accumulation of data sets and knowledge gathering to understand this phenomenon further. The question is also critical in terms of self-imagination of this space, as it came out through a study of Pondicherry, where the future imagination of different stakeholders ranged from being a tourist hub like Goa, to an industrial hub like Chennai and to a farmers’ idyllic heaven.

There is a need to look at the internal differentiation within the peri-urban category 

While peri-urban as a geographical space itself needs to be looked at from different vantage points, it needs to be recognised that this is a space where settled societies and moving populations are in constant influx, in a dynamic space. So while you may have staple categories of caste based, occupation based, gender based hierarchies existing in these locations, they come under duress with newer categories of migrants versus non-migrants, farmers versus the service class, informal labour versus the formal labour etc. There are further sub-categories like middle class and rich migrants versus working class migrants (as in Gurugram). Many of these spaces see different kinds of residential patterns based on the changing economic profile of the space. This naturally leads to diverse set of tensions among populations living cheek by jowl.  However, this, as was argued by Dinesh Abrol, also opens the possibility of inter-class collaborations on common issues. The overall impact on an issue like water security has to be seen from these lenses as well.

The emergence of a complex network of formal and informal market around water and sanitation especially around the poor and the migrant labour 

Quite a few case studies, starting from SaciWater’s own study on peri-urban Hyderabad showed how there is a complex nexus of informal and formal market in this space. It ranges from private tanker operators, RO water suppliers, government or large private sector suppliers which spring up to extract water from these areas in order to supply to the mid-town areas, while also selling the same to the poor and the migrants at discriminatory prices in these very spaces. In some places existing Gram Panchayats do the price-negotiations, in other, local entrepreneurs are suppliers of water services or as in the case of Nelamangala near Bengaluru, of sanitation services including faecal sludge disposal in absence of a sewer network.

The solutions for the same also need to be looked at in a nuanced way. To counter this ‘planned informality’ (as was mentioned by a scholar), do we need a large structural response of ‘planned formality’. This seemed to be evident in the case of Telangana government’s ambitious Operation Bhagirath, its flagship drinking water supply programme through an ambitious investment of over 49,000 crore rupees, or do we continue to look for a more nuanced response which takes the specificities of the peri-urbanisation in its wake?

The need to locate a formal institutional architecture of governance for this space 

It seems there are one too many institutional arrangements for this space, right from Gram Panchayats to municipalities, with different services to be delivered through different bodies. In a chaotic anarchy like this, nobody seems to be mandated enough to deliver services in order to be held accountable. The challenge is further complicated when we realise that perhaps there could not be a single model of institutional governance, given the varying nature of these spaces. More importantly, the perennial question, where are the institutionalised spaces for ensuring people’s participation in the planning of these services, especially those who, in a way, are the new citizens, the migrant poor?

What is the status of existing policy regulatory environment in terms of basic services like water and sanitation?

This question should have come earlier as this is related with the question of governance but is important in itself when large-scale extraction of resources is underway. The challenge is multiplied when we see that for a precious commodity like land, many policy frameworks begin to jostle for their say while, water, no less precious, gets ignored. An interesting case was visible in the context of small towns’ study, which showed how community ponds were being converted to residential areas thanks to rising demands of real estate. How do we review policy environment vis-à-vis regulatory framework around extraction of water or conversion of water bodies into something else?  

There is a larger need to create a visible space for peri-urban as a category in the public debates 

This would demand a greater engagement with media platforms of various kinds. While a large populations lives in these spaces and yet we don’t see this as a category worth thinking through. How do we capture the public imagination demands in-depth thinking, which would also perhaps open ways for concerted public action?

Some follow up questions for us:

How do we look at peri-urban work in our own work areas? What kind of mapping needs to be done to engage with this space in a focused way?

We need to study Mission Bhagirath itself in in depth as a larger solution to drinking water. How can we go about it?

Avinash Kumar is Director - Programme and Policy at WaterAid India. He Tweets as @Avinashkoomar